On Tuesday night, near Atlanta, Georgia, commissioners in Cobb County voted unanimously to approve $392 million in public funds to construct a new stadium for the Atlanta Braves. But many believe the team’s current stadium, which opened in 1997 and is in the middle of the city, is still a perfectly good ballpark.
Others, like Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky, believe that Cobb County and Braves officials forced a publicly opposed move through suspicious means. Petchesky joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: As you wrote in Wednesday’s column, 12 people were allowed to speak at Tuesday’s meeting before the commissioners voted. Was it a fair public hearing?
BL: It sounds like this was all carefully orchestrated.
BP: The “grassroots” campaign to bring the Braves to Cobb County has been led by two local business leaders, one a plumbing company, the other a security systems company. And, not coincidentally, if that ballpark goes there and they build a community around it, someone’s going to need to provide plumbing and security in the area.
BL: The Braves’ current home, Turner Field, is only 20 years old. Why does the team feel that it needs a new stadium?
BP: The team feels it can get a new stadium, which I think these days is more important than needing one. The Braves claim their fan base is out in the suburbs. They claim there’s “nothing around” [Turner Field] that people want to go to, and they won’t say it, but Atlanta said no when the Braves asked for hundreds of millions of dollars to make improvements or build a new stadium. So, the Braves found a place that would give them their $392 million.
BL: You have written that the Braves have been “masters at brokering no dissent.” Describe some of the other ways in which the team managed to get funding approved for a new stadium.BP: Let me read you a quote from Braves president John Schuerholz. He said, “If it had leaked out, this deal would not have gotten done. If it had gotten out, more people would have started taking the position of, ‘We don’t want that to happen.’” That’s a quote from the Braves president basically saying, “We kept this under wraps, because we know most people would be against it.”
But most of the surreptitiousness is coming on the part of Cobb County, which very specifically raised the money by raising new taxes. And because they did not institute any specific new tax, they just raised existing ones, there was no need for a referendum, so Cobb County voters had no say.
BL: Stadium deals like this were commonplace during the lucrative ’90s, but I thought the days of the public throwing bags and bags of cash at teams were over. Why are the Braves the apparent exception right now?
BP: It’s starting to turn. People are starting to get angry. People are furious about what the Braves are doing. But the Braves were smart enough, and Cobb County wanted a baseball team at any cost. One of the county commissioners was asked why they did not hold a vote to approve $400 million in tax money, and she said a special election would cost taxpayers $300 – $400,000 dollars. So instead, $400 million [went] without any vote.
BL: Has Turner Field really become such a bad place to see a game and –probably more importantly in this context — a bad place to make money if you’re the owner of a baseball team?
BP: Let’s be honest here. Sports owners don’t lose money. They either make a lot of money or they make a little less than a lot of money. And the Braves’ owners felt like they could make more money with a new stadium outside of the city. Turner Field was a perfectly good place to watch [a ballgame], still is, still would be for another 30 years.