Team owners starting to demand new stadiums sooner

In its short, 20-year life, Atlanta’s Turner Field played host to one of the highest attended playoff games of all time when more than 54,000 fans crowded in to watch the Atlanta Braves play the Chicago Cubs in 2003.

Eight years later, it hosted the tenth longest Major League Baseball game in the last 100 years, a six-hour and 39-minute marathon against the Pittsburgh Pirates, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

The stadium, originally built for the 1996 Olympics but converted into a baseball park in 1997, is younger than 14 of Major League Baseball’s 30 stadiums.

But it is headed for an early grave. When the last out is made against the Detroit Tigers on Oct. 2, the Braves will say goodbye to their stadium as they move into a new home in Cobb County.

It is part of a trend of teams moving on from their homes to newer and shinier ones far sooner than they used to. It’s a trend the Arizona Diamondbacks appear ready to join themselves as they posture with Maricopa County and threaten to move from Chase Field unless improvements are made.

In a day and age where Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones spent well over $1 billion on AT&T Stadium, team owners feel the need to stay ahead of the game.

“What it really comes down to is, ‘We want an excuse to demand more things because the other guys have it’,” said Neil deMause, author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit. “It really kind of does come down to, ‘Mom, you let Billy have one, I should get one, too.’”

Though owners would lead some to believe their stadiums are outdated, and that fans need and deserve something better, others disagree.

“There are plenty of baseball fans who feel that the nicest stadiums to go see a ballgame in are the ones without all the state-of-the-art amenities, so it really depends on who you ask,” said deMause.

The term “state-of-the-art” is a major sticking point for the Diamondbacks, who believe they are entitled to upgrades paid for by the county.

Mo Stein, Phoenix office director of HKS Architects, who designed the Diamondbacks spring training facility, Salt River Fields, said professional stadiums are planned with the thought of “consistent upgrades and repairs’’ over time.

“The entertainment experience and fan interaction with the players and game remind us that these facility opportunities (and expectations) are constantly changing,’’ he said.

Those plans are made with the idea that the funding will be available for needed repairs.

“Repairs are based on good practice and the ability to have funds set aside to maintain these complex structures,” Stein said.

Maury Brown, who reports on the business of baseball for Forbesl, said a study made by a third party on the condition of Chase Field showed the stadium is in “excellent” condition.

“The Diamondbacks are of the belief that, sure, it’s great right now, but if the county can’t keep up their end of the bargain that it can quickly shift out of that state,” Brown said.

Owners say they want to keep their facility up-to-date for their teams but also for other professional sporting events, major concerts or other non-sporting events.

“Although I think anyone who is trying to build a new stadium based on the idea that it’s going to be drawing a whole lot of concerts should probably be checking Paul McCartney’s birth certificate,” deMause said. “There are a very limited number of stadium tours.”

The question then becomes why the Braves, and potentially the Diamondbacks, would move out of their homes rather than make needed renovations or additions as technology advances. The answer, unsurprisingly, is money.

Brown said it would be more financially beneficial for the Diamondbacks to move to a new stadium – particularly if a local Native American tribe donated the land and agreed to a naming rights deal if they infuse a majority of money into the project.

Historically, team owners have generally looked to others to fund the construction of new venues or improvements to existing ones, often trying to force local government’s hand into footing the bill while holding the threat of a move to another locale willing to pay for a new stadium over their heads.

“It seems more than reasonable in my mind that in a soon-to-be $10 billion industry such as Major League Baseball, that there should be a way that the owners have a way to fund this stuff on their own,” Brown said.

The cases of the Diamondbacks and Braves are not the first examples of these situations. The NBA’s Orlando Magic looked to move from its home to a new arena 15 years ago, just 12 years into the life of Amway Arena.

During that process, deMause spoke with an economist at the University of Michigan about his feelings of the shelf life of a sports arena. His response, only slightly sarcastically, was he didn’t see a problem with owners looking for a new arena every year.

“I never thought we were going to be at a point where multiple teams would be asking for stadiums before they’d even hit the 20-year mark,” deMause said. “So could it be five? I think that’s insane. But at one time I thought 18 was insane.”

What it comes down to is how far a team is willing to push the city or county that runs the stadium it resides in. Before that, team owners rarely thought of demanding renovations or a brand new stadium so early for fear of looking not just greedy, but frivolous.

“In the 1960s or ‘70s, if you had been going to a county, or a state or a city and saying, ‘We want a new stadium because our old one is 18-years-old,’ you would be laughed out of the room,” deMause said. “The difference is now you don’t get laughed out of the room.”

New stadiums, especially those that house teams who have struggled recently like the Braves, can be used to reignite passion in the fanbase.

“They could build a new stadium and you get what you call a ‘honeymoon’ effect,” Brown said. “Fans will come out to a new ballpark just to come out to a new ballpark until the new shininess wears off.”