Cobb County And The Braves: Worst Sports Stadium Deal Ever?
The Atlanta Braves' new ballpark was approved in utterly undemocratic fashion and may end up costing taxpayers more than $400 million. Where does it rank in the annals of lousy stadium deals?
The Atlanta Braves are moving to a new ballpark next spring, and ... and really, that's it as far as the good news goes. The latest debacle to emerge from the team's abrupt decision to abandon their 20-year-old downtown stadium and head for the 'burbs occurred last weekend when it was reported that the Cobb County Commission—the five-person local governing body that approved the Braves' plan without public debate by standing in hallways to get around open-meetings laws—has determined that if county residents want to get the $40 million in new parks they voted for way back in 2008, they'll have to raise taxes, because that money has now been siphoned off for the new baseball facility.
(Yes, I'm aware that commission chair Tim Lee has since complained that parks money wasn't really diverted to the stadium. It's complicated, but suffice to say he's wrong: The park bonds were never issued, then when the property tax hike funding them was set to run out, the commission decided to renew it for the stadium instead of spending it on what voters had intended it for. This is what's known in politics as "not lying, exactly.")
Anyway, the ballparks-not-public-parks switcheroo isn't new—it was first reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution last year, at which point one of the committee members behind the public park plan called funneling money from there to the stadium "sleight of hand" and "unseemly." (Ah, Southern manners.) But it's the latest insult from a list that's been piling up for this Braves project seemingly from the minute it was first announced in 2013:
* The pedestrian bridge across a major highway to get fans from their cars to the stadium won't be ready in time for next season, and no one knows yet how much it will cost. Plus, if the county's renderings are to be believed, it will only have room for one shuttle bus at a time, which will inevitably be delayed by fans on foot spilling over from the pedestrian path right next to the bus land, and oh, the humanity.
* Thanks in part to those ballooning bridge costs, plus the cost of widening the highways that the bridge will pass over to prevent Braves games from worsening the county's already-legendary highway gridlock, the public price tag for the stadium has soared from an initial estimate of $276 million to somewhere north of $350 million. If someone offers you a wager on it eventually breaking $400 million, take the over.
* Ticket prices will average 45 percent more at the new stadium than they did at Turner Field. Braves execs insist that this is only a 4.7 percent increase, because they use special math that is too advanced for regular folks to comprehend.
* After it was revealed that country commissioner Lee had pushed the stadium deal through by, among other things, hiring a lawyer to negotiate the Braves deal without even telling his fellow commissioners, Lee defended himself against ethics charges by insisting the ethics code only said elected officials "should" avoid the appearance of impropriety, meaning it was, you know, a suggestion. The county ethics board then dismissed the charges because Lee had said he was sorry.
In news that is not unrelated in the slightest to all of this, Lee may get voted out of office next month. At which point Cobb County taxpayers will get their money back and the Braves will remain in Atlanta—ha ha, just kidding, the stadium is already half-built, nobody's getting any money back ever.
Of course, all of this has transpired in order to move a pro baseball team from one part of the Atlanta metro area to another. And I use the term "pro baseball team" loosely here: The Braves have a historically awful offense and a historically awful defense, and while they have enough young talent on the farm to maybe be good again someday, they're almost certainly going to squander any honeymoon effect from their new stadium on fans staying home in droves to avoid the parking nightmare and the high ticket prices and the two more years remaining of Nick Markakis's incomprehensible contract. Braves owner John Malone undoubtedly was thinking of this when he reassured panicking shareholders in April that "the Braves now are a fairly major real estate business, as opposed to just a baseball club."
Instead of, John. You meant to say instead of.
It's an all-around train wreck of the highest order, and raises the inevitable question: Could the Braves stadium deal possibly qualify as the worst ever agreed to by any public body?
Let's be blunt: In the annals of stadium fiascos, Atlanta's forthcoming SunTrust Park (and by the way, nice job spending $250 million to get your corporate name attached to this mess, SunTrust Bank execs) has to go up against some exceedingly stiff competition. Like Glendale's deal for the NHL's Arizona Coyotes, a scheme that ended up costing the city $220 million in arena debt, plus $50 million in operating-cost subsidies to keep the team in town, plus another $30 million in more operating-cost subsidies over two more years—requiring Glendale to cut staffing of every city department to pay for it—and now looks certain to end with the team leaving town anyway, possibly for as much as $750 million in additional sales-tax kickbacks from the state of Arizona.
Then there's this week's other breaking stadium-catastrophe story: Hartford's experience with a new stadium to bring the Yard Goats Double-A baseball team to town, all the way from New Britain, Connecticut, an arduous 15 minutes away by car. The public price tag on Hartford's new stadium is far smaller than Cobb County's—just a little over $60 million, though that could still rise—but when you factor in that the stadium is going to be a year late in opening, forcing the team to spend the entire 2016 season on the road, and that all the development around the stadium that was the whole economic rationale for the project may now never happen because the city had to fire the construction contractor for not being able to finish on time, well, that's got to count for something, right?
And at least those cities—and Cobb County, for that matter—will eventually get to play host to new teams as part of their massive outlays of public cash. How, then, do we compare those deals to Arlington, Texas's plan to spend $500 million on a new Texas Rangers stadium (plus a bunch of free land and property tax breaks on parking lots, plus maybe even more money if the Rangers' revenues aren't enough to pay off their share of city bonds) just to get the team to move across the street from the last stadium Arlington built for them, a distant 22 years ago? For that matter, does the Cobb County deal stand up to the nearly $1.2 billion dollars in public cash and tax breaks that the Steinbrenners are getting for the new Yankee Stadium right next to the grave of the old one—crazy enough since the New York Yankees were never going to move out of New York and give up the cable TV windfall that comes with the territory, and crazier still when you consider that more than $300 million of that comes via a creative dodge to evade federal bond taxes, meaning Boston Red Sox fans helped pay to move the Bombers to the other side of a Bronx street.
Oh, and we'll always have the Cincinnati Bengals deal that forced Hamilton County to sell a public hospital to pay off its NFL stadium bills. If that's not a worst-case scenario, what is?
With few exceptions, most stadium deals end up looking pretty horrible in the cold light of day, something that sports economists—and a slowly increasing number of journalists like myself, and an even more slowly increasing number of elected officials—have been pointing out for decades. So asking subsidy experts to rank them by awfulness is like asking them to say which of their children they find the most annoying on a long car ride.
Nonetheless, I asked. According to Holy Cross economist Victor Matheson, the Braves project scores "pretty high on the list of despicable stadium deals," both for replacing a stadium that is the same age as Miley Cyrus, and because "they want to move out of their 'old' stadium because it is in a bad neighborhood that they had 18 years to turn into a good neighborhood like they promised in the first place. And now they are promising a new location that the new location should subsidize the new stadium because a stadium will improve that neighborhood."
Concludes Matheson: "Joseph Heller would be proud."
Baseball economics book author and Atlanta area resident J.C. Bradbury doesn't like the deal either (and says he voted against Lee), but grades it on a curve of awfulness. "The Cobb Braves stadium probably wouldn't make my top-10 list of bad deals," he says—or even rank as the worst deal in the Atlanta area, given that nearby Gwinnett County spent $64 million on a new stadium for the Braves' Triple-A team, sending itself into a fiscal tailspin that led to the county considering whether to eliminate emergency medical services. And there's a small silver lining for Cobb County, he notes: "Unlike most projects, it will actually bring in money into the Cobb area that wasn't previously being spent here, as fans travel from other metro counties like Fulton, DeKalb, and Gwinnett for Braves games"—almost certainly not enough to offset the county's $350 million in costs, but at least it's something.
His conclusion: "Commissioner Lee likes to refer to this deal as a home run, I say it's more like a sacrifice bunt."
But if the Braves deal isn't quite singularly atrocious when measured against the low bar set by prior stadium deals, the Atlanta area as a whole is absolutely in the running for the spendiest, most facepalm-y sports stadium subsidies overall. After all, in addition to the Cobb fiasco, there's the deal Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed cut for the NFL's Falcons to move out of the 25-year-old Georgia Dome and into a new domed venue, which Reed insisted would cost the city $200 million—but which Falcons owner Arthur Blank recently admitted would, when decades of future operating subsidies are included, amount to almost $700 million worth of public largesse. And then there's the $150 million Reed offered to the owners of the NBA's Hawks to rehab their arena, because those poor guys are being forced to put up with an arena that's 17 whole years old.
Taken together, that's a triple threat that could push Atlanta out in front of such legendary subsidy towns as Glendale (not just the Coyotes, but publicly funded stadiums for the Arizona Cardinals and for spring-training baseball) and Indianapolis (only the NFL's Colts and NBA's Pacers, but the former was the priciest NFL stadium subsidy ever and the latter has by now cost the city twice as much as the arena itself cost to build) to claim the crown. All we need is a motto. So here's a suggestion. Atlanta: Last in war, last in the National League, but No. 1 in the hearts of stadium-grubbing owners. It has a nice ring to it.
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