On November 11, 2013, the Atlanta Braves secretly gathered a small group of reporters at a remote location in the city to make a major announcement. Starting in 2017, the Braves would no longer be playing baseball in the city of Atlanta. Instead, they would be relocating to Cobb County, a suburban area north of the city. They weren't "exploring options" or gauging public support -- it was a done deal, made completely without public knowledge or consent. The announcement was a stunning blow to Braves fans and many felt the new stadium deal reeked of lies, manipulation, and prejudice. Turns out, they were right.
The dirty world of stadium financing has been a frequent topic of national conversation recently, you can watch John Oliver devote an entire episode to it. But the situation in Atlanta was different. Professional sports teams don't just grow up and move to the suburbs. Look at any new city built in the last few decades and you'll see that it was built closer to the heart of the city it occupies to, you know, make it accessible to the millions of people that live there. And why would Turner Field, a stadium younger than Justin Bieber, need to be abandoned?
The Braves front office will tell you that a year before the move to Cobb County was announced, they asked the city of Atlanta to fund massive improvements to Turner Field and the area immediately surrounding it. Parking was a disaster, field upgrades needed to be made, and more entertainment features were needed to drive up attendance. When Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed refused to spend the massive amounts the Braves were asking, the team secretly began looking for other options. They eventually found their sugar daddy in the form of Cobb County Commission Chair Tim Lee, who offered an unprecedented $400 million of public money to build a stadium in his district. In comparison, the new Cowboys Stadium built by Jerry Jones and abused by Tony Romo, required only $325 million in government spending. The ridiculous amount of public funds meant that the Braves ownership would be spending nickels and dimes compared to the free money they would be receiving.
But even though this back room deal was made without a vote, there's no reason to be upset, cautioned Cobb County's Tim Lee. The $400 million would be paid without raising property taxes on anyone. If you think that sounds too good to be true, you're absolutely right. Instead of property taxes, Lee extended an existing temporary tax for 30 additional years. He also reportedly used a fund that was voted by the people of Cobb to be used to create parks, and funneled it into the making of the stadium. Isn't local government fun?
Of course, it's impossible to talk about the fall of Turner Field without mentioning race. Summerhill, the neighborhood where the stadium currently resides, has a population that's 89 percent black. Vinings, the neighborhood near where the new stadium will be built, has a population that's nearly 90 percent white. The relocation has been criticized as a sort of baseball-themed white flight that keeps the mostly white fans from having to go into the mostly black city. Meanwhile, the MLB wonders why inner-city kids are losing interest in their sport.
The loss of Turner Field also means the loss of hundreds of part-time jobs, a crushing blow for a neighborhood where the median income is $15-$20K lower than where the new stadium will be built. If you're thinking, well why don't the old employees just drive to the new stadium? That seems like a good idea, if state government didn't just recently strike down a bill that would have extended public transportation from Atlanta to Cobb County.
The Braves management, for their part, haven't done anything to heal the wounds caused by the planned relocation. Try to name a Braves player other than Freddie Freeman and it's almost a certainty that player has been traded away. Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, all gone. The capper was a trade of all-star closer Craig Kimbrel on the eve of last year's opening day. General manager John Coppolella will point to his stacked farm system and dismiss those who don't believe in his "vision." I mean, what's so wrong about being the 76ers of baseball? But Braves fans, who can fill entire storage units up with worthless jerseys of their ex-favorite players, are not as sympathetic. Is it possible the Braves have sacrificed the last few seasons as a subtle middle finger to the city who refused to scrounge its citizens to pay for stadium upgrades? Would it surprise anyone to see them go all out this upcoming offseason to once again have a championship contending team when the Cobb County stadium opens?
If you measure a franchise's success by the amount of support and enthusiasm surrounding the team, the Atlanta Braves are a Chernobyl-esque disaster -- but it's not just the fans in Atlanta who should be concerned. A historic franchise moving away from the city that fostered it sets a dangerous precedent that is guaranteed to be cited by the avaricious owners of the future. We are entering an age where owners chase money from local government like Kevin Durant in free agency. The new "The Decision" will be Daniel Snyder announcing whether or not he will be moving the Redskins to Richmond. The sad truth is, when courageous city governments stand up to billionaire owners, it's the city that loses, because owners will always find another Tim Lee who will is willing to accost his citizens for a good deal.