The Atlanta Braves announced Monday that they will move out of Atlanta before the start of the 2017 season, when they will open what can only be an extravagant new ballpark outside the city’s borders in suburban Cobb County.
Because this is the way things are done now, the project will rely heavily on public funding, with $450 million of the $672 million projected cost coming from a county that just cut 182 teaching jobs because of a budget shortfall. That’s ridiculous, as is the Braves stated reason for moving: the team that secured public financing to convert Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium into Turner Field just 16 years ago, in part by arguing that the venue would help revitalize the urban community around it, is now leaving because the stadium didn’t improve the community around it. Its argument for moving to the current location is now its argument for moving away from it. On top of that, the Braves are leaving Turner Field in part because of a lack of easy public transit access for a location with no public transit that connects to the city. If all of that doesn’t shine quite a bright light on the foolishness of public funding, what will?
But that’s not why I don’t like this deal, at least not all of why I don’t like it, anyway. This isn’t really about the Braves moving, but about where they are going. And it isn’t really about the Braves at all, but a larger trend throughout sports, one that is making our teams less a part of our communities because they are becoming less accessible to certain people in them.
Cobb County isn’t exactly far away — just 13 miles from the city center — but it is outside the city, and even if the Braves will maintain a quasi-Atlanta address and wear “Atlanta” on their chests, they’ll no longer feel like an Atlanta team. To many Atlantans, that matters, as native Rembert Browne wrote Monday. To the Braves, it doesn’t, because this is a good business opportunity that moves them closer to the geographic center of their fan base and to a place that is wealthier and more ripe for development than the neighborhood in which they play now.
And that business is all that matters, because at some point professional teams and their leagues decided that they could make more money by arguing that they were major drivers of economic growth, that they should get public funding because of all of the jobs and development potential their stadiums would bring. That’s obviously not as true as they think it is, but it also obscures a real selling point for having pro sports in a city: there are real social and communal benefits that come with teams and their success. The teams can bring communities together, giving people who don’t have much in common something to share.
Maybe that will still occur in Cobb County. The Braves, after all, are a regional team, popular not just in Metro Atlanta or in Georgia but across the south. But it’s hard to see how it will happen to the same extent and for the same people as it does now. Cobb County, as it is, is significantly whiter than urban Atlanta. It’s also slightly wealthier than Atlanta — Cobb’s median income is north of $65,000, compared to $57,000 in Atlanta — and closer to or more accessible from many of Atlanta’s wealthier neighborhoods and suburbs than is Turner Field. And then there’s the lack of transit access from the city, thanks to Cobb County’s resistance to MARTA expansions that would have connected the county to the city center. That’s all part of the suburbs’ “goal of keeping people out,” as Browne put it, and though the Braves’ could in theory soften Cobb’s public transit resistance, it’s hard to imagine that the lack of a viable option won’t reduce access to the stadium and thus to the Braves for many Atlanta residents, especially minorities, youths, and those with lower incomes.
The Braves, I suppose, don’t see that as a problem. Those fans haven’t exactly been flocking to Turner Field — though that, again, could be in part because the Braves and the city didn’t exactly fulfill their promises in making The Ted accessible via transit — and it does, after all, make better business sense to move closer to your fans, especially when the people filling your seats can afford $100 tickets and $9 beers and $5 hot dogs, plus some merchandise. And if they can afford it all inside a luxury suite, even better. It’s all about money, money, money.
The question, though, is when that quest for money trumps the idea that our teams can be — and should be — a part of their community, an aspect of a city’s society that brings all types of people together in one place, from the CNN and Coca-Cola bigwigs to the blue-collar worker to the teenager who just wants to score a ticket and walk to the park to see Jason Heyward hit a baseball on a summer afternoon. At what point does that chase for money limit a team’s ability to bring its city together, the way iconic teams have before (think the Pirates in ’79, the Yankees in ’01, the Red Sox in ’04 and again in 2013), the way so many teams do on a daily and yearly basis without us even realizing it. Does any of that matter? Shouldn’t it?
This isn’t just about Atlanta, though the Braves are moving farther out of the city than any recent baseball team has. It may soon happen in Oakland too. It’s already happened in San Francisco, where the 49ers are moving to Santa Clara, and in Dallas, where the Cowboys and Rangers have long played well outside the city, and in other cities. It’s not unique, either, to stadium location. Luxury suites have segmented the populations that make it into the stadiums. Rising ticket prices have made that true too, and even worse, have made games prohibitively expensive for swaths of the population that live around stadiums and in cities that have teams. It’s enough to make me wonder, as The Slurve’s Michael Brendan Dougherty and I did last week, whether we are stratifying the sporting experience, transforming our teams from common goods into something segments of the community no longer have the access or ability to fully enjoy.
So while public financing may bankrupt our cities financially, that stratification and the implicit idea that teams and their sporting events are really only for those privileged enough to enjoy them could have unseen social consequences. For all of their problems — once-segregated ballparks and the like — our teams have long woven a common thread among different communities within their home cities. It’s understandable that they want to chase more money. But at some point, if our teams and games become available only to the privileged, won’t those teams and their cities lose something far more valuable than the few extra dollars they gained?