If You Build It, They Will Bottleneck

Traffic in Cobb County figures to get much worse with the 2017 opening of Suntrust Park. (via Pooooz)

Traffic in Cobb County figures to get much worse with the 2017 opening of Suntrust Park. (via Pooooz)

For their May 28 game, the Atlanta Braves will be handing out bobbleheads commemorating Chipper Jonesrescue of Freddie Freeman during a 2014 blizzard. Freeman had been stuck on a freeway for five-plus hours by the time Jones reached him.

Jones better give the ATV a tuneup. He’s going to need it to rescue Atlantans stuck in similar traffic snarls as they try to make it to Braves games next summer. The team’s new home, SunTrust Park, appears to be at the eye of a perfect traffic storm.

Braves fans got a sign of which way the wind was blowing as soon as Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed gave the team the proverbial finger in 2013, when he called its bluff and refused to match Cobb County’s $450 million in public funding to bring the Braves to the burbs.

My decision not to invest $150 million to $250 million for renovations to Turner Field or interfere with a transaction when the Atlanta Braves are moving 12 miles away means that Atlanta is going to be stronger financially and not choked by debt,” he wrote in a column that posted on CNN.com. “This decision also means critical investments in our city’s infrastructure — on bridges, green spaces, roads and traffic lights.”

Reed’s stand was, to say the least, unusual. According to a 2013 Pacific Standard article, 101 new sports facilities opened between 2003 and 2013, and most received public funding. All the while, economists everywhere have said the same thing. Sports stadiums and arenas are bad uses of public funds. No one understands this better than government leaders in the towns that currently host Braves-owned minor league franchises. According to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek story, the Braves are experts at getting the public to foot stadium bills. SunTrust Park is just its latest boondoggle.

(To be fair, even Atlanta isn’t immune to taking the plunge. The new home of the Atlanta Falcons, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, has a projected cost of $1.5 billion, about $600 million of which will come from public funds).

Even the Obama administration has addressed the subject. In the 2016 budget he presented to Congress, President Barack Obama wanted to bar the use of tax-exempt bonds to finance professional sports facilities. According to a March 2015 Wall Street Journal article, cities have used these kinds of bonds to raise $17 billion to build stadiums and arenas.

City leaders just can’t help themselves, and perhaps the Braves eventually could have broken Reed’s resolve. Instead, of course, the team took Cobb County’s offer, leaving Atlantans, Reed included, wondering what in the heck just happened.

Cobb County residents were about to get their own jolt. After all, there’s always a sacrificial lamb in the budget when a stadium needs to be paid for. Cincinnati’s binge on new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals led to cuts for police, education and other noble and necessary line items. Government leaders in Cobb County faced an $86.4 million school budget shortfall in 2013, the same year it promised all those millions to the Braves.

Take a look at the graphics in this 2013 Mother Jones article written shortly after the deal passed. This is one of them, in case you don’t feel like clicking through:

Maybe one silver lining for all those teachers looking for jobs elsewhere is they won’t have to deal with all that extra traffic that’s coming.

SunTrust Park is nearing completion at its site near the junction of 1-75 North and I-285, the beltway looping Atlanta that has fertilized pop-up cities like Smyrna, the Braves’ soon-to-be home. Anyone who’s driven on either freeway near that junction from, say, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on a weekday understands what that means.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Fans who must take I-285 or I-75 to the game will never make it for the first pitch of any Braves game. Ever. They’ll probably miss the entire first inning. And probably the second. Traffic there is already blizzard-of-2014-like without thousands of fans converging on a 30,000-seat ballpark.

Like a seasoned politician, the Braves stay on message when asked about this, always going back to a heat map of the ticket-buying fan base. Based on this map, SunTrust Park is set not just where the action is, but also southwest of where a lot of the action is. Translation: these people won’t have to endure horrific freeway traffic. But here’s the thing. That map may be a lie.

Andy Walter is an associate professor in the department of geosciences at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. He studied that map and wrote a paper entitled, “Mapping Braves Country,” posted last November on the scholarly blog Atlanta Studies. Three observations by Walter really jump out.

First, among teams that have moved into new ballparks since 1989, the Braves are moving furthest from the core of its host city:

Second, the heat map isn’t as precise as many people might think. Each red dot represents a ticket sold to a Braves’ game in 2012. It doesn’t show whether a fan bought one or multiple tickets that year. So a guy who bought a ticket on a lark but really has no interest in the Braves may have helped define “Braves Country.” Finally, the heat map is arbitrary. The main conclusion Walter drew is that the Braves came up with the heat map to help bring people over to their way of thinking, and for the most part it worked.

Walter said his study of the heat map isn’t a critique of the move itself or where the new stadium is being built. “As a sports fan myself, I saw it for what it was — a map of ticket buyers and not necessarily ‘fans,’” he said. “What I was interested in was how readily the map changed/shaped the discussion. To this day I see references to the map specifically or to the ‘fact’ that ‘the real fans’ or ‘most fans’ live north of the city. It has become an unquestioned truth.”

Walter’s paper generated a flurry of comment activity and direct emails to him nonetheless. The sense he got from this feedback is that Atlantans are ticked off. Many feel betrayed.

“The feeling of betrayal seems to derive from several places,” he said. “First, from the sense that the people of the city deserved better, given that for decades, and from the beginning of the team’s existence as the Atlanta Braves, the people of this city invested money, space, community, and sentiment in the team.”

He said fans felt betrayed because of the approach the Braves took, defining their fans as paying customers when fans — short for “fanatics,” mind you — think of themselves as more than just their team’s customers.

“The second message I heard in feedback to my article was disappointment, if not disgust, in the secrecy surrounding the deal, the speed of it (working ahead of and around democratic processes) and, relatedly, the unseemly way that governments within the metro region are competing at great expense for what is all of ‘our’ team,” he said.

Then there was the third group, those who were relieved the Braves were gone from the city. Angie Schmitt has written about the Braves’ move extensively for the blog StreetsBlog USA, and in 2014 she suggested the Braves’ departure is good for the city.

“For starters, they got to forego some pretty steep subsidies,” she said. “In addition, a huge new area of the city is open to development. A place that was most of the time an empty stadium and a lot of parking lots is going to become a real neighborhood, with help from Georgia State University. Some private development along with it, last I heard, will in addition generate additional tax revenue for the city and its schools.”

Atlanta sports fans may already have moved on. On the Web site The Bitter Southerner, author Ray Glier made a strong case for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, drawing a line between that team now to Hank Aaron’s Braves teams of the 1970s.

Meanwhile, the storm clouds continue to gather over Cobb County. Schmitt’s latest article on the subject was last October, when cost overruns delayed plans to build a bridge spanning I-285 that linked the stadium to 2,000 parking spaces at the Galleria Centre shopping mall nearby. As critical as this bridge was to traffic management, the county wouldn’t be able to finish in time for Opening Day 2017.

The bridge project has since been prioritized. According to a recent report on the local NBC affiliate’s website:

The 32-foot wide project is billed as a multi-use bridge because it will include a trail for pedestrians and bikes with accommodations for a future transit lane. The full bridge project won’t be done until Aug. 31, 2017, but plans call for the pedestrian component of the bridge (to) be operational by Braves Opening Day in April 2017.”

Still, the Braves have yet to make their overall traffic and parking plan for the new stadium public, which makes it difficult to predict what the scene will look like on game days next year.

What about MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit system that includes buses and trains? Forget it. Cobb County has repeatedly rejected attempts at expanding transit lines into the region, actions that have a whiff of racism.

Meanwhile, the congestion builds. The population in Cobb County, already more than 688,000 people, is growing at nearly double that of the nation.

“Transportation planning has really been an afterthought with all this growth in the northern suburbs of Atlanta,” said Schmitt. “To bring a lot of people to the same place by car at the same time just requires an enormous amount of infrastructure that is very, very costly to construct.”

Schmitt said there are no simple solutions, adding that maybe the Braves could move back start times to help out the fans. According to the second edition of The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, the sport has a history of doing this.

Until 1912, the New York Giants started games at 4:00 to accommodate the Wall Street crowd and the stock market’s 3:00 closing,” wrote author Jonathan Fraser Light. “Pressure from sportswriters trying to meet deadlines moved the time up to 3:30.

“Game time for night games was 8:30 in the 1940s, 8:00 in the 1960s, 7:35 through most of the 1980s, and often 7:05 by the late 1980s to save on the light bill. Night games during the World Series often begin at 8:30 on the East Coast to accommodate West Coast viewers who are just arriving home from work.”

Viewers. As in TV viewers, who now dictate start times sporting events in general, not the fans who actually attend them. No team understands this better than the Braves, which blossomed into “America’s Team” with a nationwide fanbase thanks to regular game broadcasts on superstation TBS.

“I grew up in Wyoming and never had a hometown MLB team,” said Walter, “but every day my brother and I would watch the Cubs and Braves on their respective superstations.”

The Braves no longer enjoy that national exposure, as their deal with TBS ended after 2007. But the team reworked its current regional cable TV deal in 2014 to reportedly rake in another $500 million in revenue over the life of the contracts. Translation? TV money rules, and start times aren’t going to budge.

That leaves Braves fans south of Cobb County with a pretty long journey to see their team play in person next year and beyond. Even Chipper Jones and his ATV can’t save them from that kind of traffic.

References & Resources


Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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Yogi Berra
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Yogi Berra

Nobody’s going to go there. The area is too crowded.

Trace Juno
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Did you just create an account to make that joke? If so – good job!

Carl
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Carl

Typical Obama. Do nothing for 8 years and then propose legislation after the horse has already left the barn.

So sorry for fans of Atlanta who after not selling out play-off games for several years in a row will now get to have the same feeling as fans in Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and Montreal. At least Cobb county is closer to Atlanta than Atlanta is to Milwaukee, Los Angeles to Brooklyn and Washington DC is to Montreal.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

You’re blaming Obama for this? Did this start only when Obama got into office? It’s the so-called conservatives who give away billions to corporations and the rich and then complain about handouts to poor people. Meanwhile, the cities decay all so rich Republicans can get a few more dollars. All the boobs in Cobb County (mostly Republicans I will bet, including the local officials) can enjoy the boondoggle they have financed. The city of Atlanta can laugh about how the Braves stuck it to the suburbanites in White Flight Cobb County. I have been a Braves fan most of my… Read more »

Paul G.
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Paul G.

He was trolling. You were too happy to oblige in counter-trolling. Yay?

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

You probably don’t recognize that a large % of the fans come from the suburbs, not the city. One of the reasons the Braves didn’t sell out the playoff games is the difficulty of getting to the stadium (first Atlanta Stadium, then Turner Field) due to the lack of public transportation. Despite what the article suggests, I don’t think the Braves ever wanted to stay in the city because that’s not where their fan base is.

MarylandBill
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MarylandBill

I really think something needs to be done about cities spending hundreds of millions, potentially billions in what amounts to corporate welfare for teams that can certainly afford to build their own stadium. Unfortunately short of a National law I expect that cities will continue to cave because politicians fear being the ones to let the team go on their watch.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

That’s exactly the point. People complain about spending all this money, but if a city loses a team or does not get a team, the population will blame the politicians. A politician is generally better off spending the money rather than getting blamed for losing the team. IMO, what people need to accept is they have no right to a team, but that the teams should not be able to hold them up to stay. If the team wants to move to get a better deal, so be it. If cities stopped letting teams extort them, it would soon stop.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

If there was only some process where the people could communicate their preferences in leadership, perhaps with a tally of the opinions of the population. Or perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps the populace needs to be told what is good for them. Alas, perfect government remains elusive.

But, yes, if governments stopped giving out money to sports teams, that would result in no longer giving out money to sports teams. Apparently, for the most part voters support the subsidies, or do not care about the issue sufficiently either way. *shrug*

PonceDeSteven
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PonceDeSteven

What there’s going to be traffic?!?!? This is the first I’ve heard about it. We should tell someone!

rory
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rory

This sounds like something with an agenda. The racism schtick again, really? Promoting Georgia State University? Smells very fishy. By the way, does anyone know the real ‘unspoken’ reason why Atlanta is so pissed that the Braves moved their team out of the ring of death? Is it because they are moving it to an area that is more accessible to a large number of their paying customers? That sounds like something that people that are used to getting something for free would complain about. (i.e. governments/welfare recipients etc.) On the other hand, if Cobb County’s teacher deficit is really… Read more »

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

I agree there is no problem with moving closer to the customers. But why should the customers pay for it? What other business would say, hey, we are going to build a facility closer to our customers and, hey, we will get them to pay for it? As for not wanting transit, who’s kidding who? People that don’t want transit don’t want the “wrong” kind of people coming to their area. At the very least, they are saying let’s keep the poor riff-raff out. There might actually be people that need public transit, but, obviously, not the type of people… Read more »

rory
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rory

Agreed that they should not make the fans pay for it, that is for sure. But what percentage of sports franchises decide to fit their own bill when they can push it on to the taxpayers? I would imagine that percentage is very small. People buy in to it, or they are forced to buy in to it. Sad state of the world these days. As an example of transit. I had to play the mass transit game for 3 or 4 years when working downtown and I live in the suburbs. Have you ever seen a bus stop and… Read more »

Dave
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Dave

Broadly speaking, suburban areas not wanting to join regional mass transit districts often does have a class/race element to it, but a lot of it is voters not wanting to pay taxes for a system that most of those voters don’t think they’d use. MARTA, for example, has a 1% sales tax.

Well-Beered Englishman
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For a good, well-documented look at the history of racism in suburban Atlanta, take a look at the book “Searching for Whitopia” by Rich Benjamin – which, I should add, is an interesting and frequently very funny travelogue.

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

No way Marlins Park is 12 miles from downtown Miami. More like one or two miles tops.

Well-Beered Englishman
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Look again – you’re reading the arrow backwards! Marlins Park is 1-2 miles from downtown, while Pro Player/Land Shark/Sun Life was 12 miles northwest of downtown.

Derrick
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Derrick

Still can’t believe people against the move are bringing up traffic. Turner field is essentially located at the intersection of THREE interstates. It is a major challenge for anyone working north of buckhead to make it to weekday games. Also the city had 20 years to help develop that area and did nothing. They deserved to lose the Braves

Joe
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Joe

The Braves are nothing more than a real estate empire that employs baseball players as a side-gig. They’ve done the same thing with most of their minor league affiliates on a smaller scale.

DaillyPlunge
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DaillyPlunge

Turner Field’s location is awful. There are only two ways in/out of the park. Leaving/entering the park is miserable. There’s nothing to do around the park. You go to the game and you leave as soon as you can. It’s awful. The traffic might indeed be terrible at the new park, but at least there’s hope it will get better someday. No hope of that at Turner Field. Also, there’s a reason to get to the park early to avoid the traffic. Taxpayer funded stadiums are indeed dumb. The only reason Atlanta didn’t fund the Braves is because they were… Read more »

Curious George
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Curious George

While that MJ graphic is correct in that the school system has a budget shortfall they fail to point out that in the state of Georgia school systems are exclusively funded by the state and property taxes collected by the school system itself. The city/county governments, such as the one funding the stadium project, are separate entities from school districts in Georgia.

Here’s the Cobb budget; there is zero school funding in it as would be the case in every county in Georgia.

https://cobbcounty.org/images/documents/finance/biennial-budget/FY2015-2016_Biennial_Budget_Book.pdf

Richie
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Richie

Very helpful and interesting. Thank you, George!

Paul G.
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Paul G.

Having visited Turner Field last month, my tourist ignorant thoughts: 1. Turner Field is a nice stadium. There’s nothing wrong with it as a baseball stadium, as best I can tell. The employees were polite and helpful, though our waiter did stumble with applying the credits we received with our tickets. 2. Traffic was bad and this was a Sunday day game. The highways were already congested in the morning, though the actual delays incoming were minimal. The way out was worse than leaving Yankee Stadium. It was bumper-to-bumper for quite a stretch, probably adding 45-60 minutes to the trip.… Read more »

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

IMO, the article got it wrong. Atlanta didn’t call the Braves bluff. I think the Braves called Cobb County’s bluff. They never wanted to stay in Atlanta given the location of the fan base. I suspect the Braves were using the city as a way of getting Cobb County to offer a better deal. I don’t blame the Braves for wanting to move closer to where the fans are. Atlanta is an incredibly spread out city and most of the baseball fans are in the northern counties (at least as I understand; I haven’t lived in the area in decades,… Read more »

John G.
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John G.

As long as they charge exorbitant ticket prices for most of the seating areas, along with the usual stadium-caliber mark-ups for concessions and parking, the business of MLB will continue.

And then, after the novelty has worn off with those who would routinely pay the inflated prices, we will look at all the empty seats and blame the region’s fanbase for being disloyal to the team, when in fact it was the team that was disloyal to the fanbase by setting prices to high for ordinary families.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

John, I’m not economist (although I work with them) but I would bet that “exorbitant” ticket and concession prices at the ballpark has relatively little to do with attendance. It’s not as if prices have suddenly gone up or that prices are lower in places with higher attendance. I suspect baseball game attendance is relatively inelastic, i.e., that the demand does not change much with changes in prices. I think attendance is more likely related to things like the performance of the team and ease of access to the ballpark. “Inflated” or “exorbitant ” prices is sort of in the… Read more »

John G.
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John G.

Thank you for your comments. The following is intended for discussion and with all due respect. In 2008, the final year of Yankee Stadium II, the Yankees won 89 games, finished 3rd in the A.L. East, missed the postseason, and drew nearly 4.3 million people. In 2009, the current Yankee Stadium III opened, with its well-documented price increases. The Yankees jumped to 103 wins, won the World Series, and drew about 3.7 million people, an attendance decrease of a half million or so. Last year, an 87-win playoff Yankee team drew 3.1 million people, continuing a gradual decline in attendance,… Read more »

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

I agree that it’s complex and I don’t mean to act as if I understand it all. But I was reacting to your statement that drops in attendance are attributable to exorbitant prices. I think it’s more complex than that; for the Yankees as well. And, while playoff tickets are certainly more expensive than regular season tickets, I doubt that you can say that the failure to sell out the playoff games is simply attributable to the higher prices. I believe MLB sets the prices for playoff tickets and they are the same at all games. My belief is that… Read more »

Tony L.
Guest

I live in Atlanta, and I am not a Braves fan. Like about 75% of the city, I’m from elsewhere and kept my team allegiances from where I grew up. But, I know a fair amount about this deal because I read a lot about it (I’m a construction lawyer…new stadiums are great for business). So, first off, the actual stadium itself is receiving funds from Cobb County through the Development Authority of Cobb County. DACC issues bonds, the bond revenue is used to fund DACC’s obligations, and bond holders get tax-free interest for holding the bonds. The bonds are… Read more »

Dave
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Dave

Don’t think the new stadium is a “30,000 seat ballpark”, which would be the smallest MLB stadium. It reportedly will seat 41,500 – http://m.mlb.com/news/article/75446658/renderings-show-braves-new-stadium-plans

Dave
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Dave

I’m not a fan of publicly-financed stadiums and broadly agree with the economic studies saying that they’re not worth it. Even when stadiums have thriving districts around them, it essentially just moves entertainment/restaurant/bar spending from one part of a city or metro area to another. All of that said, I struggle to see why local governments shouldn’t be allowed to use tax-exempt bonds to finance stadium projects. Tax-exempt bonds can and are used by local governments to finance similar sorts of projects such as convention centers, hotels, industrial parks, airports, ports, etc. That category of projects should all be treated… Read more »

Visionscopes.net
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Chris (from Atlanta)
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Chris (from Atlanta)

If I have to read another article written by a person not from Atlanta pontificating about the horrors of moving the stadium to Cobb County, I am going to explode. I’d be curious to see the cited professor’s responses from the “outraged Atlantas.” Most people I talk to in the city are happy that we are moving from Turner field, which as people say, is a fine ballpark in a terrible area.