Breaking a half-century of precedent, the Atlanta Braves announced on Tuesday that they would move out of their host city and into a northern suburb of Atlanta after the lease for Turner Field expires in 2016.
The move illustrates a long-building shift in Major League Baseball’s fan base, which has become more suburban and rural in recent years as the sport struggled to attract fans and younger players from the inner city.
Despite that well-known trend, none of the seven new Major League Baseball stadiums that have been built more than a fifth of a mile from their predecessors since 2000 has moved away from a city center, and four (Marlins, Giants, Padres and Astros) have actually moved more than 4 miles closer.
The Braves’ motivation to move in a new direction is no mystery: most of its ticket holders live north of the city, and Cobb County is putting up nearly half-a-billion dollars to lure the franchise from downtown, where traffic and parking difficulties plague visitors to Turner Field. Parking will likely be less problematic at the new $672 million as-yet-unnamed stadium, but the infamously troublesome Atlanta traffic is unlikely to be much better north of the city, and Cobb County officials don’t appear eager to provide city-based fans with mass transit to the new stadium.
“It is absolutely necessary the solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from,” said Cobb County GOP chairman Joe Dendy, “and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”
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The new location may also present an image problem for a league widely said to have a diversity problem. As of 2012, black players made up just 7% of MLB rosters (down from 17.2% in 1994), and the league has created three distinct “urban youth” initiatives: Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academy and the commissioner’s On-Field Diversity Task Force. The new stadium’s location is in a predominantly white suburb: Cobb is 66% white and 26% black, while Atlanta is 38% white and 54% black.
The Braves are one of the league’s most popular franchises — and its only truly Southern one. The team also boasts three of the game’s most promising young black stars: Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and B.J. Upton (despite his abysmal 2013 season). In a region where college football is king, the Braves organization has proved itself at least as capable of winning fans inside the city as the Falcons, Hawks and Thrashers. It’s unlikely that can last after the team moves to the burbs in 2016.