Why more teams want stadiums like Atlanta's SunTrust Park than Chicago's Wrigley Field

The Atlanta Braves, like many professional sports teams nowadays, are getting a new stadium. / Atlanta Braves: http://atlanta.braves.mlb.com/atl/ballpark/suntrust-park/photos/oct18/

When the Chicago Cubs host the Cleveland Indians for Game 3 of the 2016 World Series in Chicago, it will be the first championship baseball game at Wrigley Field since 1945.

That makes this a remarkable moment for the Cubs franchise and its fans, as well as the stadium itself. And that’s because Wrigley is behind only Boston’s Fenway Park, which opened two years prior in 1912, as the oldest stadium in Major League Baseball. What’s more, Wrigley and Fenway are the only two ballparks still in use that were operating when the Cubs lost to the Detroit Tigers in the 1945 World Series.

In fact, more than half of the 30 teams in the MLB play in stadiums built within the last 20 years. And one of those teams, the Atlanta Braves, is getting an even newer one.

Which begs the question: Are Wrigley and Fenway the last of their kind? And, like people, is it all downhill after a stadium turns 21?

Goodbye, Turner Field – Hello, SunTrust Park

On October 2, the Braves played their final game at Turner Field, which had been their home since 1997 – and was originally built for the 1996 Olympics.

Instead of renewing its lease with the City of Atlanta, the team decided to build a new stadium, SunTrust Park, in the suburbs north of the city.

According to the Braves, the issue was “whether or not [Turner Field could] remain viable for another 20 to 30 years.”

The Braves decided not, citing infrastructure work to the tune of $150 million, along with additional projects to improve the fan experience that the team said could exceed $200 million – neither of which would “address the logistical challenges outside the stadium – lack of consistent mass transit options, inadequate number of parking spaces and limited access to major highways.”

Anatomy of controversy

The move outside the city is not without controversy. In fact, the Braves’ president of business, Derek Schiller, agreed to an interview via an assistant, who then cited trepidation about being misinterpreted and stopped responding to requests for comment. In other words: A rep for the Braves was not available.

In hindsight, this is perhaps not surprising given the Braves’ decision has been called “an affront to baseball and democracy.”

Indeed, much has been written about the move since it was announced in 2013, but a post in Forbes provides what could perhaps be considered a nuanced overview of the controversy itself.

As an Atlanta resident in the mid-1990s – and a lifelong Javy Lopez fan – I have my own opinions, but this story is about why teams like the Braves build new stadiums rather than whether the moves are good or bad.

The short answer: A stadium alone is no longer enough for most teams.

For his part, Vince Thompson, CEO of Atlanta-based sports and entertainment agency Melt, said his read is that a lot of the Braves’ core fan base resides in the northern part of Atlanta.

“I think over a period of time, with the increasing level of traffic in this town, it became a barrier for folks to get downtown, especially during rush hour and especially during the week. I also think the Braves grew frustrated with not having the ability to buy the adjacent land to the stadium from the city and develop it into a mixed-use facility, which is where a lot of cities and stadiums are headed with their new developments [like San Francisco and Baltimore], which are two models that I think they followed,” Thompson said. “The biggest issue with the new deal was how the deal was orchestrated, i.e., in the cover of darkness with Cobb County, but I do understand the need for secrecy given [that] had the word leaked, it would have driven the values of the land sky-high.”

Michael Koziol, president of digital agency Huge’s office in Atlanta, pointed to resentment among fans – and people who love Atlanta – but also noted the move was a strategic one.

“They didn’t just pick a spot to be another spot – they moved to place that is more central to where they map their fans…and not just fans, but fans that go to games,” Koziol said. “So a big part of it is finding the right geographic presence to position the venue, but also where can they have enough space to make it more of an entertainment zone. There’s a lot more that can be attached to this than Turner Field.”

Indeed, Shawn McBride, executive vice president of sports at PR firm Ketchum, said new stadiums become catalysts for broader development, like in the area surrounding Camden Yards in Baltimore – which has also been the plan around Nationals Park in Washington DC and Busch Stadium’s Ballpark Village in St. Louis.

‘A total holistic fan experience’

The Braves broke ground on their new stadium in September 2014, saying, “The new home of the Braves will bring together a classic ballpark feel, modern amenities and Southern hospitality, creating a fan experience unlike any other…”

The stadium will include 41,000 seats, along with The Battery Atlanta, an adjacent 1.5-million-square-foot mixed-use development, featuring year-round amenities like shopping, restaurants, an Omni Hotel, The Coca-Cola Roxy Theatre, 550 residences and One Ballpark Center, Comcast's regional office headquarters.

In fact, thanks to what it called Comcast's all-fiber network and multi-terabit capabilities, the Braves said SunTrust Park “will have the highest-capacity network serving any stadium and mixed-use development in the nation.”

The Braves have also sought to enhance the fan experience with a slew of ticketing options, including more than 19,000 seats priced under $20.

“Much of the feedback we've received from fans in recent years revolved around the lack of seating and amenity options available at Turner Field,” said Schiller in a press release. “We believe it is important to offer a variety of experiences for every type of fan, which we have accomplished by increasing the amount of value-add offerings and premium options.”

Development also includes more access points and more parking spaces.

For his part, Gary Stokan, president and CEO of the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and former president of the Atlanta Sports Council, said SunTrust Park will epitomize how new stadiums should be built “because it is a total holistic fan experience rather than just a baseball park – there will be hotels, bars, restaurants, movie theaters [and] an amphitheater. It is a development with the baseball park being the centerpiece and as professional teams start to look at building new stadiums, they will look at this as the prime example of how to build a new stadium. The revenue streams and fan experience opportunities [are] unlike any other professional franchise.”

New stadiums = new opportunities

But the Braves — and Major League Baseball — aren’t unique in gravitating toward new facilities. Many teams – including the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings – have opened new stadiums in recent history and even more, including a new stadium for Atlanta’s own NFL team, have stadiums in construction.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Stadium as marketing vehicle

For one thing, new stadiums attract attention for both the teams and the cities behind them.

According to William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, Turner Field was an important asset for both the Braves and the City of Atlanta – as is any new venue.

“The Braves created a culture and experience at Turner Field that brought fans from across the country and Southeast to watch the team win [ten] division championships in this facility,” he said. “Not only has Atlanta benefited from years of unprecedented growth and financial success that followed the Olympics, but the Games also strengthened the city’s reputation as a major global city. In 2015, we welcomed nearly 51 million visitors to Atlanta,” Pate said.

In addition, Stokan said Turner Field was integral to Atlanta winning the 2000 MLB All-Star Game and SunTrust Park means “invariably the Braves will get the All-Star game again.”

In other words, the publicity a city gets after hosting a national event is “something you can’t put a number on…that’s free advertising for a city and markets the city,” Stokan said. “I go back to the Olympics. The publicity Atlanta got made us an international city…if we didn’t have that we’d probably be a nice Southeast city, so there’s that media value, but also the economic value in having new stadiums that allow you to recruit major national and international events.”

To wit: The Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which will open in 2017, enables the city to host three upcoming championships: the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship, Super Bowl LIII in 2019 and the 2020 NCAA Men’s Final Four.

Some stadiums aren’t worth updating

Then again, sometimes stadiums simply aren’t worth saving, which is why teams demolish them and start anew.

“From where I am sitting, obviously we see that certain teams need new stadiums because the stadiums are old and cranky and it costs more to renovate these stadiums sometimes than to build a whole new one,” said Dennis Goedegebuure, vice president of SEO and growth at licensed sports merchandise company Fanatics.

Look no further than the Mets’ Shea Stadium and the Patriots’ Foxboro Stadium.

McBride agreed outdated facilities are a problem, but added that civic pride is another component as cities turn away from the “generic, cookie cutter” stadiums of yore.

Players want the best facilities

What’s more, McBride noted professional teams are also in the business of recruiting and need state-of-the-art facilities to attract the best players – which is in part why even Wrigley Field, which opened in 1914, has upgraded its locker rooms – which Fox Sports has since likened to a nightclub.

Sponsors want the best facilities

Plus, if teams are looking for sponsors to pay $5 to $10 million a year for naming rights, they need a venue brands will be proud to attach their names to, McBride said.

“If you’re looking to attract brands to be an important part and contribute to your revenue stream in a meaningful way, you need to have a building that’s attractive,” he added.

Further, Koziol said sponsors also want to associate themselves with modern facilities that provide a more technologically advanced fan experience.

The at-home game-watching experience is getting better

But new stadiums also help teams compete with an increasingly better – and more economical – at-home experience.

“Every professional sports league faces the issue of in-stadium versus at-home,” McBride said.

In addition, Chris Nguyen, group product marketing manager for web content management system Adobe Experience Manager, cited data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that found the median income for consumers ages 25 to 34 has fallen.

“Coupled with the rising costs of sporting events and improved technology [that] brings the game into your TV room, fewer Millennials are going to stadiums to cheer on their teams,” he said.

‘Fans expect more’

At the same time, Goedegebuure said, “Going to a game is the ultimate fan experience, where you hear the players and watch different angles [and] you don’t get commercial breaks – you can see what’s happening on the field. That experience is still the ultimate fan experience.”

Further, Goedegebuure noted the experience fans have at a game extends beyond just watching the game and has in some cases become much more interactive – and simply better overall. For example, Levi’s Stadium outside of San Francisco, which opened in 2014, has in-seat ordering via an app and free WiFi.

Indeed, Nguyen said Millennials expect connectivity at games to share photos and to check stats and scores.

McBride agreed.

“Fans expect more from the live experience nowadays than we did a generation ago,” he added.

And the rapid pace of technological change may explain in part why so many stadiums have an expiration date.

“Turner Field was built for the Olympics and turned into a beautiful and amazing venue for the Braves, but…things have obviously changed,” Koziol said. “Twenty years ago…was before Internet for most people and the biggest advancements were better food and nicer seats. They were going to have a bigger screen and nicer sky boxes or sponsor boxes and that’s what made them modern versus [Turner Field predecessor] Fulton Country Stadium, which was also a great way to see a baseball game – but just baseball, a hot dog and a Coke and that was it.”

For example, Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium will have a roof design inspired by the oculus of the Pantheon in Rome, as well as a five-story, 360-degree high-definition video halo board.

And the bar for the in-game fan experience will only go higher.

Nguyen, however, noted technology also allows teams to better capitalize on fans to maximize revenue by, say, using kiosks to place food orders and eliminate the pain of waiting in line or using beacons to send offers as fans pass by in-stadium stores.

‘We live in a different world today’

And, as is clear in Cobb County, the increasingly limited attention span of the modern consumer means teams can no longer rely on on-field action to attract fans.

“It’s heartbreaking to see some iconic locations moving, but fan demands and economic demands [dictate] more than just…a game – it’s where I can spend a day or weekend and more of a tourism destination and a broader experience than just a singular experience,” Koziol said.

This includes amenities like The Battery Atlanta’s mixed-use development and sometimes even multiple venues in the same metro area, like in Phoenix, which has an arena for its NHL team, the Coyotes, near the University of Phoenix Stadium, which is where the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals play, and also hosted the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championships.

To be sure, Stokan said teams now “have to look at what is the potential that you are building something that a family can attend rather than just a one-off fan.”

To that end, Mercedes-Benz Stadium plans to enhance the fan experience in part with low-cost concessions, Stokan said.

“A Coke is $1.50 with free refills. A beer is $5. A hot dog is $2.50. [A] Chick-Fil-A [sandwich] will be $3,” Stokan said. “So it would make it more appealing for you to want to take your family because you’re not going to have to spend $100 just on food and drink.”

But plenty of other teams – including the aforementioned franchises, as well as the NFL’s Patriots and Packers, in addition to the MLB’s Red Sox – have also focused on developing the areas surrounding their stadiums to appeal more to visitors on a broader scale.

“We live in a different world today than when [baseball] was starting and when a lot of these classic arenas were being built,” Koziol said. “We have more options for media and entertainment than we can handle [and]…we have access to all types of information from the phones we carry around with us every day, so the stakes are a lot higher for people’s interest. Just like a TV network or movie studio has to work harder to fight to bring new people into that media or into their franchise, teams and venues have to do the same thing, too. This expansion of this idea of what is a stadium – an entertainment complex [in which] technology plays a greater role – doesn’t have to take away from the purity of the game. It’s a positive – there’s potential to bring more people into the game because of the energy going on around it. That’s a lot of what I see as going on…just seeing a game is enough for a strong fan of the game, but these stadiums and teams may depend on more than people who just love the game to fill the seats and drive their businesses.”

The Wrigley and Fenway exceptions

That being said, Chicago and Boston remain asterisks.

That’s because Wrigley and Fenway have endured long enough to become icons that are integral to the fan experience for those particular teams.

Per McBride, who happens to be a Red Sox fan, when the possibility of building a new stadium in Boston surfaced about a decade ago, fans immediately launched a Save Fenway movement.

“[In] baseball…there is that nostalgic, historical element woven into the DNA of the sport…and, as a Red Sox fan, [I] go to Fenway and sit in same seats as my grandfather when my grandfather watched Ted Williams and now I go with my kids to see David Ortiz,” McBride said. “At the same time, not every organization has the same depth of history as the [Red Sox and Fenway and the] Cubs and Wrigley.”

Koziol agreed.

“You don’t do anything that will alienate the fans and in a place like Boston or Chicago, to change something that’s historic is different than it is in Atlanta,” he said. “Atlanta [is] more a city of newcomers and doesn’t have the historical team depth of a place like Boston or Chicago, which makes it easier to pick up and move a venue.”

And even though Yankee Stadium is relatively new, McBride said Ketchum had clients talking about naming rights when it was being built in 2008, but who had to consider packages for various entrances because the stadium itself will always be called “Yankee Stadium.”

“They made it clear it would never be ‘Insert Brand Name Stadium.’ There’s still mystique there,” McBride said.

But, as noted, Wrigley and Fenway are not untouched relics of a bygone era as they, too, have been updated.

“Wrigley and Fenway have gotten a lot nicer, but they were designed and built for the fan of what was happening only on the field,” Koziol said. “Now we’re such a distracted people and culture and can be seeing anything in the world through our mobile phones that the…experience at a sports venue is less about the court/field than it used to."