Atlanta a top example of shorter stadium lifespans

If the Georgia Dome and Turner Field are discarded as planned in 2017, the doubleheader of demolition will bring to an end two of the shortest-lived major stadiums in modern sports history.

The Georgia Dome will be 25 years old. Turner Field will be 20 (21 if you count its origin as Centennial Olympic Stadium). Their joint demise will mark the acceleration of a trend that has turned sports stadiums, once ageless structures, into buildings that sometimes don’t last as long as a home mortgage.

The Dome is slated for demolition, at a cost of at least $9 million, when a new Falcons stadium is completed on a site just to its south. And Turner Field will be demolished, too, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has vowed, if the Braves’ move to Cobb County goes through.

“There was a time that a stadium had to be 30 or 40 or 50 years old before anyone would take seriously the claim that ‘the old thing is obsolete and we need a new one,’” said Neil deMause, an expert on stadium deals and author of a book on the subject.

“But the more new stadiums that are built, the more team owners are going to say, ‘Our place is still new, but it’s not new (enough).”

What’s happening in Atlanta is extreme, though, partly because it’s happening twice at once and partly because both existing stadiums still strike many fans as nice and relatively new.

If Turner Field is in fact reduced to rubble in 2017, it will be the youngest stadium abandoned by a Major League Baseball team since Houston’s Colt Stadium in the 1960s and Montreal’s Jarry Park Stadium in the 1970s. And both of those were intended as temporary homes for the teams.

Built for the expansion Houston Colt .45s, later renamed the Astros, Colt Stadium was used from 1962-64 while the Astrodome was under construction next door. Then, after being vacant for several years, 33,000-seat Colt Stadium was disassembled and shipped to Mexico for use by a minor-league team. Similarly, the Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals) built Jarry Park Stadium and played there from 1969-1976 until the city’s Olympic Stadium became available.

Sixteen MLB teams have opened new ballparks since the Braves moved into Turner Field in 1997, with three of them — the Seattle Mariners, Miami Marlins and Minnesota Twins — leaving multi-use stadiums that were between 23 and 28 years old. Most of the vacated stadiums, though, were in their 30s and 40s. All were showing more wear than Turner Field.

In the NFL, 21 stadiums are newer than the Georgia Dome. Of the nine that aren’t, two will be replaced in the next three years.

The trend of short-lived stadiums is most pronounced among domed NFL facilities. The Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks abandoned domed stadiums after 24 seasons (one fewer than the Falcons will play in the Georgia Dome), the Detroit Lions after 27 seasons and the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) after 29.

J.C. Bradbury, a Kennesaw State University economist who has written two books on baseball, believes several factors contribute to dumping stadiums with such haste. Teams yearn for a new stadium’s “honeymoon effect,” he said, referring to a multi-year period in which attendance spikes even though ticket prices rise. And stadiums become economically outdated before they become functionally or even aesthetically obsolescent.

“At any point in time, there is an optimal revenue model for your stadium,” Bradbury said. “The Braves and Falcons had buildings built for the revenue streams of the 1990s. Those revenue streams are not the same as the ones today.”

Today’s new stadiums are designed to increase revenue by packing in more amenities to lure fans from their big-screen HDTVs at home and more sponsorship opportunities to wrest marketing money from corporations.

The new Falcons stadium will have more premium-seating areas than the Georgia Dome, including field-level suites behind the end zones and lower-bowl club seats with access to exclusive field-level lounges/restaurants. And although the Braves stadium hasn’t been designed, Bradbury expects it to have fewer suites than Turner Field but perhaps 10 times as many premium seats — seats with food and prestige included, along the lines of the SunTrust Club behind Turner’s home plate.

None of that will come cheap for ticket buyers.

A big driver of the Braves deal with Cobb County is outside the ballpark. The team plans a major new revenue stream from a mixed-use development of restaurants, retail shops, hotels and apartments on 45 acres adjacent to the stadium.

The Braves’ desire for such a development — and frustration over stalled efforts to achieve something similar on publicly owned property surrounding Turner Field — prodded negotiations with Cobb.

One way or another, Bradbury said, “you always make more money in a new stadium.”

Another reason new stadiums are lucrative for teams is that they almost always are paid for partly with taxpayer money, which again is the case in the approved Falcons deal and the pending Braves deal. The Cobb County Commission is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the Braves deal.

Also driving the trend toward disposable stadiums is that facilities tend to need — at least in teams’ estimation — expensive renovations at around age 20 or 25. That invites consideration of other options.

The Braves contend Turner Field would need $100 million to $250 million in work. Even higher figures were floated early this year for the costs of renovating the Georgia Dome.

“I think no matter what we spent, if you go out another 10 years, there would be another huge tranche of money needed to keep it going,” Braves chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk said of Turner Field. “It turned out in my mind that there wasn’t an awful lot of space between keeping the old one alive and building a new one.”

That calculus was reached after the Braves found an offer of $300 million in public funding in Cobb.

Colin Lord, 29, a Braves and Falcons fan with many fond memories in Turner Field and the Georgia Dome, doesn’t begrudge the business reasons behind the teams’ planned moves.

“I’m sure the new stadiums will be great, and I look forward to going to both,” he said. “But the day the Georgia Dome and Turner Field come down, I’ll be bummed out.”

Ballpark figures

A sampling of Major League Baseball and National Football League teams that moved into new stadiums in recent years and the ages of their former stadiums at the time:

* - Includes years multi-use stadium was open before Marlins and Padres franchises began play.

(Note: Giants and Jets share current stadium, as they did former stadium.)