Keith Strudler: The Brave March To Suburbia
I went to the Summer Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta, as well as the track and field Olympic trials in the same venue. I watched Michael Johnson run, which at that point I assumed was the fastest man there ever could be, and I spent the better part of a week surviving the summer heat of Hotlanta. And I remember thinking, as a track and field fan, that wow, that’s one nice track stadium in the middle of a big city.
Of course, it didn’t stay a track and field stadium for long. It was immediately repurposed as the new home of the Atlanta Braves, one of the league’s most successful yet undersupported franchises. This building came in the early crest of a wave of stadium projects that moved sports back into the heart of big cities, reurbanization through athletics. This changed a generation long trend of placing stadiums and ballparks and arenas in suburban counties with big parking lots and affluent residents. So along with Target and Panera, suburbanites got touchdowns and slam dunks.
Turner Field was constructed in one of Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods. That was something city officials tried to change in the simple construction of the facility, claiming eminent domain over blocks of real estate for the Games and displacing residents they deemed less desirable as Olympic scenery. The thought was that this neighborhood would inevitably gentrify, as have many American inner-cities anchored by sports facilities.
Only in Atlanta, that never happened. The area around the field remains one of the city’s poorest and most crime ridden. It’s also relatively inaccessible by mass transit. So that stadium that only a few years ago was a shiny new toy feels a bit like the bargain bin a the dollar store. For that reason, and others, the Atlanta Braves have announced they will be leaving Turner Field, the 17 year old Turner Field, in 2016 to head for suburban Cobb County, which will help fund the $672 million facility.
Now, a lot of things last longer than 20 years. Some cars. Books. A really good oven. Hopefully my marriage. But apparently not a multi-million dollar sports facility that was built with public assistance. That kicked long-time residents out of their homes.
I suppose the good news is that those people can finally return. Because they aren’t just abandoning the facility, they’re demolishing it. For neighborhood residents, a reminder that things can always get worse.
The Braves have held the company line on this one. It would cost millions and millions to repair the stadium, which is remarkable given its youth. That this new field would provide a better fan experience, which can be read pretty much any way you’d like. That they needed more public funding, which the city, to its credit, wasn’t going to provide. And since they’ve already put some $200 million toward the Falcons new football park, it seemed wise to at least keep a handful of schools open in the increasingly impoverished city.
There’s a couple of takeaways here, beyond that you now have even more reason to hate the Atlanta Braves. First, realize that all that hype about new stadiums driving city renewal is typically just hype. Stadiums don’t gentrify towns any more than your dual-income-no-kids friends that just bought a townhouse do. Sports teams simply join in the process. We see that in Atlanta, where the process, for a long list of reasons, just isn’t happening.
Second, know this. The Atlanta Braves made a business decision. They moved to a town that was more receptive to the blackmail that is professional sports. Cobb County is overspending for the prestige buy that of a pro team, as have many of the county’s residents driving Beamers and Mercedes to the game. That’s what sports is, a giant business. So when you cheer for that team that you love so dearly, so much that you moved your wedding date to accommodate their schedule and named your first child after a player, know that to the team, you’re just a revenue source. Nothing more, and nothing less. And right now, Cobb County is a nicer source than inner-city Atlanta. It’s not personal, even if it feels that way. Don’t worry if it hurts. That feeling, like the stadium itself, will be gone in no time.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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