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Last week, multiple sources reported that the Atlanta Braves will build their next stadium in the city's northern suburbs within Cobb County come 2017, and owner Liberty Media (NASDAQ: LMCA ) is publicly behind the decision. Despite what you may have heard, this is not a simple situation. There are a number of different, complex influences at play here, and it's important to understand the reasons behind the move.
Why the Braves are leaving
The Atlanta Braves are one of Major League Baseball's trustiest franchises in terms of on-field performance. The team captured 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005, and it has only experienced three sub-.500 seasons since 1990.
Intriguingly, this consistently high level of play hasn't led to reliable attendance at Turner Field.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, which tracks the percentage of seats each professional baseball team sells on a nightly basis, the Braves have finished in the league's bottom half every year since 2004. This past season, when Atlanta won the NL East by 10 games, just 63.3% of their home seats were filled, worse than 20 of the MLB's 29 other franchises.
Now, one might argue that Turner Field's abnormally high seating capacity (over 50,000) is responsible for low attendance percentages, but the aggregate totals aren't that pretty either. The Braves scanned a little over 2.5 million tickets in 2013, lower than the Chicago Cubs, the Colorado Rockies, the Philadelphia Phillies, the L.A. Angels, and the San Francisco Giants, all of whom had losing records last season.
What's my point? That success on the diamond doesn't always translate into booming ticket revenues. Other factors have a major effect on attendance, and in this case, on Liberty Media's profits. Although they often fly under the radar, some of these other factors include: (a) the proximity of season ticket holders to the stadium, (b) the presence of nightlife around the stadium, (c) parking availability, and (d) transportation options.
Interestingly, the Braves face every single one of these issues at Turner Field, and team executive Mike Plant has revealed the team will control a 60-acre area in Cobb County for the development of nearby amenities like bars and restaurants. Parking and bus availability is expected to improve as well. But the most telling reason the Braves probably called Cobb can be boiled down to one map.
That's a graphical representation of where Liberty Media's best baseball customers live: Braves season ticket-holders. As the team publicly states, "the new stadium will be located near the geographic center of the Braves' fan base."
The map also indicates that the next ballpark site is about 12 miles north of Turner Field, and just 2 miles outside of Atlanta city limits. This brings me to my next point.
Why Atlanta let them go
Obviously, this entire process was a two-way street. The city of Atlanta decided not to match their neighboring county's $300 million offer for a few reasons.
First, an official summary indicates that Cobb County is on the hook for 45% of the park's estimated cost, which is much higher than 20% benchmark that Atlanta established when it agreed to help fund the Falcons' new stadium earlier this year. Second, and arguably more fundamental, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has expressed that he would rather spend a couple hundred million dollars on city infrastructure projects over the next few years.
An op-ed from Reed to CNN also implies that he simply doesn't believe a 12-mile move is worth allowing the city to be "choked by debt," and he's absolutely correct. The new park is still in the broader Atlanta area, is closer to season ticket holders, and surprisingly, Cobb County has more people residing in it (707,000) than Atlanta (443,000).
In fact, the entire metro Atlanta area, which houses about 5.5 million people, is historically one of the most spread out cities in the U.S., so expansive that Paul Krugman dubbed it the "Sultan of Sprawl." It's within this context, then, that we can rationally understand Atlanta's decision to let the Braves out of city limits. If any urban center can house a professional sports team in a nearby suburb and get away with it, it's the Braves, demographically speaking.
What really matters
Unfortunately, Cobb County's key role in an oft-discussed "evolution is a theory, not a fact" court case, a mandatory gun law in one town within county borders, and a few other instances of political extremism have led some pundits to paint this as a race issue.
Yes, there is a higher percentage of non-white residents in Atlanta than there is in Cobb, and yes, the county is still adamantly against allowing the city's transportation system to expand to its towns.
None of this played a role in the Braves' recent decision, though.
As mentioned above, the franchise is leaving Atlanta proper for a multitude of reasons, and each is logically justified. A closer proximity to season ticket holders and better amenities around the ballpark should boost Liberty Media's attendance shortcomings, while the city of Atlanta will be able to use taxpayer dollars on more important infrastructure projects.
Also, don't forget that this city in particular is one of the most spread out in the country. Any fan that thinks Braves jerseys should be embroidered with the words "Cobb County" come 2017 simply doesn't understand Atlanta.
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