The Atlanta Braves have moved three of their four full-season minor league clubs into new ballparks over the past 10 years and nearly made it a clean sweep a year ago before residents of Wilmington, N.C., decided they didn’t want to pay for a stadium.
Those were all small potatoes compared to their latest announcement, however, as the organization’s next move will be coming at the major league level.
The Braves announced Monday that they are going to leave Turner Field, their home for the past 17 seasons in downtown Atlanta, for a new ballpark roughly 14 miles northwest in Cobb County. The ballpark is scheduled to open for the start of the 2017 season.
“We didn’t take this decision lightly,” team president John Schuerholz told reporters this morning, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’ve played in our current facility for quite some time, and it was with mixed emotions that we made this decision because we have many great Braves baseball memories that occurred for all of us . . . in that facility. But we are quite enthused about where our new facility will be.”
The team’s 20-year lease at Turner Field expires after the 2016 season, and team officials said that rather than investing roughly $150 million in renovations for what they said was infrastructure work that would not improve the fan experience, the Braves are opting to move to Cobb County, a northern suburb of roughly 700,000 residents.
The new stadium will seat 41,000-42,000, about 10,000 fewer than Turner Field, and is expected to cost $672 million. It will be built in a partnership with Cobb County, though team officials declined to detail what the Braves’ investment will be and how Cobb County will pay for its portion of the cost.
The team does not yet have a signed agreement with Cobb County, but team executives Mike Plant and Derek Schiller each announced today that they are “100 percent confident” that the stadium will be built.
Such confidence suggests that the ballpark’s construction will not be dependent on a tax increase that would require a public referendum, a measure that derailed Atlanta’s plan last year to build a new stadium in Wilmington for its Carolina League franchise.
The Braves have previously considered Turner Field as an asset, not a burden, since it was constructed for the 1996 Olympics and paid for by other entities, relieving the team of stadium debt many other teams have to deal with.
“We pride ourselves in understanding our business long-term, and we’ve seen exactly where we are,” Braves chairman Terry McGuirk told BA before the season as part of an article focusing on the team’s television contract. “We saw it coming years ago. The marketplace does change, but it’s not change we don’t know or understand or actually predict. We really made our zigging and zagging long ago, to get positioned correctly the way we are today.”
The Braves’ local TV contract, which they last renewed in 2007, has forced the Braves to look elsewhere for new revenue, and the Cobb County ballpark project could be a part of that. The TV deal is estimated to pay the Braves between $10 million-$20 million annually, which is much smaller than the amount some teams now receive. The Dodgers’ new deal with Time Warner, for example, is reportedly worth between $7 billion-$8 billion over 25 years.
“It is what it is,” McGuirk said this spring of the TV deal. “It’s not the only lever and dial we have to pull and turn to make this thing work, and we just have to be a little bit better in a bunch of other areas. And I think we are.”
Plant, the team’s executive vice president of business operations, noted to reporters today that the team’s decision to leave downtown is also influenced by traffic problems, which he cites “as the No. 1 reason our fans don’t come to more games.”
“That over the last decade has grown immensely,” Plant said, according to the AJC. “We are under-served by about 5,000 parking spaces. All of those things contribute to some real challenges for us that we just, looking forward, didn’t believe could be overcome.”
Interestingly, the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate moved to another northern suburb in Gwinnett County, albeit a much more distant one, in 2009. The International League franchise has seen disappointing attendance, and traffic has been cited as one of the reasons. The franchise moved from Richmond, Va., to a new ballpark in Lawrenceville, Ga., with the hopes that it would create cross-promotional opportunities in addition to the luxury of having Triple-A players so close to the big league team.
However, the team has struggled to draw fans, particularly on weeknights, when the rush hour commute often extends beyond first pitch. Gwinnett ranked near the bottom of the International League in attendance in each of its first four seasons before placing eighth in the 14-team league in 2013. Gwinnett would be almost 40 miles from the new Braves ballpark.