In recent decades, it has become as much a part of opening a new ballpark as shopping the naming rights, draining the taxpayers or finding D-listers to tear down the days on your countdown clock.
As the Braves close out Turner Field this year in preparation to open their new suburban home, thus putting an end to baseball’s longest building drought since the 1980s, they have brought about the familiar conversations of "building to the stadium."
Not to the dimensions or the wind patterns or anything like that. Just to the simple fact that they are building a new stadium.
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It’s a trope we’ve heard versions of for years, although not always in this form, and not always with this much advance notice.
The last stadium to open was the postmodernist Marlins Park, where the home team took a very modernist (let’s call it 1990s) approach to building. The frequent roster builders and demolishers went on a last-minute shopping spree, signing Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell as the expensive furnishings adorning their new home.
Another memorable example was the Phillies’ move to Citizens Bank Park in 2004, for which the preparations peaked the first week of December, 16 months out. Both local and national reports at the time described the Phillies as "aggressive" in building to their new stadium opening when they gave Jim Thome as six-year deal as the centerpiece of their buildup just after Thanksgiving one offseason out.
The Braves, as we’ve seen, are doing it very differently — not trying to spend their way toward the ribbon cutting, but trying to age into it with the minor leagues’ deepest crop of pitching prospects as part of a fast rising system that should be seeing its first significant contributions come Opening Day 2017. (Or maybe the Super Two deadline). The Braves are looking to enter their new stadium with the excitement of the 2015 Cubs or Astros, perhaps with the pitcher-heavy balance of the 2015 Mets, rather than the 2015 Dodgers approach that some others have taken.
It is, like in many cases, a blueprint that’s existed just as much in media accounts of the pre-relocation patterns as it has in actual quotes or stated visions of the future. That’s understandable. In a lot of ways, this is just business as usual, whether a team is closer to Year 1 in its home like the Braves, Year 10 like the Astros or Year 100 like the Cubs.
It makes sense as a story — use the buzz to fill those seats from the very start and make that money. But as actual strategy, it’s not that it doesn’t work — just that it works in a slightly different way, as the recent numbers show.
Backing up a few more years, in 1999, the Seattle Mariners opened their new ballpark in midseason, coming back from a 12-game road trip followed by the All-Star break to find Safeco Field ready for play. Since then, there have been 14 new stadiums opened, each opening at the start of the season, providing good baselines for the year-to-year bump in attendance associated with an intra-city move.
The 14 teams from the 2000 Tigers, Giants and Astros to the 2012 Marlins averaged a 20 percent jump in attendance, but that’s hardly a uniform prognosis for what’s going to happen just by opening the doors. To start, three of the 14 teams actually saw a drop in attendance. The 2005 Cardinals were selling out routinely, so moving into the slightly smaller Busch Stadium threequel took attendance down 3 percent despite coming off a 100-win season. Ditto the 2009 Yankees, who like those Cardinals would win a World Series in their inaugural season at the new park, and whose attendance dropped 13 percent in a much smaller venue. And the biggest drop belonged to the 2009 Mets, who had blown a couple of shots in a row at the NL East crown and moved to a smaller venue and also suffered the consequences of the economic downturn to drop a rather stunning 22 percent.
If you were one of the teams that went up, though, you went considerably up. The 2000 Tigers moved into their new ballpark off a 69-92 season and still went up 20 percent. A year later, the Brewers ditched County Stadium for Miller Park in the midst of a terrible run and saw the largest increase of any of the teams — a 79 percent bump under their new retractable roof, which is the largest of the crop.
There is essentially zero correlation between the bump you get in the first year at a new stadium and the previous year’s record.
And then, not surprisingly, all 11 teams that went up went back down again, and that’s where you see a much more pronounced trend taking shape.
Building for a new ballpark isn’t about boosting your attendance ahead of Year 1; unless you’re selling out every game today or the economy crashes, that will happen anyway. Novelty, it seems, can overcome a lot of things, even a Willie Harris-Lastings Milledge-Austin Kearns outfield.
In the same way that attendance generally lags behind performance, what building for a new ballpark does is prevent the hangover in Year 2. It will be 2018 by the time we see what the Braves have really accomplished in building — either actively or coincidentally — for their new park.
Attendance in Atlanta has spent the better part of the last two decades being very predictable. The Braves were a top-two or three team in the National League for much of their mid-1990s run but began steadily dropping around the turn of the century. They spent most of the 2000s firmly in the middle — they spent every year from 2002-2013 between 7th and 10th in the National League — before their second big drop began a couple years ago with much less lag than usual with the team’s plummeting performance.
There is little reason to believe the Braves won’t be down again this year as a longshot to be competitive even in the poor National League East. Come 2017, their fans will brave the major highway intersection where SunTrust Park will reside in suburban Cobb County.
Whether the new area fits better with the fan demographics in metro Atlanta, it will produce the desired boost. And then the stable of pitching prospects has to carry the Braves for the next year or 20 — which seems to be the approximate lifespan of ballparks for this franchise.