“It’s just a game,” some have said. But anyone with even a modicum of common sense and any vestige of wisdom knows that professional sports have never been “just a game.”
When you hear the oft-regurgitated phrase, “it’s just a game,” it comes from individuals who have little to no discernment as to the vast economic, political and cultural impact that professional franchises and collegiate sports programs have on a community, a region and a state. The construction of the new Georgia Dome, which comes with a price tag north of a billion dollars — including tens of millions in taxpayer dollars — but, will employ thousands of Atlantans, is a prime example of the economic and social impact sports teams and their accompanying facilities have on a community. And that’s just for the Atlanta Falcons football team.
The announcement that the Atlanta Braves baseball team would be moving from its longtime home at Turner Field, just south of downtown Atlanta sent seismic quakes reverberating throughout the political, financial and cultural infrastructure in the city and the state — not to mention the Summerhill community that housed the franchise and withstood decades of crowd inconveniences, detours and clogged roadways.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the Summerhill neighborhood that surrounds Turner Field are still reeling from the aftershocks of the announcement nearly one year after it was made. Now that they’ve settled into the realization that the Braves will pack up the franchise and move to suburban Cobb County that straddles the outer northwestern edge of the city, man have to wonder what’s next.
In an almost defiant stance taken during a press conference at Atlanta City Hall this past week, Reed assured the city that the Summerhill neighborhood surrounding Turner Field will be okay with the absence of the Braves.
“We’re not walking around here moping. I hate losing. But there are times when other people make plays,” he said, later adding: “We’re not losing anything. The Braves are still in the region, so I don’t feel like this is a loss.”
In the months since the Braves brain trust announced the team’s imminent move in November 2013, the mayor has worked to secure a future for the land south of downtown. Plans include a proposed $300 million development by Georgia State University, which is devouring downtown real estate square inch by square inch. GSU officials are negotiating to build a university sports complex and mixed-use development.
Reed leveraged the platform of the press conference on Tuesday, Sept. 16 to also allay fears of the Hawks leaving town, and he rightly seized the opportunity surrounding the controversy to pressure the Braves to make their plans known about exactly when they are moving out.
Reed said he called the press conference — the same day as the Braves groundbreaking — because he was traveling in China last week during much of the Hawks’ controversy. The inner dysfunction of the Hawks franchise made national headlines in the past week and a half, after a part-owner’s racially-charged email and a separate executive’s remarks were made public.
It was also revealed during the same week that general manager Danny Ferry also uttered inflammatory words about prized free agent Loul Deng by referring to his personality quirks as “he has a little African in him,” to imply that Deng is underhanded and slick.
Ferry has since asked for, and been granted, an indefinite leave of absence from the team and no one — pundits and fans alike — expect Ferry to ever return to the team.
City spokeswoman Anne Torres confirmed that the city decided on Tuesday morning to hold the press conference, but said suggestions the office was attempting to distract from the Braves’ celebration were “ridiculous.”
Reed did offer a statement about his commitment and the franchise’s move, explaining that Cobb County officials are offering more than double what the city of Atlanta would be able invest with tax dollars for requested renovations to the stadium.
“The Atlanta Braves are one of the best baseball teams in America, and I wish them well. We have been working very hard with the Braves for a long time, and at the end of the day, there was simply no way the team was going to stay in downtown Atlanta without city taxpayers spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make that happen. It is my understanding that our neighbor, Cobb County, made a strong offer of of $450M in public support to the Braves and we are simply unwilling to match that with taxpayer dollars.
“Given the needs facing our city and the impact of Turner Field stadium on surrounding neighborhoods, that was something I, and many others were unwilling to do. We have been planning for the possibility of this announcement and have already spoken to multiple organizations who are interested in redeveloping the entire Turner Field corridor.
“Over the next three years, we will be working with our prospective partners to bring residential and business development that is worthy of our city and strengthens our downtown. Those conversations will continue and I am excited about how we use the land that is now Turner Field, to be a tremendous asset for our residents, our city, and our region for years to come.”
Reed said the city has been planning a replacement for the stadium for months, and he promises a major announcement in the next few months that he vows will validate his decision.
So what happened to the professional relationship between the Braves and City Hall? Apparently, the price tag for Turner Field upgrades were far too high. Reed said the Braves asked for between $150 million and $250 million for infrastructure improvements for the team to remain downtown. He said that would have left the city “absolutely cash-strapped” and unable to chip away at a nearly $1 billion infrastructure backlog.
Financial and sports pundits have speculated that while Reed busied himself negotiating the exorbitant terms for a new Georgia Dome for the Atlanta Falcons football franchise, he didn’t appropriate that same level of commitment to the Braves, who took umbrage at the perceived slight. Some, on the other hand, believed that the Braves knew they had the mayor in a corner and tried to throw its considerable weight at him.
Reed insists it was simply about the city’s checkbook and it’s ability to provide necessary upgrades around the city.
“Atlanta is not that liberal with our spending,” he said. “I’ve been talking about roads, bridges and infrastructure the entire time I’ve been in office,” he said. “We have a $922 million infrastructure backlog that has to be dealt with. We were not taking this lightly.”
Now that it’s clear that the Braves are leaving, Reed said “one of the largest developments for middle-class people that the city has ever had” will go up at the site of Turner Field.
Reed has been particularly interested in a $300 million redevelopment plan submitted by Georgia State. Officials at GSU have mentioned interest in building a 30,000-seat football, soccer and track stadium at Turner Field, as well as a new baseball park and academic buildings.