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Opinion: Financial Transparency Needs to Accompany Braves' Move

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Copyright 2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
November 13, 2013 Wednesday
Main Edition
NEWS; Pg. 15A
733 words
atlanta braves;
Cobb stadium financing needs to see light of day
Jay Bookman; Staff

In less than two weeks, the Cobb County Commission is scheduled to give final approval to a Braves stadium financing scheme --- including a reported public subsidy of $450 million --- that few people have seen and that according to insiders doesn't even exist yet.

That's just wrong. It's bad business and bad politics, and it smacks of a deal that its backers fear will not hold up under sustained inspection. If Cobb Commission Chair Tim Lee and his colleagues are confident in the wisdom of the deal that they've cut in such secrecy, then give the people of Cobb County both the details of the arrangement and enough time to digest and debate them.

Tell us about the financing. Tell us how the major transportation challenges will be met along an already congested traffic corridor. Tell us where the money will come from to address that problem and others. Tell us who will be on the financial hook if things don't go according to plan.

And no, "we don't have those answers yet" is not an acceptable response. With so much still unsettled, and with the holidays coming up, final approval ought to be delayed until January at the earliest.

Once we do have the details, I suspect that we'll find that Cobb County residents won't be on the hook directly for that $450 million through higher property and sales taxes. Instead, most of it will be financed through a murky mixture of creative incentives, including tax-avoidance mechanisms and giveaways of public property. In essence, the stadium project and related development will probably be made a tax-free zone, so that the burden of providing public services to that area is shifted indirectly and quietly to other taxpayers of Cobb County.

Based on what they were demanding and did not get from the city of Atlanta, the Braves also want to control not just the stadium in which they play and all the revenue it produces, but also the parking and all the revenue it produces, as well as the real-estate and commercial development of the area around the stadium and all the revenue it produces.

All this, on property that they do not own and in a deal in which they are reportedly putting up just a third of the necessary capital. Sweet.

In a press conference Tuesday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed tried half-convincingly to mask his disappointment, arguing that to the Atlanta region, it doesn't make much difference if the Braves move 12 miles up the road. He was much more convincing in stressing that financially and politically, the city was in no position to offer a package as "fiscally liberal" as that offered by Cobb County.

Reed also mentioned that he has every intention of remaining a loyal Braves fan, a concept that is central to such issues. Baseball, likes other sports, uses loyalty to part their fans from their money. But viewed from the team's end of the transaction, loyalty is for suckers. Despite their years downtown, the Braves have no intention of playing in Atlanta come 2017 for the same reason that they made little effort to re-sign popular hometown favorite Brian McCann as catcher. Business. Strictly business.

But here's the thing: The taxpaying public and the officials elected to represent them have to conduct negotiations with that same hard-nosed attitude or they'll be fleeced. In negotiations such as this, teams are selling you smoke and mirrors and the warm and fuzzy feeling of an (unreciprocated) sense of loyalty, and in return you're giving them control over a large plot of public land, tax incentives and other favors worth close to a half billion bucks if not more?

The community making that offer, Cobb County, has been forced to lay off and furlough teachers and cut its school calendar because it allegedly can't afford to do otherwise. The Braves, in turn, are fully owned by Liberty Media, a Colorado-based corporation with $18 billion in annual revenues. The controlling shareholder is John C. Malone, who has a personal net worth of some $6.7 billion and is the largest individual private landowner in the country, with more than 2 million acres of property.

In the end, that's who the taxpayers of Cobb County will be subsidizing, and that's who they're negotiating with. Such deals almost never pencil out, but so far, this one looks worse than most.

Jay Bookman, an Opinion columnist, writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at jbookman@ajc.com

November 13, 2013

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