From Dome to new home

I must be getting old, because this news from the Atlanta Journal Constitution blows my mind:

The blueprint for a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons was approved early Monday in a special called meeting of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority.

The state agency, in a unanimous decision, gave its thumbs up to a “term sheet,” which lays out the business terms with team for a new field, including who will pay for it, how the revenue will be divided and who will own the building.

The stadium the World Congress Center Authority is apparently going to build (there are few details except it apparently will have a retractable roof) is a replacement for the Georgia Dome, the home of the Atlanta Falcons, and the site of both basketball and gymnastics during the 1996 Olympics. (Each had half of the building.) That was an example of thought-out design, as was Olympic Stadium, which after the Olympics was partially dismantled and became Turner Field, the Braves’ home.

The Journal Constitution’s Mark Bradley observes:

Because in sports as in life, new and shiny trumps tried and true. The Dome opened in 1992, and it’s a nice place two decades on, but by 2017 it’ll be gone, having been rendered superfluous by its billion dollar baby brother. …

The Falcons’ lease with the Dome is due to expire around 2017, and that was their pressure point. They didn’t threaten to leave town – “There was not a 1995-type lever,” McKay said, speaking of the days when teams told cities to build a new stadium or else – but they did make it known they had no interest in re-upping this lease. That left the GWCCA, which runs the Dome, with a choice it didn’t know it would have to make: Do we ditch a perfectly sound building to placate our biggest tenant?

To their credit, [GWCCA executive director Frank] Poe and associates forged a not-terrible solution. The Falcons stand to foot 70 percent of the $1 billion it will take to erect a new stadium, with public money – roughly $300 million from a hotel-motel tax that affects mostly non-Georgians – making up the difference. There are those who wonder if that $300 million wouldn’t be better used to upgrade infrastructure or further education, but this leads us to the unanswerable question: Why should ballplayers earn millions while schoolteachers make do with thousands?

In pro sports, a new stadium is almost always a shared venture, and far less public money will be earmarked toward the Falcons’ new home than was the case, say, in Indianapolis with the Colts and Lucas Oil Stadium. That’s as it should be: The Falcons are the ones who wanted this, and they should pay the most.

When this new-stadium balloon was first floated, the thought was that the GWCCA might be so cowed by Arthur Blank that it handed the famous owner everything he wanted. Instead the Falcons will settle for one stadium — they first wanted the Dome to remain in place just down the street, a notion laughable on its face – with a retractable roof (as opposed to an open-air facility). …

In these uncertain times, handing $300 million in tax money to fund a stadium that will be run by a team owned by a billionaire isn’t an easy sell, especially when the building that team occupies is presentable enough that it will, come April, stage the big-ticket Final Four. But the Falcons had leverage – they could move to Doraville and leave the Dome vacant on NFL Sundays – and they applied it. The GWCAA fought its corner and will get what amounts to a newer Dome. Maybe everybody won’t win in this, but there shouldn’t be many losers.

And if not … well, nothing is forever. The Falcons will be obliged to stay in their new home for 30 years. Sometime around Year 20, they’ll start angling for something bigger and brighter. That’s the way of our world. Everybody wants the latest iPhone, even if the old one works fine. Every professional team wants a new stadium, even if the existing place still looks pretty darn good.

Bradley’s last sentence is one-third correct in Wisconsin. Yes, the Bucks want a replacement for the Bradley Center. However, the Brewers are fine with Miller Park, and the Packers are improving Lambeau Field.

There is a Wisconsin connection to this story. The Georgia Dome replaced, for football purposes, Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, the original home of the Milwaukee-to-Atlanta Braves. The original Braves’ and Falcons’ home opened in 1966. I was 1 year old.

(Oh wait, there’s a second connection: Before moving to Lambeau Field, more about which in a moment, Brett Favre started his NFL career playing in Fulton County Stadium’s last year, if you want to call going 0-for-5 with three interceptions “playing.”)

The subject of sports stadiums came up in a Wisconsin Reporter story:

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig paints a glowing picture of publicly funded sports complexes.

“There’s been a debate everywhere you’ve had it, and every community has wound up doing it and they’re happy they did it,” Selig told Wisconsin Reporter on Tuesday after a speaking appearance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“They bring in business. They make the community a better place to live. And overall it’s been a very positive experience, and I happen to believe in it,” he added.

Selig, former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, was at his alma mater to give a speech at the university’s business school on ethical leadership. In the big leagues, ethics of operation often involve wealthy franchise owners strong-arming cities for hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for state-of-the-art stadiums on threat of losing the team to a city that will.

“We never really talked about that,” Selig said about the idea of moving the Milwaukee Brewers to North Carolina in the 1990s while politicians debated the merits of bilking $150 million from taxpayers.

They finally agreed. After the approval of a contentious multi-county sales tax that cost a Racinesenator his job through recall and tens of millions of dollars in cost overruns, Miller Park was built.

“But the Brewers put in a lot of money and there’s just not a debate. In fact … with (the Brewers) now drawing 3 million-plus people a year, that’s why I said all the critics are gone now, because they know they’re wrong. And they were wrong.”

The critics, as it turns out, are alive and well. Whenever a new stadium is pushed by an owner, however, their voices tend to be drowned out by vote-seeking politicians and the team’s loyal fan base.

Marc Levine, director of the Center for Economic Development University of Milwaukee, recently wrote in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel op-ed:

“The same fallacious economic development arguments that were used to sell Miller Park are being trotted out to justify public spending for a new (Milwaukee) Bucks‘ arena: the building of a new facility, and the presence of a sports team, is an engine of economic growth for the city and region, a critical source of jobs, income and enhanced revenues for public services.

“Yet, with a unanimity that is rare in social science research, academic studies have found that professional sports franchises and facilities generate little or no job creation or income growth.” …

Selig and others suggest there’s an arguably bigger benefit to stadiums, particularly in communities like Milwaukee.

Minnesota state Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, said during a discussion last spring on financing a $975 million Minnesota Vikings stadium that professional football is “one of the things that puts us on the map.”

Selig appears to have selective memory on that subject. I recall considerable speculation about the Brewers’ moving out of Milwaukee if Miller Park wasn’t built. One of the Carolinas was mentioned; so was, of all places, Mexico City. (Note that neither has a Major League Baseball team today.) Even had the 1996 package that got Miller Park not been approved, it seems likely the Brewers would have gotten a new stadium at some point, though not necessarily in Milwaukee.

Let’s  be honest — how many Americans would know where Green Bay is were it not for the Packers, whose Lambeau Field was built with public funds (a 1956 bond issue approved by voters by a 2-to-1 margin) and renovated with more public funds (the 1/2-percent sales tax approved by 53 percent of Brown County voters in 2000)? Of course, the Packers’ stewardship of Lambeau Field since moving in in 1957 has been far superior to just the other NFC North teams. Since 1957, the Chicago Bears played in Wrigley Field, Soldier Field and whatever that is the Bears play in now; Detroit moved from Tiger Stadium to the Pontiac Silverdome to Ford Field; and Minnesota moved from Metropolitan Stadium to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome (with an unscheduled stop at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium), with their new stadium at the Metrodome site in the works.

Regardless of the perceived benefits or lack thereof, there’s a big difference between a project such as Lambeau Field that taxpayers twice agreed to fund, and projects where there is no democratic buy-in. That would include Miller Park, depending on your perspective. The Legislature signed off on the funding, but Racine County voters who didn’t think they should be included in the 0.1-percent sales tax ended the political career of Sen. George Petak (R–Racine) via recall.

Had no replacement for Milwaukee County Stadium been built, at best the Brewers would have continued as an undercapitalized, underfunded, underperforming, underattended franchise. (Note the Brewers’ lack of winning seasons from 1993 until the Seligs sold the Brewers, which shows some combination of the slim margin for error of sports franchises in small markets, or years of poor management decisions in nearly every part of the franchise.) Maybe someone like Mark Attanasio would have purchased the Brewers and generated public support for a new stadium. And maybe someone else would have purchased the Brewers from the Selig family and moved them out of Wisconsin. And therein lies the rub: how important is professional sports — whether viewed in person in a stadium impervious to Wisconsin’s capricious weather, or viewable on TV — to you?

Whenever the Georgia Dome is deflated, man will do what nature was unable to do, in perhaps the strangest moment involving a stadium in at least U.S. history:

Fans weren’t expecting a tornado to visit the Georgia Dome during the 2008 Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament, but that’s what they got. Though the game interrupted by the tornado did finish, there was enough damage to the stadium that the remainder of the tournament had to be moved to Georgia Tech.

YouTube has other intersections of severe weather and sports, including tornado warnings at Wrigley Field in Chicago:

These are instances where a sports announcer becomes something between a newscaster and an amateur meteorologist. The second girls basketball game I ever announced, in November 1988, took place during a tornado watch, with tornado warnings across the Mississippi River in Iowa. Before the game I asked the athletic director what would happen in the event of a tornado warning. That forced him to pause, because he apparently had never had to consider a tornado warning-caused evacuation during a basketball game. (No tornado warning was issued where we were, although we could hear lightning over our FM signal, which isn’t typical.)

Two years later, a Lancaster High School football game got all of nine minutes in before a storm forced its postponement to the next night. Ordinarily football fields have the press box on the west sideline, which means, since weather generally moves west to east in this country, whatever weather there is is coming from behind you. The old LHS field,  however, had the press box on the east side, which means we could see it coming. (So could my future father-in-law, a Grant County part-time sheriff’s deputy handling traffic in the parking lot. He got quite wet.)

Once I moved to TV, I announced two games with weather delays — the first during the first quarter, the second before the game. Both were, of course, on the road, meaning we returned home quite late. Both delays were longer than an hour, because of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s policy of stopping play until 30 minutes has elapsed since the last lightning. Tape-delay TV means you merely turn off the camera. Live TV and radio that is not thrown to the studio requires a special art to fill images of rain and lightning.

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