W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland
Okay, I am done being facetious (for now). On the surface, this appears like an easy thrift-store transaction — a product has fallen out of favor, but would be cherished by a lesser-off new user. If the Rays could concede what most baseball minds speculate, this would be the best-case scenario for a turn-key relocation. One man's trash is another man's treasure, right?
Would you rather spend $500 million on a new stadium on the Gulf Coast of Florida, or move into the discarded digs of the Atlanta Braves for $1? Now I know there are various hiccups, obstacles, legal implications, and these dollar amounts are exaggerated for effect, but for the sake of a conversation, let's hypothesize a markdown price that would favorably make the Atlanta Rays a reality.
I was shocked when the Braves publicized their intentions to move to a new ballpark in four short years. As the headline crawled across my TV screen, my initial thought was strangely not about Atlanta at all. My focus was miles away in Oakland and Tampa Bay.
"How wasteful!" "What a middle finger to the Rays and A's!" "Talk about First-World Problems; a ballpark that is 16 years-old isn't good enough for the Braves!"
Even as an architect, I had nothing to really say regarding the prospects of a fancy new ballpark in the majors. Instead, I was distracted by my anger, aimed at the audacity of the Braves ownership.
But the more I read, the more I understood the deeper grievances of the Braves. Clearly, something is going wrong in the city of Atlanta. In recent years, the disconnect between on-field success and the thousands of empty seats has been striking.
While in Turner Field, the team has won 10 NL East Division titles, including postseason appearances in each of the last two seasons. Despite this, the Braves were inexplicably 13th in MLB attendance last year. The stadium rates even lower in credible popularity contests; Turner Field came in at 20th and 21st in two recent MLB fan votes (based on value, aesthetics, and fan experience).
"Boohoo" says most of Major League Baseball, especially in places like Cleveland. But for a successful franchise with the money to spend, I could hardly fault the Braves for exploring corrective measures. Their goal is to get attendance figures and the fan's perception both in the top-5 league-wide. It is where they envisioned their franchise was headed after mid-90s success. Monday's announcement of a new stadium is an admission that Turner Field could never achieve that goal; actually setting the team's growth back a decade. In fact, the more history I uncovered, the more I applaud the Braves for not trying to get out sooner.
Just another case of "white flight" to some, I personally think the Braves are using advanced predictive analytics — unseen in the sports world — to maximize their revenue opportunities. In the past ten years, the Braves got caught in a game they never wanted to play: leapfrog. Modern doormats like the Twins, Mets, Marlins, and Padres used amenities, and not victories, to provide a better fan experience than the Braves. The world passed them by, as they were stuck in a ballpark without character.
The Rays could have helped them understand that winning baseball in a stale ballpark is not inversely related to losing baseball in a cutting-edge venue. Even winners need beauty, while the breathtaking fields and unforgettable ballpark menus draw fans — regardless of the standings. In this, the Braves and Rays are oddly cut from the same cloth. Neither current ownership group had a true say in the identity that was portrayed in their architecture. They play in whatever the city was willing to give them; generous gestures for the creation of baseball-only facilities, but certainly not Target Field and Petco Park.
Like my mother always said, "never buy a woman shoes... and never build a ballpark for a professional sports franchise." In both cases, supply them with a large portion of the funds and let them pick out what they want. Thanks to poorly-designed home fields and a ton of envy, the fans and front offices in Tampa Bay and Atlanta long to go shopping. Each have met with Populous — the unrivaled firm that has 18 of the 30 MLB stadiums in their portfolio — and drafted up that distinct, regionally-responsive ballpark they missed out on decades ago. The difference: the Braves are finally exiting the tunnel of a bad lease, while the Rays sold their soul away to St. Pete.
This time around, the Braves are listening to the data instead of plopping the stadium in the first cost-effective lot that comes available. This is something the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) could have looked into back in 1990.
What about Turner Field handcuffed the Braves so badly?
In 1996, the world was caught up in the pageantry of the Atlanta-hosted XXVI (and Centennial) Olympiad. When the Games left town, the Braves were like a kid opening an undesirable Christmas gift. "Thanks, ACOG, this is what we always wanted!"
The track & field stadium was a step up from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but never a perfect fit. Renovating it for baseball, after its three-week Olympic use, seemed like a lofty campaign promise; included in Atlanta's proposal only to impress the IOC's selection committee.
In 1990, with sustainable architecture becoming a decisive factor, the finalists had to show forethought for their primary buildings' lifespans. The ACOG had a favorable plan: instead of demolishing their proposed stadium, they would re-purpose and gift it to the Braves. But the retrofitting of Turner Field looked like someone called Atlanta on its promise. Construction scrambled to assemble the grandiose Optimus Prime; ambition that made more sense on paper.
Over the years, I have seen several games in "The Ted" and it has been average from the beginning. This is coming from a guy that grew up with Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and Three Rivers in Pittsburgh. Today, Turner Field feels like the awkward teenage offspring of those late multi-sport cookie-cutters.
It is a baseball stadium in the sense that the sport takes place in front of you. The sight lines, oddly-shaped concourses, and the bland symmetry of its outfield have left Braves fans wanting more. It is not embedded in Atlanta's downtown and does little to visually stimulate. Not surprisingly, it feels like half an Olympic Stadium.
For some strange reason, the city never took a cent from any of its citizens. If the Braves played one more year (1997) in their old building, and/or raised a modest public fund, Monday's headline would have been delayed at least twenty years.
To make matters worse, Turner Field is now showing the signs of rushed de(re)construction. Take notes, IOC. This is what you get when you design a nine-figure stadium that serves its primary purpose for one measly month. My argument against the validity of binge-spending for the Olympic Games is a topic for another day.
Liberty Media, the group that now owns the Braves, has said that there is a $150-$250 million cost associated with face-lifts and a better fan experience. For that price tag, any team could move to the ideal location and build something better-suited. And that is exactly what the Braves are doing. See, ACOG, you should have just gone with a gift card. The sweater you thought the Braves would love is now on the $2 rack at Goodwill.
Enter the "beggars can't be choosers" portion of the argument.
Say Turner Field needs $200 million to be a top-10 field in Major League Baseball? The Tampa Bay Rays could cut that capital improvement budget down to a mere $50 million and still offer their fan base a ballpark experience lightyears ahead of their current offerings. At this point, they would kill to have a stadium that is in the top-20.
Why should the Tampa Bay Rays front office try to enact tax hikes and public support for a new ballpark in a place that — the attendance figures show — is apathetic to the local team? Even during periods of sustained on-field success, Tropicana Field drew an average of 18,645 fans in each home game last season.
Thanks to its capacity, the stadium hosted 40,947 fans in the 2008 World Series, fewer than four teams averaged in the 2013 regular season (two of whom did not make the playoffs).
I have attended games at Legends Field (both Minor League and Spring Training) that have drawn more interest and excitement than midseason Major League Baseball games across town. But it is not the Rays fault. The franchise was set up to fail from the get-go. It is a Yankee town and always will be. Retirees flock to Tampa to see their pinstripes from February to April.
These people have been fans of teams like the Yankees, Phillies, and Red Sox for twice as long as the Tampa Bay Rays have existed. That is a tough row to hoe. Their best bet is with current school-aged baseball players, free of allegiances.
Thanks to modern innovations in MLB coverage, these fans could live just about anywhere and still follow the Rays. If the franchise moves to a different city, it would hardly kill off the previous generation of fans. The Atlanta Rays would have a more storied history in Georgia than Florida in no time. This storyline has numerous chapters in the history of professional baseball, including the Braves moving from Milwaukee.
So, for a speculative $50 million, the Rays could pioneer a new way to procure a stadium: the Craigslist route. If the Braves could halt the demolition, there is no better way for the franchise to upgrade its dismal ballpark situation. The Florida Suncoast Dome cost $200 million (in 1990 dollars) and has done nothing but underwhelm baseball enthusiasts. They obviously want out, while staying the Tampa Bay Rays.
I am staunchly against the relocation of pro sports franchises. But this is a glaring exception; an offer (not that the Braves have made one) that no one could refuse. This is not asking the Rays to travel to the West Coast and alienate its fan base. The relocation is a state away, in the same time zone, in the same climate, in a region where all professional franchises have young roots. The term "second-generation Rays fan" hardly exists yet.
It is also the righting of two wrongs: Atlanta building a disposable stadium that they marketed as a long-term baseball solution, and Major League Baseball granting an expansion team to an unsupported market.
Throw in some brownie points — in the court of public opinion, for saving an American landmark — and the Rays could be welcomed with open arms. Have the Braves sell that thing they were going to destroy for a $1 and suddenly it is a win-win.
If the ballpark isn't working for the Braves, why would it for the Rays?
To answer this, we must first understand why Braves ownership wants to move to Cobb County, Georgia. Their Turner Field lease is up in 2016, granting them flexibility to move anywhere in the Atlanta metropolitan area.
According to reports, the city's transportation system never adequately serviced Turner Field. The stadium is situated on a constantly log-jammed I-75/I-85 superhighway. The city's population, like most American urban centers, has sprawled further into the suburbs. Even those that do wade their way through airport traffic cannot be guaranteed sufficient parking.
None of these complaints could deter a fledgling team like the Tampa Bay Rays. I have a feeling their management would long for those to be the only headaches. On a beautiful August night in St. Pete, with a first-place team, the Rays might draw 20,000 fans for ESPN's spotlight game of the week. Of those fans, 25% are Florida transplants, rooting for the visiting team. 100% of the fans cannot enjoy the night sky.
If you put the Rays in Atlanta, you would never hear "we only had 30,000 fans tonight!" Rays owner, Stuart Sternberg, would be screaming "we had 30,000 fans tonight!" If Turner Field comes cheap on the secondary market, the Rays could take half the money they are willing to spend on a new ballpark, in Tampa, and put it towards supplementary infrastructure enhancements in Atlanta. All the superfluous things that are plaguing Turner Field — the things a "wealthy" team like the Braves never got to — could ironically be fixed by a team ranked dead last in Forbes' MLB team values.
Did I mention the history involved in Turner Stadium? The Summer Olympic Games have been hosted by the United States only four times (St. Louis, Los Angeles twice, and Atlanta). Ask a Chicago politician where their city is on that list and you will know how big of a deal it is.
Although highly reconfigured, the Rays would join USC football as the only "major" sports team that plays in a U.S. Olympic Stadium. There is brand equity attached with that venue; the site of Muhammad Ali's incredible Opening Ceremony torch lighting and Michael Johnson's record 200 meter dash.
In the next months and years, there will be groups in Atlanta that step forward — ready to support anyone who could save Turner Field. Community social responsibility (CSR) could be the least important factor for the ownership of the Rays, but that is not how it would read in the local papers. A strictly lucrative business decision could be spun as an environmental or historical preservation initiative.
This situation is the very definition a feasibility disparity in major sports. If the Braves want to move on, they have every right and the economic means to do so. Good for them. But demolishing a historical site, a very serviceable stadium, is short-sighted and wasteful. It is in the perfect price range for other owners.
What about their loyal fans in St. Petersburg?
Rays ownership recently announced that only about 300 season ticket holders have permanent St. Petersburg addresses. The stadium is in the wrong part of town, but not from the typical socio-economic standpoint. St. Pete is plenty affluent, plenty beautiful, and plenty populated to support the Rays. Without getting too technical, the empty seats do all the talking. The management group that brought expansion baseball to the region missed the boat on where their fans call home.
This is exactly what the Braves just realized. The people buying their tickets are coming from Cobb County, not Fulton. What are they doing about it? They are letting the lease run out, after the sun sets on their 2016 season. The Braves intend to remove the shackles that tethered them to a Turner Field that never really suited their needs. Like LeBron James, they have earned this right to leave and chase the dollar (the richer, better-connected neck of the woods).
The Rays would love to have the same community flexibility; the opportunity to make a comparable "Decision" as LeBron and the Braves. They would move across the Bay, to their fan nucleus — if you could call it that. Trouble is, St. Petersburg mayor, Bill Foster, has insisted that the franchise honor its contractual commitment to stay in his city until 2027.
By that time, Turner Field will be a distant memory and this whole proposal will be moot. It will take contract opt-out clause, an early St. Pete exit strategy. Rumors have swirled that one could come to fruition in the next few years. If this is the case, the Rays ownership should thoroughly evaluate its long-last free agent status.
Whenever the Rays do finally get out from underneath their dreadful Tropicana burden, they should test the market. The United States is full of second-tier professional sports cities that would love to build them a new stadium. Right now, the belief is that the team will forego being wooed. If a quick move to Tampa is all they consider, I feel it is grossly short-sighted. They are making a blind assumption that Tampa is their version of Atlanta's northwest suburbs; that anything better than the sterile Tropicana Field will immediately draw 40,000 people.
Monday's announcement by the Braves serves as a cautionary tale for a new generation of ballpark developers. If the Rays do not run the right analytics, they could be bound, for forty (plus) years, to a lease in their Tampa equivalent of Turner Field. In no way would it utilize their leverage or help to cultivate a better MLB market.
This Bay Area is not Oakland-San Francisco, which has two teams. I do not feel either side of this Spring Training, Minor League, and retired transplant haven can sustain professional baseball. Jumping from one side of an disinterested town to the other would get them shiny new digs and not much more. We see how that has worked well for the Marlins.
If they do entertain options, where would a cash-strapped franchise go to find greener pastures? If New Orleans does not come calling, Stu Sternberg could save some serious money with a move-in-ready place up I-75.
Could Atlanta support two teams?
I say yes. And I say this because Atlanta is a sports oasis. The geographical market share of MLB allegiances is dominated by the Braves in the South. With Houston now in the American League, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Washington, and Miami are the team's four NL neighbors. This island effect would work in the Rays favor even more; Baltimore is the only AL franchise within 750 miles of Atlanta. The Rays and Braves would hardly step on each other's toes. The two stadiums would be roughly 15 miles apart, nearly twice as far as Yankee Stadium (Bronx) is to Citi Field (Queens).
In the standings, the two teams would continue to play in opposing leagues. This model has existed in professional baseball for over 120 years (begun in the boroughs of New York in 1890). These cities unite against anyone that talks trash about their town, but is lovingly cantankerous when their two teams are pitted against one another. This occurs so rarely that fans could have vested interest in both.
Furthermore, the metropolitan statistical area of Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, Georgia ranks ninth in the nation. After losing the NHL's Thrashers to Winnipeg, the city of Atlanta became the largest in the United States to not have four franchises in the major sports scene. It is as prominent as St. Louis, Boston, and Philadelphia were when they each had two MLB teams.
There is a comfort in that city where people either answer "Braves" or "I don't like baseball" when asked about their favorite ballclub. This is not all that unlike St. Louis. With this move, Georgians would have an option to be different than their sibling or spouse or neighbor. It takes the building of a fence to get people off of it.
The Rays would have the appeal of being the team that actually represents the city, not the Atlanta suburbs. That is a distinct marketing advantage, given cities that also have two teams are very territorial in their nicknames (South Siders, Bronx Bombers, etc.). The Braves have done their homework in tracking where their ticket-buying fans live. If they are correct, and the northern portion of Atlanta comes out in droves, then the south side residents will be the ones who balk at the commute. The neighborhoods around Turner Field will not be able to afford the sticker shock associated with a new stadium's seat price and a 15-mile drive. This would give the Rays a local pool of fans, priced out of the market by their own hometown team. They could stay the course with cheaper prices and draw 10,000 fans right away.
My hunch is that Atlanta citizens would sure appreciate seeing a game, twenty years from now, in a renamed Turner Field — even if it is not their beloved Braves' home field. If it means that they have to put up with another team encroaching on their turf, so be it. They can be that cross-town annoyance that no one thinks about until an interleague match-up comes around. I feel they would rather keep the memories of that stadium alive.
With harmony and balance in a 30-team MLB, why would franchise relocation be a good thing?
Well, let's look at recent contentious moves across the sports landscape. Certain franchise relocation plans have startled, baffled, and angered the local fans. Others were an inevitable necessity for survival. I'll do my best to place a potential move from Tampa Bay to Atlanta on this scale of detriment.
There are several tangible factors that go into this decision:
The year, since this century has been unbelievably stable in its expansion and relocation compared to the last half of the 20th century.
The team, for the winning (or losing) tradition of each relocated team plays a huge part in how the fans react.
The miles, because the distance is everything; if a team moves far enough away, the wounds can heal.
If a team moves just across the stateline, a franchise might be able to keep a regional fan base in tact. Thus, the number of states (or provinces) that the team moved away has some merit. I agree that the significance of this stat is skewed, since states come in all shapes and sizes. But state pride has no size; certain borders add to the animosity of a franchise changing hands.
Even more important is the quantity of championships the franchise logged before they were uprooted. The ripping off of the band-aid hurts fans more if banners were raised in the team's old hometown.
Lastly, the tenure of the team in its previous city matters. Uprooting a franchise is easier when the roots never fully grabbed a hold.
In 2004, the Expos moved 590 miles to Washington, D.C. In doing so, they crossed over four states and an international border. The franchise never won the World Series in its 35 years in Montreal.
Following that same format (year, team, miles, states, titles, tenure):
1953, Braves, 980 miles, 6 states away, 1 title, 83 years in Boston
1955, Athletics, 1100 miles, 5 states away, 5 titles, 53 years in Philadelphia
1958, Giants, 2700 miles, 11 states away, 5 titles, 74 years in New York
1958, Dodgers, 2600 miles, 11 states away, 1 title, 73 years in Brooklyn
1961, Senators, 1050 miles, 6 states away, 1 title, 59 years in Washington
1983, Colts, 580 miles, 3 states away, 4 titles, 30 years in Baltimore
1993, North Stars, 930 miles, 4 states away, 0 titles, 26 years in Minnesota
1994, Whalers, 600 miles, 6 states away, 0 titles, 15 years in Hartford
1994, Rams, 1800 miles, 5 states away, 1 title, 48 years in Los Angeles
1995, Browns, 370 miles, 2 states away, 4 titles, 49 years in Cleveland
2008, SuperSonics, 2000 miles, 7 states away, 1 title, 41 years in Seattle
For the 2017 Rays, the distance is only 480 miles, one state away, no championships, after spending 19 seasons in St. Petersburg. The move would be the second-shortest (miles), the fewest states away, and the second-shortest lineage of any on this list. This puts Tampa Bay to Atlanta very low on the detriment meter; it is conceivable that local fans could see a team leave town and understand it was truly for the best. At the very least, they would be more consolable than Browns fans.
From the department of "if you love something, let it go", the Rays could have a boost in attendance from a new city. All these decisions ultimately come down to what is best for the business and not what is best for the fans. The Atlanta Rays would be a rarity in the sense of potentially being better for both.
The turnstile tally shows a substantial portion of their current fans prefer the living room or bar to the seats in Tropicana. Would their allegiance be drastically affected? I say no, not when the viewing experience would only get better — grass field instead of artificial everything.
Would the result benefit the Rays and/or the league?
Since "exorcising" the Tampa Bay Devil Rays name in 2007, the franchise has really turned a corner in the competitive American League East. After ten straight years of losing 91+ games, the Rays have now logged six consecutive seasons with a winning percentage over .518.
This move would be the next evolution of credibility for an underdog team with national appeal. They are slowly gaining traction among baseball purists as the surprising Moneyball A's of the Southeast. Joe Maddon is lovable and his team likely has more fans outside of Florida than it does within.
The team has a decent fan base built up in the Carolinas; deliberately or inadvertently wearing a hue very similar to Carolina blue more and more each year. North Carolina holds its AAA affiliate, the infamous Durham Bulls.
Moving to Atlanta shrinks that road trip time and ups the reward at the end of that journey — outdoor baseball.
Chalk it up to an era of new ballpark construction, but the odds suggest there is something to World Series success and a new home field. Five of the last eight World Champions won a title in the first ten years of their stadium's existence; two (St. Louis and New York) won a championship in the year one of a new building.
The team would need a name change if it relocated to Montreal, but not Atlanta. From coast-to-coast, the city's colloquial nickname is Hotlanta. Hot = Atlanta sun = Atlanta Rays. No brainer, right? It's not like we're moving the Jazz to Utah and keeping the name.
Major League Baseball would be one step closer to having each franchise in a new (or gently-used) baseball-only, outdoor (or retractable-roof) facility. Only Oakland would need a new place to call home, and only Toronto would need natural grass. Everyone else is locked into something that barely requires a fresh coat of paint for another 20 years. What an asset for the league's bottom line: stability.
The move would put two teams in the same city in four different regions of the country: Midwest (Cubs, White Sox), West (Dodgers, Angels), Northeast (Mets, Yankees), and Southeast (Braves, Rays). It would not affect the division layouts or the current schedule format. The movement actually helps Miami, too. It gives MLB fans in the state of Florida one team to rally around. Let that crazy cathedral/fun house in South Beach be the shining beacon for all of Florida baseball.
Is there an opportunity for a compromise?
This is not a unique leverage situation. In the late 1980s, Tropicana Field was commissioned to lure a professional team down to the Sunshine State. The White Sox were enticed enough to threaten the city of Chicago into building a new Comiskey Park. If Turner Field can get on the table as a viable option, it might be enough to get what the people in Tampa Bay want. Without a place to go, the leverage for Floridians is non-existent. Ironically, it could be a defunct stadium that does to Tampa's team what the city attempted decades before.
It sounds as surreal as an episode of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? — with my suggestion of a landmark changing hands — but it is plausible. It starts with Braves ownership loosening his "if we don't use it, no one can have it" stance. Postpone the demolition indefinitely. Give a team like the Rays time to satisfy their St. Pete lease and still have that standing as an option. Tigers Stadium stood for nearly ten years before it was razed.
Let's say certain political factors all the Rays to get out of their lease by the end of 2022, five years early. Turner Field would be vacant for a mere six years, and only 25 years old. That is nothing in stadium years. Even in total disrepair it would be a sound investment, with a long life let to live. That is why Liberty Media needs to stall the demolition.
If the stadium formerly known as Turner Field is somehow still standing, the Rays would be ideal suitors. Let's say their franchise has $300 million to spend on a new ballpark (half from the public and half from the private sector). Starting from scratch would develop them a nice place on the waterfront, either in St. Petersburg or Tampa. But would it truly address their attendance issues? My guess is that the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will always feel like a trip to Florida is a home series.
Building the Georgia fan base from scratch would be hard, but building the stadium would be easy. And since Major League Baseball is a business, the latter is a bigger proponent for the move. Stadiums are inherently solidly constructed. Without doing advanced analysis on Turner Field, I have to speculate that the same $300 million the Rays hypothetically have to spend would go further in Atlanta. Even if the venue is stripped down to the core, time and money would be saved — move-in ready in one offseason.
If the Rays someday have the option of new or used, used would sure make the green-washed, eco-friendly people happier. The embedded energy in that discarded Atlanta field would all go up in smoke. Anybody that remembers the greatness of the 1996 Olympic Games would be happy to see a piece of history saved. The Atlanta sports scene would be satisfied by becoming a bigger baseball town; a rivalry of recent playoff teams injected into their city. For all these reasons, in a seemingly counter-intuitive way, I think the refurbished route would even make true Rays fans happier, too.
I am a college baseball coach, I have a master of architecture degree, and I have a master of business administration degree, so I get why this pops into my head. But I cannot be the only person thinking about this. People see the value of buying a 100 year-old house, but they cannot see that flipping a commodity like a 25 year-old Turner Field would not yield an economical incentive? It is like baking cookies: sure, building from scratch produces better taste, but when you find that ready-bake rolls are available at half the time and expense, you are foolish to say no.
In this case, with how bad of a stadium Tropicana Field is, the metaphor can be taken a step further. The Tampa Bay Rays burnt their first batch and have never really tasted a good cookie, so no one would hardly notice that this iteration was store-bought. Who cares if it was built by the hands of another? The fans would be appreciative of the upgrade, even if a cross-state relocation is required.