Skyrocketing Stadiums

Surging stadium construction costs increase expenses for fans and taxpayers


WHAT $1.4 BILLION BUYS IN FALCONS STADIUM

$61,492,817: Site work, including preparing for construction, demolishing two churches, installing utilities, hardscape and plaza area

$386,781,070: Foundations/structure, including deep foundations, concrete and structural steel superstructure

$79,687,086: Exterior skin, including vertical façade and roofing

$119,024,280: Interior construction, including seats, suites, clubs, finishes and food service equipment

$281,203,674: Building systems, including plumbing, electrical, cellular and WiFi technology, video boards, heating and air conditioning, elevators and escalators

$49,242,543: Construction requirements, including clean-up, temporary roads, fencing, hoisting, security, safety, power and water

$100,461,237: General conditions/fee/contingency, including management and field supervision, general contractor's profit and contractor's contingency funds

$322,037,293: Soft costs, including architectural, engineering and legal fees, land and Falcons' contingency funds

Sources: Falcons and general contractor Holder Hunt Russell Moody

ATLANTA’S STADIUMS

The construction cost of Atlanta’s professional sports venues since big-league sports arrived here a half-century ago underscores the soaring cost of stadiums:

Venue / Year opened / Primary tenants / Cost to build /Adjusted for inflation (2014 dollars)

Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium / 1965 / Braves, Falcons / $18 million / $135 million

The Omni / 1972 / Hawks, Flames / $17 million / $96 million

Georgia Dome / 1992 / Falcons / $214 million / $360 million

Turner Field / 1996 / Braves / $209 million / $314 million

Philips Arena / 1999 / Hawks, Thrashers / $213 million / $302 million

New Falcons stadium / 2017 / Falcons, MLS team / $1.4 billion / —

SunTrust Park / 2017 / Braves / $622 million / —

Note: Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium opened one year before the Braves moved here and the Falcons franchise began play. Turner Field originally opened as the 1996 Olympics stadium, and the Braves began play there in 1997.

Source: Venue websites and AJC archives

OUTDOING THE DOME

The new Falcons stadium will cost almost seven times as much as the Georgia Dome did in 1992. That’s not the only big difference:

/ New Falcons stadium / Georgia Dome

Total space / 2 million square feet / 1.6 million square feet

Structural steel / 20,000 tons / 8,300 tons

Concrete / 130,000 cubic yards / 110,000 cubic yards

Roof size / 14.5 acres / 8.6 acres

Video board / 63,800 square feet / 4,800 square feet

Escalators / 23 / 12

Elevators / 19 / 9

Bars and restaurants / 7 / 4

Concessions / 700 points of sale / 407 points of sale

Suites / 190 / 171

Seats / 71,000* / 71,250

* - Expandable to 75,000 seats

Source: Falcons and general contractor Holder Hunt Russell Moody

How we got the story:

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Dan Klepal and Tim Tucker analyzed stadium costs since the 1990s and interviewed a range of people from the National Football League, Major League Baseball, construction and architecture experts, along with professors who study the industry, to explain why stadium construction costs have risen so dramatically. Cobb and Atlanta taxpayers will spend upwards of $1 billion on two stadiums. AJC reporters have been tracking both deals to keep tabs on the costs and obligations that public officials are making in their name.

Digging deep:

Watching how local governments spend taxpayer money is a hallmark of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s investigative journalism. Previous coverage has examined undisclosed financing and legal costs of the new Braves stadium. Dig deeper with exclusive documents and videos that explain the deal, only at MyAJC.com.

Join the conversation!

Have a question about the new Atlanta Falcons or Braves stadiums? Well, you can ask the AJC’s Dan Klepal and Tim Tucker during our online chat from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday.

Go to myajc.com/stadiumchat to post your questions or to share your thoughts about the cost of the stadiums.

Arlington, Texas — With enough swank and opulence to make billionaire oil tycoons gush money, the Dallas Cowboys' home revolutionized professional sports stadiums when it opened in 2009.

At 3 million square feet, AT&T Stadium is bigger and has more of everything than any facility that came before it. The video board alone — which hangs centered over the star at midfield and has resolution as clear as any high-definition TV — cost $40 million, is 60 yards long and weighs more than one million pounds.

And in constructing the $1.3 billion facility, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones redefined what stadiums cost.

The ten NFL stadiums built in the decade leading up to AT&T’s opening averaged $428 million. Since then, none of the four NFL facilities built or under construction have cost less than $1 billion, including the Atlanta Falcons’ new home.

The cost of Major League Baseball stadiums has also hit a steep incline, almost doubling in that time frame.

Now the stadium arms race has reached Atlanta in a big way.

Both the Falcons and Braves have stadiums under construction, at a combined cost of more than $2 billion — roughly five times the amount spent in the 1990s on their current homes.

Newer facilities, designed to rake in more money from deep-pocketed fans, have fundamentally changed the stadium business model, said Robert Boland, a professor of sports management at New York University.

“Luxury boxes should produce twice as much revenue as all regular seats in the stadium,” Boland said. “Club seats should produce revenue about equal to that of all other regular seats in the stadium.”

Stadium construction costs matter, of course, because a hefty share is passed along to fans and taxpayers.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed construction costs for every NFL and Major League Baseball stadium in operation and under construction. The data shows a rapid acceleration in stadium costs starting around 2008 that far surpasses the inflation rate.

The new Falcons stadium, which will be two million square feet, has a $1.4 billion price tag and features many of the amenities for well-heeled fans that can be found in Texas — including lavish club lounges attached to premium seating and luxury suites.

“The buildings are different today,” said Wayne Wadsworth, principal in charge of Falcons stadium general contractor Holder Hunt Russell Moody. “What we put into these facilities … continues to increase.”

The exclusive areas help teams justify higher ticket prices.

For the right to buy season tickets, Falcons fans will be required to pay license fees, priced at $10,000 to $45,000 for the best 7,700 seats. Season tickets in those areas will cost $325 to $385 per game — increases of as much as $200 compared to similar locations in the Georgia Dome without the attached amenities. Falcons officials have said other seats, not yet priced, will be more affordable.

Taxpayers are also pitching in.

Atlanta hotel-motel taxes will pay $200 million toward construction of the Falcons stadium and hundreds of millions more toward interest payments, operations and maintenance. The total amount will depend on tax collections, but could add up to more than $600 million over 30 years.

Braves fans will find out the cost of season tickets in $622 million SunTrust Park next month. But Cobb County government already knows its price — nearly $400 million for construction and capital maintenance. A county-wide property tax levy, along with a variety of other taxes, fees and team rent payments, will pay off the debt over 30 years.

Between the Falcons and Braves new homes, more than $1 billion in public money will be devoted to the stadiums.

Public financing of stadiums varies considerably from city to city, as is exemplified by differences in the Braves and Falcons deals. For the Cowboys stadium, Arlington issued $325 million in bonds for its share of construction, which is being paid with sales, hotel-motel and rental car taxes. The city also went to market with a separate $147 million issuance, to help with the team’s financing. That debt is being paid off with ticket and parking taxes from the stadium.

There has been a steady progression of catering to wealthy fans and corporations since Baltimore’s baseball stadium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, opened in 1992, said Andrew Zimbalist, an author and economics professor at Smith College. Some fans are being priced out as costs continue to escalate, he said.

“It’s one of the great ironies of these publicly financed stadiums — people are paying for stadiums that some of them can’t afford to enter,” Zimbalist said.

Jim Fuerst isn’t buying seats.

A 45-year-old civil engineer, Fuerst is a Falcons season-ticket holder. But he said that will end in 2017 because comparable seats in the new stadium have a $15,000 license fee attached to them.

“I’m sure the new stadium will be a wonderful experience, but I don’t know who can afford to go to it,” Fuerst said. “I think the Georgia Dome is a nice place. I enjoy watching football games. That’s what I thought I was there for. I’m not there to be wined and dined in any other way.”

Some other season ticket holders have told the newspaper they are excited about the new stadium and have made down payments on seat licenses, or plan to relocate to less expensive areas of the stadium. More seat license fees will be announced later this year.

Mike Holleman, a senior vice president for Heery International, which is working on both the Braves and Falcons projects, said rising stadium costs can mostly be explained in three reasons: bigger facilities, more luxury and advanced technology. Baseball’s more modest increases are largely tied to the latter two.

Holleman manages Heery’s sports facilities design group, but isn’t directly involved in either Atlanta project.

“Stadiums have just become more complex,” Holleman said. “There is more space, more amenities, more quality, more utilities. Food, for instance. We’ve gone from prepackaged food, to branded food courts, to cooking demo areas. When you provide nicer food, the space … to provide the food is bigger.

“The whole facility just grows as you provide additional amenities.”

And so do the costs.

A different animal

Construction finished on Atlanta’s first major-league sports stadium 50 years ago, on April 9, 1965.

By today’s standards, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was spartan, bland, completely unremarkable. But at the time, the $18 million investment was good enough to lure baseball’s Milwaukee Braves and an NFL expansion team, the Falcons. Even after adjusting for inflation, the round, concrete-bowl of a stadium cost just $135 million in 2014 dollars.

The teams shared it for 26 years, until the Falcons took up residence in 1992 in the $214 million Georgia Dome, which was publicly funded. The Braves moved to Turner Field in 1997 — a facility that cost $209 million and was primarily funded by Olympic sponsors.

J.C. Bradbury, a sports economist at Kennesaw State University, said it would be incorrect to refer to the exploding stadium costs as inflation.

“Inflation is the normal rise in prices for everything,” Bradbury said. “This isn’t inflation. Really, what it is, the things they’re choosing to build cost a lot.

“It’s: `We can sell this to wealthy people and make more money.’”

Baseball’s construction costs have increased significantly, but nothing like the rocket ride with NFL stadiums.

From 2000-06, eight new baseball stadiums cost an average of $341 million. SunTrust Park’s budget is in line with stadiums built since then in Miami ($634 million), Minneapolis ($545 million) and Washington ($700 million).

The Mets and Yankees, New York teams that opened new stadiums in 2009, throw off the average: Citi Field cost $800 million and Yankee Stadium a whopping $1.3 billion.

Earl Santee, founder and senior principal of Populous, the architecture firm for SunTrust Park and most current MLB stadiums, said baseball’s facilities aren’t as expensive as the NFL’s because they are smaller. Santee also said baseball has to be more cost-conscious, in part because there are 81 home games a year.

“In baseball, I wouldn’t say the buildings have gotten bigger … and seating has been reduced,” Santee said. “Baseball is … a more intimate sport. It’s obviously a much more affordable sport (for fans). We have to deal with the affordability factor.

“It’s a different animal.”

Braves president John Schuerholz, a baseball executive for 50 years, has had a long view of stadium evolution. He was the Kansas City Royals’ assistant general manager when that team opened a much-acclaimed ballpark for $70 million in 1973.

The original plan in Kansas City, Schuerholz recalled, included an “other-worldly idea” of a dome that could move along tracks to cover either the ballpark or nearby Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Chiefs. The idea was shelved for being too expensive. Both facilities are still in use today, after extensive renovations.

When asked if he is astounded by the cost of modern stadiums, Schuerholz said he recently heard the same question about a pitcher’s $210 million contract.

“My answer was, it’s just the most recent astounding contract in our business, and it likely won’t be the last,” he said. “So, too, it is with modern buildings.

“That’s the way our world is. We make quantum-leap advances.”

Higher expectations

For all of the luxury suits with polished marble, granite counter tops, leather chairs and private restrooms, AT&T Stadium wasn’t able to stay current very long in one regard.

Technology.

Cowboys spokesman Jon Winborn said the team started getting complaints about connectivity inside the stadium after just two years. It responded by replacing the 750 WiFi access points and adding an additional 500 units. Winborn wouldn’t say how much it cost, calling it “an incredible amount,” but said the stadium now also has the equivalent of 17 full-sized cell towers on site, for phone calls and texting.

Greg Beadles, Falcons executive vice president and chief financial officer, said cellular and WiFi technology in Atlanta’s new downtown stadium will cost tens of millions of dollars each.

“When folks come to the stadium, they expect to be able to use their phone just like they can at home or … at Starbucks,” Beadles said.

Technology costs aren’t limited to cell phones. Television broadcasts in high definition require brighter lights and more power. At the Cowboys stadium, the team has built a full television studio to operate the video board.

Aside from cellular and WiFi capability, architect Santee said other technology — video boards, LED lighting, sustainability initiatives — has added 20 percent to stadium costs since the 1990s. He said technology used to be an optional expense.

“Now, it is a fundamental thing, like restrooms and concessions and so on,” Santee said.

And there are plenty of other big-ticket items driving prices upward.

Retractable roofs, like the one planned for the Falcons' stadium, can add as much as $200 million. Video boards are ever expanding in size and cost. And premium spaces, such as club lounges, have become more numerous, more richly equipped and strategically located.

Cowboys’ players, for example, walk past fans in one of AT&T Stadium’s field-level clubs on their way to and from the game.

“It’s a pretty unique experience to get a fist-bump from Tony Romo, or catch Dez Bryant’s gloves,” team spokesman Joe Trahan said.

The Minnesota Vikings’ new stadium under construction has roughly twice the square footage as the team’s former home, the Metrodome. It will cost $1 billion.

Lester Bagley, the Vikings’ executive vice president of stadium development, said it was a 12-year slog to secure public financing for the project.

“We started our campaign, we were talking about a stadium estimated to cost $400-500 million,” Bagley said.

In Atlanta, as the cost of the Falcons stadium rose $400 million over the past 18 months, team owner Arthur Blank confessed at one point: “I’ve been having trouble saying no to good ideas.”

Stadiums today are competing with people’s living rooms — big-screen, high definition televisions with cheaper beer and food, said Chris Hardart, the NFL’s vice president of corporate development. That has upped the ante for stadiums, he said.

“There’s a higher level of expectation in the premium spaces today,” Hardart said. “People have a lot of alternatives — other forms of entertainment, other ways to consume NFL games. You need to provide something that is state of the art … to encourage them to come out to the stadium.”

Holleman, with Heery International, didn’t hesitate when asked if he thought stadium costs were at an apex, or if they will continue to climb.

“Vibrating seats, heated and cooled, are on the horizon and in planning already,” he said. “As long as people keep paying for it, somebody will come up with something new you can spend your money on.”