by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Fans of this recent Julie Tisdale column might appreciate Ira Boudway and Kate Smith’s recent Bloomberg Businessweek feature on the Atlanta Braves’ recent history of major and minor league stadium construction projects.
Over the last 15 years, the Braves have extracted nearly half a billion in public funds for four new homes, each bigger and more expensive than the last. The crown jewel, backed by $392 million in public funding, is a $722 million, 41,500-seat stadium for the major league club set to open next year in Cobb County, northwest of Atlanta. Before Cobb, the Braves built three minor league parks, working their way up the ladder from Single A to Triple A. In every case, they switched cities, pitting their new host against the old during negotiations. They showered attention on local officials unaccustomed to dealing with a big-league franchise and, in the end, left most of the cost on the public ledger. Says Joel Maxcy, a sports economist at Drexel University: “If there’s one thing the Braves know how to do, it’s how to get money out of taxpayers.”
The Atlanta Braves own most of their minor league farm system, including, along with a Double-A team, the Triple-A team in Gwinnett County, Ga.; the Single-A team in Rome, Ga.; and lower-level teams in Danville, Va., and Lake Buena Vista, Fla. It’s an unusual arrangement. Major League Baseball teams always manage their players at every level, but they usually leave the day-to-day operations of farm teams to independent owners. The Braves prefer more control. …
… The Braves are similarly methodical about using other people’s money to build their ballparks. In 2001, for example, while trying to persuade Rome to build a $15 million, 5,105-seat stadium for the Single-A Braves, who then played 150 miles south in Macon, the Braves brought local officials to Turner Field for executive dinners and to watch games from the owner’s box. “It was hands down the highlight of my life,” then-Floyd County Manager Kevin Poe says. That November, Rome voters approved a 1¢ sales tax to pay for the stadium by a 142-vote margin.
In those days, the owner’s box belonged to Ted Turner, who bought the team in 1976 and used it to fill out programming on his cable superstation, Turner Broadcasting System. Now that box belongs to John Malone, the billionaire chairman of Liberty Media. Malone and Liberty picked up the Braves for $450 million in 2007 as part of a larger deal with TBS’s parent company, Time Warner. Malone, 75, has been assembling and disassembling media companies for more than 40 years. His dealmaking helped drive the rapid expansion of the cable industry in the U.S., made him a billionaire eight times over, and earned him a reputation as a master of arcane financial engineering.