Melvin Jones of Marietta and his 1-year-old grandson Deandre Jones take a sneak peek at SunTrust Park, the Atlanta Braves’ new home ballpark in Cobb County, through the third-base gate on March 20, 2017. (Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Torpy at Large: Braves hitting it out of the park in the $$$ column

The Cobb County Braves have had a terrible pre-season, but that’s not important. The team is in the process of rebuilding and the players are merely the backdrop for the real star of 2017: The team’s brand-spanking new ballpark and adjoining live-work-play complex.

Sure, the Braves hoped they’d be competitive in their inaugural season at SunTrust Park and not be 72-90 and 19 games out of first place this year, like Las Vegas predicts.

Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Photo: AJC

But in recent weeks, the team is 3-0 in matters that are really important to Liberty Media, the Colorado corp that owns the Braves.

Win #1: Last week, Cobb County, which is paying more than $300 million to woo the Braves away from Atlanta, reluctantly agreed with the team’s contention that the taxpayers pay $14 million for ballpark-related infrastructure costs. (I’ll return to this.)

Win #2: The Braves will get more than $40 million in taxpayer money to build a $75 million spring training facility near Sarasota.

Win #3: Liberty Media’s CEO recently speculated that the Braves would be worth more than the Miami Marlins, who are reportedly worth $1.6 billion.

In three weeks, the Braves will open up at SunTrust, a $600 million-plus park that’s designed to feel old-timey, yet will be wired so that each of the 41,000 fans can watch video highlights on their iPhones. There will also be a bevy of shops, bars and restaurants known as The Battery. (Even odds says “The Battery” will one day be sponsored by the Energizer Bunny.)

The excitement and trepidation in Cobb is building as the county gets set to go Major League. What will happen when 41,000 people and their cars converge on one of the area’s busiest intersections (I-75 and I-285)? We’ll know by this time next month.

But the concerns about funding the project, which have churned since the deal was announced in November 2013, again were buzzing as the Braves recently called in a $14 million IOU to Cobb that county officials thought Cobb had already paid.

Late last year, the team came forward and asked, “Hey, where’s that $14 million in improvements you guys said you’d complete?”

So, the county produced a list of $69 million in infrastructure improvements around the park, assuming it had met the criteria. Granted, the county listed every lane striping, curb cut and lighting project performed near the park in the last few years. But a substantial amount of that work was indeed performed with the new park in mind.

Still, county commissioners never voted on what specific projects met the criteria for the $14 million. So things remained hazy. And, it seems, Liberty’s lawyers are better than Cobb’s.

The excitement and worries are building in Cobb County as the Braves get ready for opening day at their new stadium.
Video: www.accessatlanta.com

Enter new Commission Chairman Mike Boyce, who won his seat last year because of the lack of transparency surrounding the deal. Boyce was left with a pickle. Do you go to court and fight it out and have a whole new negative story line evolve around a money fight? Or do you negotiate a deal?

Boyce concluded that the county owed the money, so he negotiated a deal. The county will spend $11.7 million, mostly to fix stormwater runoff and perform sewer improvements near the park.

“Now both sides trust each other,” Boyce said, talking about looking forward and making things work.

The ballpark is on schedule but, the stadium will bring traffic challenges.

I talked with Tom Cheek, a resident who has investigated Cobb government for the past few years. He said he was looking at Cobb officials’ emails, which he got through Open Records requests. “And it becomes humorous. It looked like some of them at the county were hoping the Braves would forget” about the $14 million promise, he said.

He added, “They have still not said where this money is coming from.”

I asked Cheek if he thought it was bad PR for the Braves to push for the money as the new park was set to open. I mean, $14 million is merely a rounding error for Liberty Media.

He laughed. “I don’t think it matters to them. They’re a huge corporation. (The bad press) is like a two-game losing streak to them. It affects the Cobb taxpayers more than the Braves.”

SunTrust Park, the Atlanta Braves’ new baseball stadium in Cobb County, on March 9, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Photo: The Associated Press

Cheek was not kidding when he said Cobb needs the money more than Liberty.

Last year, Liberty Media pulled in $5.3 billion in revenue and $1.73 BILLION in operating income, which is more than double 2014’s operating income, according to financial statements.

Ten years ago, Liberty Media, which was founded by the famously tax-avoidant businessman John Malone, got the Braves in an arcane stock swap with AOL-Time Warner. In that deal, Liberty shed $1.8 billion of Time Warner stock and received the Braves, then worth about $460 million, and $1.4 billion in cash. It saved a reported $600 million in taxes.

In essence, Malone got a free MLB team, plus hundreds of millions in cash.

Now the Braves, thanks to Cobb’s generosity, is worth $1.2 billion, according to a Forbes magazine article last year.

And, get this: On a recent call with Wall Street analysts, Liberty’s CEO Greg Maffei was asked about a rumored deal in which the Miami Marlins were to be sold for $1.6 billion (again, with a B).

“I would posit to the proud order that the Atlanta Braves, one of the most storied and longest franchises in baseball, frankly in professional sports in the U.S., would be far more valuable than the Marlins given our fan base, given our opportunity, given the new stadium, given the potential TV revenue ahead,” the executive said.

Remember, first pitch is three weeks away.

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