Friday roundup: Saskatoon soccer frenzy, Phoenix hotel sale to fund Suns, and more!

And more!

Cobb County’s special bus to Braves games is costing taxpayers $82 per fan

Hey, remember when Cobb County announced that it was going to be spending $1.2 million on a special bus to the new Braves stadium, but insisted that it would be a great transit option for lots of other people too? Turns out not so much, and now the county is considering eliminating the bus service:

Chairman Mike Boyce said this week that all money-saving options — including curtailing the bus service or cutting it altogether — are on the table after the Board of Commissioners rejected his proposed tax hike by a 3-2 vote last month

The circulator began operating with three routes on March 31 — the same day as the first exhibition game at SunTrust Park. Since then, more than 11,000 people have used it. A study conducted by an outside firm estimated the service would eventually draw between 80,000 and 133,000 passengers per year.

We’re only about three-quarters of the way through the baseball season right now, but even if you pro-rate those 11,000 people to a full season, that’s still going to be about $82 per person that the county is spending on busing Braves fans to the games. For that kind of money, they could just rent them all cars.

The county’s transportation director still swears that eventually more people will be riding the bus, though from the sound of it the only people who use it now are Braves fans and people who work for the team. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s article on this includes an interview with a temp-worker dishwasher at the stadium whose knee trouble makes it hard for her to walk two miles to the stadium on days the bus doesn’t run, along with an accompanying photo showing her on the bus, all alone.) And then there’s this detail from an email Cobb County got from the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority when it asked about how Cleveland’s bus circulator went:

“Unfortunately, although people ‘loved’ the circulators not many of them actually ‘rode’ the circulators,’” an authority representative wrote. “Needless to say, we are out of the circulator business.”

The obvious solution would seem to be: Tell the Braves if they want a bus system to get fans and workers to their privately run stadium that they chose to put in the middle of nowhere, they are welcome to pay for one. Hopefully that’s one of the options being placed on the table.

Stadium architects dream of holographic players, and other Friday news

Hey, know what we haven’t done in a while? A Friday news roundup. Let’s do one of those now!

Happy weekend, everybody!

Cobb County spending $14m on traffic cops because they forgot to ask Braves to pay for them

My sincere apologies for neglecting to inform you last week of this excellent article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in which reporter Dan Klepal revealed that Cobb County is going to be on the hook for $900,000 a year for traffic police around the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium. And before you say, “But isn’t free policing one of the services that government typically provides to sports teams and others alike?”, nuh-uh:

The Braves paid for traffic control during the team’s last eight seasons at Turner Field. At Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons will reimburse the Georgia World Congress Center an estimated $2.5 million a year for traffic management during football games, soccer matches and other events…

An AJC survey of 11 cities with professional sports stadiums found only two other instances where taxpayers funded all or a portion of traffic control…

“The Falcons outcome is the norm. The Braves outcome is a throwback to the 1990s” when those kinds of subsidies were more common, [Stanford economist Roger Noll] said.

This free-traffic-cops clause apparently wasn’t part of the original Braves deal with Cobb County — traffic control costs weren’t addressed at the time, along with a lot else having to do with transportation — which left the county stuck with the costs by default. (Though it would be kind of fun to think of what would happen if the county said to the Braves, “Go get your players to direct traffic, it’s clear they’re not occupied by actually playing baseball.”) If we figure that the free patrolling is worth around $14 million in present value, adding that to the $355 million in existing public costs gets us to $369 million in subsidies to move the Braves from downtown Atlanta to the suburbs, totally not because any Braves fans think all urban black people are violent criminals. But hey, who can put a price on burgerizzas?

Braves fans over shiny new stadium after just 13 home games, would like good baseball now

If there’s one sure truism in the sports stadium world, it’s that the honeymoon effect drawing fans to a new building varies depending on the quality of the product on the field: Put together a winning team and you can get something like the Cleveland Indians‘ six-year sellout streak; a losing one, and you’re more likely to be the Miami Marlins.

The Atlanta Braves have a brand-new stadium, and are in last place with an 11-19 record. Fans aren’t exactly turning out in droves:

After a couple initial sellouts, the Braves have settled into 12th in major league attendance. They were averaging a bit more than 30,000 (tickets sold), a good number considering that the team hasn’t averaged that high for a season since 2013. But not exactly the eye-popping boost you’d expect from the lure of a new ballpark.

Okay, maybe it’s just that it’s early in the season, and more fans turn up once it’s summertime? We can check that by looking at Baseball Reference’s year-over-year attendance chart, which shows how teams are doing in attendance compared to the same number of games the previous year. The numbers show that Braves attendance is up an average of 4,980 a game from 2016 at Turner Field — the third-largest jump in baseball, but still nothing to write home about. It looks like any honeymoon effect from the Braves move from downtown to suburban Cobb County will be marginal at best, at least unless the team gets good in a hurry, in which case it’s less “build it and they will come” and more “build Dansby Swanson and they will come.”

Braves’ new home seeks to add new circle of hell to the stadium business model

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?

If Braves’ new stadium is the future of baseball, we’re in for a weird ride

The Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium in Cobb County opened for its first exhibition game on Friday, and from what was shown on TV, it’s somewhat … odd. First off, for a stadium whose architect promised “intimacy” and which team owners promised would feature cantilevering of the middle and upper decks to bring fans closer to the action, holy crap is that a lot of not-especially-cantilevered decks:

You’ll notice no one is sitting in the top deck, which is probably a good move as you’d need bottled oxygen to ascend that high. (The Braves actually limited attendance to season-ticket holders and people who worked on the stadium project, so only 21,392 showed up.) Not to mention that, judging from on-field photos, fans up there may have a hard time seeing the field over their fellow fans heads, thanks to some curious decisions about the rake of the upper deck:

Then there’s — holy crap, what is that?

No, not Bartolo Colon, I’m used to seeing him on a ballfield. But what are those seats in right field, where fans appear to be sitting behind desks or flat-panel TV screens or something? According to the Braves seating chart, those are the “Chophouse Terrace” seats — because in the year 2017, it’s never a bad time to employ a play on words combining a term for a steakhouse with a reference to your team’s embarrassingly racist chant — so maybe those are just tables to help you better wolf down your $26 burgerizza? (Though actually, starting at $36 a person and coming with $15 in concessions credits, the prices on those seats aren’t too hideous, though it does seem a shame to eliminate several rows of not-bad seating so that fans don’t have to put their beers in cupholders.)

What else? There were some problems with the scoreboard and the LED outfield lights that the team promised to fix, and one New Jersey sportswriter said it was missing a “wow factor” and reminded him of Turner Field, which isn’t especially damning except that the Braves and Cobb County taxpayers just spent more than $600 million to replace Turner Field just 20 years after it opened, so “hey, this looks just like the old place” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. And the team has relented and allowed fans to bring in outside food, which is good, so long as it fits inside a one-gallon plastic baggie, which is less good. (The most sensible outside food policy to me remains the New York Mets‘, which a team rep memorably explained to me when their new stadium opened back in 2009 as “you can bring a turkey sandwich, but you can’t bring a whole turkey.”)

Oh, and the pedestrian bridge to get fans from their cars to their seats still isn’t open, but is promised to be by opening day in two weeks. Though “open” doesn’t mean “finished,” which apparently means you’ll be able to walk across it and it won’t fall down or anything, but it may still resemble a construction site.

Any Braves season ticket holders out there who actually attended this game? Very curious to hear your impressions, so please chime in in comments. (As should anyone who watched the game on TV and has thoughts.)

Braves say their spring-training subsidy demand is a trade secret, because Pitbull

Not content with the $355 million they’re getting from Cobb County taxpayers for their new regular-season stadium, the owners of the Atlanta Braves are also seeking public money to build a new $80 million spring-training complex in Sarasota, Florida. (They apparently gave up on Gary Sheffield’s insane plan for $662 million sports complex just north of St. Petersburg.) As Shadow of the Stadium reports, the Braves are hoping to put in a total of diddly-squat towards the cost, while the city, county, state (using its demented sports tax rebate program that a local legislator is trying to repeal), and a private developer split it four ways.

I’d tell you more about the funding details, but as SoS’s (and WTSP-TV’s) Noah Pransky discovered when he filed a public records request on the proposed deal, both the Braves owners and Sarasota County say they shouldn’t have to tell anyone about it because of the Pitbull Precedent:

When 10Investigates requested the public records that had been prepared to this point, county spokesperson Jason Bartolone responded that the Braves “have asserted confidentiality rights” under Florida State Statute 288.075, which aims to protect proprietary business information and trade secrets in public-private economic development deals.

FSS 288.075 is one of the same exemptions used by rapper Pitbull and public agency Visit Florida to deny 10Investigates’ 2015 public records request into the artist’s taxpayer-funded tourism contract. The secrecy and controversy surrounding the deal, later disclosed to be worth $1 million, wound up costing three of the agency’s top executives their jobs.

If, like me, you didn’t follow the Pitbull scandal at the time, it went like this: Visit Florida, the state tourism agency, hired the Cuban-American rapper to make a promotional video called “Sexy Beaches,” which if you’ve ever heard Pitbull is pretty much his entire musical wheelhouse. Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran called the result “reprehensible,” and demanded to know how much the state was paying Pitbull for his services. Pitbull and Visit Florida refused, saying their contract was a “trade secret.” Corcoran sued. Pitbull then tweeted out the details of his contract, which included $1 million in payments for this autotuned slice of hell, among other things.

That went so well that the Braves and Sarasota County have decided that their contract is a trade secret too, even if it doesn’t involve meeting sexy strangers in the lobby. (I mean, I really hope it doesn’t.) It’s not clear yet whether Pransky is preparing a lawsuit, but I’d keep an eye on the Braves Twitter feed just in case.

Braves demand $14m more for roads, because county didn’t say “Simon Says” in spending first $70m

Looks like having Mike Boyce running Cobb County instead of Tim Lee is already having some consequences: The Atlanta Braves just demanded an extra $14 million for roads and sidewalks around their new stadium opening in April, and the Cobb County Commission is telling them to get lost:

The dispute has been on-going since December, with origins that date to the earliest agreements forged by the county and team in 2013 and 2014. Those contracts require that $14 million in public funds be spent on transportation improvements, and are vague as to the exact projects covered by the money.

Cobb transportation director Jim Wilgus wrote in a Dec. 2 memo to County Manager David Hankerson that taxpayers have already spent $69.5 million on nine road projects for the stadium and privately owned, mixed-use development.

“We feel this satisfies Cobb County’s transportation improvement contribution,” Wilgus wrote in the memo.

The Braves think otherwise.

What appears to have happened here: When the county agreed to build the Braves a stadium back in 2013 without specifying a transportation plan, it threw $14 million into pot for unspecified future transportation needs. The Braves owners now say that the stuff the county built shouldn’t count toward that because the county was going to build that stuff anyway (though the county says $17 million worth of that stuff only came up as a result of the stadium deal), and is instead demanding reimbursement for $14 million worth of stuff that the team has already built.

This is almost certainly going to get resolved in court based on whatever crappy contract language Cobb County agreed to in 2013, not based on fairness or anything like that, and either way it shouldn’t interfere with getting transportation improvements like that bridge to the parking lots sort of working by opening day. It’s nice to see public officials not just signing any checks they’re asked to, though, even if it’s shutting the barn door way, way late.

Atlanta mayor defends cost overruns for Falcons pedestrian bridge as “saving lives”

Just what exactly is it with the Atlanta area and forgetting to plan for ways for fans to get to new sports stadiums? In the wake of the Cobb County Braves pedestrian bridge fiasco, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed last month that a pedestrian bridge to the Falcons‘ new stadium could cost $23.2 million, almost double what Mayor Kasim Reed promised in July. And now Reed has fired back that okay, maybe, but it’s worth every penny, dammit:

In 21st Century America, a city’s connectivity and walkability are major factors in attracting and retaining young, skilled workers and the companies looking to hire them. The steady influx of businesses and new residents to the City of Atlanta in 2016 is directly related to this strategy. Moreover, this growth is strengthening our economy across all sectors, leading to lower unemployment and greater opportunities for our residents.

The new bridge over Northside Drive linking Westside neighborhoods to Downtown Atlanta is a major example of an essential infrastructure piece that will improve – and possibly save – residents’ lives. The bridge will offer a safe crossing of Northside Drive, which for years has been a dangerous barrier preventing easy passage from the Westside to Downtown’s economic and cultural opportunities.

Okay, yeah, I think everyone can agree that people like to be able to cross highways without having to run through traffic. The bigger point here is that the city is suddenly facing a previously unannounced $23.2 million cost for a project to support a pro football stadium. While Reed insisted that the bridge was part of a community benefits plan, the AJC found that “none of those claims are backed up by the public record,” and quoted one of the community plan’s architects as saying they’re a load of crap:

Rev. Anthony A.W. Motley, a major participant in helping craft the Community Benefits Plan, scoffed at the assertion.

“To try and justify the bridge on the basis of a connection to poor people in the community is an insult to everything that we have proposed, particularly as it relates to the Community Benefits Plan,” Motley said. “The bridge has nothing to do with the community, and to say that it does shows contempt for the community and a flagrant disregard for the truth.”

Back on the Braves bridge front, meanwhile, the latest report is that six months after construction started in June, and with four months to go to opening day, the bridge was 40% complete. That doesn’t seem like a very promising pace, but Cobb’s transportation director Jim Wilgus said he hopes it will be “operational” by opening day April 14, even if not “totally complete” until the summer. Everybody hold on!