When some Atlanta Braves front-office employees noticed top executives huddling with unusual frequency in recent months, they began to speculate that the team was about to be sold.
And, when word got around the office that the bosses had flown to Colorado by private jet to meet with owner Liberty Media, suspicion only grew.
Upon their return, the executives didn’t tell anyone what the trip was about, although one of them, Mike Plant, recalls telling a few folks it wasn’t about a sale of the team. As it turned out, it was about something bigger: seeking the owner’s approval to abandon Turner Field and build a new stadium in Cobb County.
Moves of such magnitude usually originate with the owner, but in the unusual case of the Braves — a team with an invisible, largely uninvolved, out-of-town, corporate owner — six of the team’s front-office executives quietly drove what is perhaps the biggest decision in the franchise’s 47 years here.
In exclusive interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the six officials — Braves chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk, team President John Schuerholz, executive vice presidents Plant and Derek Schiller, general counsel Greg Heller and chief financial officer Chip Moore — described a collaborative and consuming process. All six men have long histories with the Braves and/or the team’s former parent company, Turner Broadcasting. One of them, Moore, started working for the Braves 35 years ago as an usher, at age 16.
Months ago, the executives agreed to a code of silence about what they were up to. They required the same from anyone they had to bring into the process as a deal moved closer to completion with Cobb.
“I couldn’t be more proud of a group of senior executives than our group for getting this done in the manner we got it done and keeping it contained and completely confidential,” Schuerholz said. “They worked tirelessly to get a process that ordinarily takes three or more years done in months without it becoming public.”
Schuerholz acknowledged “some people are dismayed” by the secrecy that surrounded a matter so important to Braves fans and Cobb County taxpayers. “But it was the only way we could go about this,” he argued, “because of the timing and the impact on our relationship and partnership with the city and our about-to-be-new partnership with Cobb County.”
Heller suggested secrecy and speed were key to getting the deal done. “Time kills a lot of deals,” he said.
On the other hand, the secrecy excluded input from fans, taxpayers and business and government leaders who might have something important to contribute. Falcons President Rich McKay has said that the protracted public debate earlier this year about his team’s stadium situation, including several Atlanta City Council hearings, resulted in a better outcome for all parties because previously unconsidered points were raised.
When the Falcons decided to build their new stadium on a site just south of the Georgia Dome, it was clear who drove the decision: team owner Arthur Blank.
Ultimately, the Braves’ decision to move to Cobb County was made by team CEO McGuirk, a former longtime Turner Broadcasting executive. The decision was vetted and approved by Liberty Media, which owns interests in an array of media, communications and entertainment businesses and has a reputation for sophisticated deal-making.
“Liberty is a company that is extremely good at stress-testing ideas and business concepts,” McGuirk said. “They had nothing but agreement that we were on a very good track here.”
But Mike Koblentz, chairman of in-town Atlanta neighborhoods coalition Northwest Community Alliance, said the Braves used their secrecy “to blind-side the city.” He said the Falcons’ and Braves’ different decisions on where to locate their new stadiums “proves Arthur Blank is a loyal Atlantan and is really invested in Atlanta.”
Asked if a local owner might have been more inclined to keep the Braves downtown despite a strong business case for relocating, McGuirk rejected the notion.
“No, I have lived in Atlanta all my (adult) life, and I ultimately made the decision,” he said. “There was a lot of thought and a lot of consideration for a lot of stakeholders as we considered how to move forward. This wasn’t done just for money. Having the best place to expose the Atlanta Braves to our fans was really an exciting thing.”
In approving the move to Cobb County, Liberty made a different choice than Ted Turner, who rejected former Braves-Hawks-Thrashers president Stan Kasten’s advice in the late 1990s that the Hawks’ about-to-be-built arena, Philips, would be more lucrative in the suburbs.
“Clearly the best thing for the business of an arena would have been to be in the northern suburbs where the lion’s share of our customers were living,” Kasten, now president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, said last week. “But Ted could make a political/sociological decision because he was an owner, and he said, ‘Stan, I think it would be better for the city if I just put this arena downtown right next to CNN Center.’ But I don’t know of any other owner who would have made that decision.”
Kasten said Turner never faced a decision on whether to move the Braves because the 1996 Olympics provided the team a cost-free stadium just as it was starting to consider options for replacing Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the club’s home for its first 31 seasons here and now a Turner Field parking lot.
“Would we have considered (a different location) if the Olympics hadn’t come along? I’m sure we would have. But we never got that far,” Kasten said. “Remember we were confronted with the same reality as now: The stadium had been there at that time for 25 or 30 years and there hadn’t been a dime’s worth of development around it, and that continues to be the case. The same factors weren’t necessarily in place as for (Turner’s) arena decision.”
A new stadium generally triggers a sharp increase in a sports franchise’s revenue, and thus in its valuation, meaning Liberty Media likely will get more money when it decides to sell.
Characteristically, Liberty declined to shed any light on its plans for the team or its thoughts about the stadium deal. In response to a request for an interview with chairman John Malone, CEO Greg Maffei or any other Liberty executive, the company’s director of investor relations replied in an email: “Liberty is not available to comment.” That maintained the owner’s record of having granted only one interview (by Maffei, with this newspaper in 2007) concerning the Braves since buying the team.
The six Braves executives involved in the stadium deal said they began to focus in the fall of 2011 on what would happen when the Turner Field lease expires after the 2016 season. Several factors drove their thinking: the team’s fervent desire to control city-owned property around Turner Field in hopes of turning it into a mixed-use development, the stadium’s eventual need of expensive renovations, and concern about fan surveys that consistently showed traffic and parking problems were a deterrent to attendance.
In August 2012, the city’s development authority, Invest Atlanta, solicited ideas from private companies about how to develop the property around the stadium. But four months later, Braves officials were told a state law would prevent the team from having the full control it wanted over a development on the publicly owned property.
“We’ve lived long enough to know what the destination is with just being a baseball stadium,” Schiller said. “And that doesn’t work for the long term.”
By June, “we realized we needed to be thinking about a Plan B,” Heller said.
“We’d talk about Plan B,” Plant said, “and then we’d come to the quick question: Where?”
They began to find their answer on July 3, when Plant had a three-hour introductory lunch with Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee.
“Once Mike came back from Cobb County, we started talking internally about what would we want, what could we do,” Moore said. “We started modeling (a financial plan).”
About four weeks later, Lee showed Plant 60 acres of undeveloped land near the intersection of Interstates 75 and 285 — a parcel large enough for a stadium, parking and the adjoining mixed-use development coveted by the Braves.
In late August, the Braves’ top executives made the trip to Englewood, Colo., to present the financial plan for a new stadium to Liberty Media executives, who gave preliminary approval. Talks intensified with Cobb.
The Braves executives also continued to talk intermittently with Atlanta officials about Turner Field improvements. On Sept. 19, the team sent the city a long wish list of proposed pricey changes in and around the ballpark. But around the same time, with Liberty’s final blessing, the Braves entered into a contract to buy the 60 acres in Cobb.
“We had to move very quickly to acquire that real estate quietly through a company,” Schiller said.
By last Monday, the Braves were ready to announce to an unsuspecting public their plan to build a $672 million stadium: $300 million to be paid by Cobb from various taxes and $372 million by the Braves, who plan to borrow money and repay it from team revenue streams.
“How this unfolded and the pace with which it unfolded — it’s shocking,” said Schuerholz, hard to shock after 47 years in Major League Baseball.
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