ATLANTA — Welcome to Atlanta, where the players play — as long as the stadium where they play isn’t much more than two decades old.
There are some outlandish tales of local communities getting fleeced by their professional sports teams (we’re looking at you, Miami), but the situation here goes beyond the egregious use of public funds to help subsidize pretentious stadiums for billionaire owners.
This is about shameful waste.
Two perfectly useful stadiums are going to be reduced to rubble — one just 17 years old (farewell, Turner Field), the other a mere 21 years into its existence (so long, Georgia Dome).
“I was just thinking,” Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at Holy Cross and specialist in the business of sports, said Friday, “Turner Field is not as old as Miley Cyrus.”
But isn’t just about my hometown. This is a stern warning to the rest of the country.
All those folks out there rolling their eyes and chuckling at another round of mindless destruction in Atlanta need to be paying attention — and keeping a firm grip on their wallets. Because rest assured, there are plenty of owners out there looking covetously in this direction, wondering how they can con their elected officials into coughing up hundreds of millions to build them a new place to play.
“Every owner in every major league sport has stadium envy,” Matheson said. “As soon as someone gets a better stadium, they want one, too.”
Construction of new stadiums and arenas slowed dramatically during the Great Recession, but it looks as though things will be cranking up again now that the economy is showing signs of improvement. The NFL is already in the midst of another building boon, with new stadiums on the horizon for the San Francisco 49ers next season, the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, and the Falcons in 2017 — a $1 billion-plus retractable roof facility next to the Georgia Dome.
The NFL has one key advantage over the other leagues: Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest market, is wide open since losing the Rams and the Raiders in the mid-1990s. Talk about a convenient way for the 32 teams to extort what they want from their current cities.
“As a public policy guy, I think that’s terrible,” Matheson said. “As a business strategy, it’s brilliant.”
Now along comes the Braves, with their stunning announcement this week that they will they spend only three more seasons in the downtown stadium affectionately known as “the Ted” before moving to a new $672 million facility in the suburbs.
The bar has never been set this low: The Braves will wind up playing only 20 years at Turner Field, which was initially built as the main stadium for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The city already is making plans to level the 50,000-seat structure that has been the scene of so much sports history during its short history, from Muhammad Ali and Michael Johnson at the Olympics to the Braves hosting a World Series and an All-Star Game.
Never mind that Turner Field is younger than 13 other major league parks. It’s safe to assume many of those owners are suddenly pondering their options, and not just those with outdated parks in Oakland and Tampa Bay.
The Braves have turned back the clock, bucking the trend of moving closer to the city by finding a wealthy suburban area, Cobb County, that is willing to folk over $300 million in tax money without giving its citizens so much as a vote. Apparently, that’s a better way to spend all that money than helping the county’s financially strapped schools, which had to impose five furlough days this year.
Matheson said the city of Atlanta made the right decision in letting the Braves go, since they’ll be moving only 12 miles up the interstate. But it’s hard to give much credit to Mayor Kasim Reed, who essentially had no choice after committing $200 million in city money to the Falcons’ new stadium. If he could’ve found another $300 million at the end of a rainbow, chances are it would’ve wound up in the Braves’ pocket.
Seriously, folks, what the heck is going on here?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Georgia Dome, which even after those new stadiums open for Minnesota and San Francisco will still be younger than seven other facilities and is a 1990s contemporary of eight others. OK, so maybe a retractable roof would be nice, given Atlanta’s climate, but that surely could’ve been accomplished by renovating the current stadium for considerably less money (sorry, we don’t buy the consulting firm that claimed it would just as costly as building a new stadium).
Speaking of things we aren’t buying, how about most of the Braves’ logic for moving to the `burbs. They talk of easier access, yet are leaving a city with mass transit for a county that has none. They talk about traffic woes around Turner Field, yet plan to build on a site with some of the metro area’s worst traffic congestion. They talk of what it would cost to upgrade Turner Field, yet will spend even more on a new stadium.
But those are Atlanta’s problems.
This is more about the whole idea of building-it-up-so-they-can-tear-it-down coming soon to your town.
You’ve been warned.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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