The Atlanta Braves held their official opening day for their new stadium on Friday, two weeks after holding their unofficial opening day, and all was mostly uneventful, unless you count the massive traffic tieup from a foam tomahawk spill two days earlier.
While most of the media coverage focused on the new stadium’s food options and other amenities (1,300 televisions! blackened catfish po’ boy tacos! beer aged from bat shavings!), ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle took a harder look at what makes the new Cobb County stadium different. And, as you might imagine, much of it has to do with being in Cobb County, far from the city center:
The last time I saw so many people slow-walking on bridges over an Atlanta highway it was on “The Walking Dead.”
They spilled in from everywhere Friday, on concrete bridges slung over highways they had successfully traversed to get to SunTrust Park. They crowded in a wide line, on concrete suspensions, above a morass of multilaned freeways. They found their way into the New Urbanist neighborhood. Then they crowded into the brand-new stadium for the first regular-season game.
Yes, the bridge to nowhere opened just in time for Friday’s game, though I haven’t been able to find any photos of what it actually looked like with people on it. (Here it is with no people on it.) But the more interesting aspect of the stadium, and of Doolittle’s article, is that New Urbanist neighborhood:
Any reviews of the new park wouldn’t be complete without mentioning The Battery, a mixed-used development that combines a yet-to-open hotel that looms over center field, bars, restaurants, office buildings and apartments, of which some are still vacant.
The Battery’s hotel will have high-dollar rooms on its stadium side, where guests can chill on a balcony and take in the ballgame. Really, The Battery is what marks this particular stadium project as distinct as any that came before it, and the success of it will likely determine the success of the entire endeavor…
It’s more than a park. It’s an experiment, one where a sports franchise attempts to create a bubble. And once a fan enters it, there is no reason for him or her to spend money outside of it. And if it works, the ramifications will be noticed by baseball owners from coast to coast. If it works, it could change a lot of things. But we won’t know if it works for a long time.
Creating a bubble in which sports fans spend all their money isn’t new, of course — it’s the same reason the Baltimore Orioles have the Eutaw Street shopping strip inside the Camden Yards gates, and the Boston Red Sox insisted on the right to close off Yawkey Way on game days, and the New York Yankees built their “five-star hotel with a ballfield in the middle.” But no one has gone as far as the Braves in building an entire faux neighborhood around their new stadium, hoping that fans will want to spend enough money there before and after games that they can build a booming shopping district — one where the team owners control all the revenue.
Color me skeptical, at least for now: “Ballpark villages” haven’t tended to be huge successes, in part because ballparks are closed most of the year, making running a restaurant based on ballpark clientele a tricky matter; and in part because when you’re already sitting through a three-hour ballgame that you have to fight your way through Atlanta traffic to get to, going out for dinner before or after the game isn’t always the first thing on your mind. If the Braves owners do beat the odds, though, it’s potentially a game changer for the stadium business, in that team owners will no longer be satisfied merely with a new stadium jammed with bells and whistles and steakhouses, but will want to get to run their own pretend urban neighborhood around it. That’s not something that’d necessarily be limited to suburban areas, and I really hope it’s a demand we never see becoming standard business practice — but who am I kidding, somebody’s going to ask for it regardless, because you can’t get if you don’t ask, right?