800 tons of snow, 15-story ski jump turn SunTrust Park into ‘Big Air’ venue

When the gates open Friday, SunTrust Park will look nothing like you’ve ever seen it before.

Eight hundred tons of manufactured snow will transform the stadium into a winter wonderland. A massive ski-jump structure will start 150 feet above center field. Some of the world’s best skiers and snowboarders will replace hitters and pitchers in action.

The occasion is the “Visa Big Air” event Friday and Saturday nights, hosted by the Braves in partnership with U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the national governing body for those sports.

Big Air is the latest — and most extreme — example of the Braves’ effort to expand the use of their ballpark far beyond baseball.

“The spectacle of coming to SunTrust Park to see, in of all places Atlanta, a skiing and snowboarding event will, I think, be really dynamic,” Braves president and CEO Derek Schiller said as workers prepared the venue outside his office windows.

“We are interested in building very unique events to complement the 81 baseball games, whether that be during the season or the offseason. That is definitely part of our business plan and part of what we are as an organization now. We think of ourselves as a 365-day-a-year organization with an opportunity to do all kinds of events.”

Few events will present the logistical demands of Big Air.

Work began the day after Thanksgiving on constructing the 15-story-tall, 410-foot-long steel scaffold jump structure, which consists of about 29,000 unique pieces. The 800 tons of artificial snow will provide the finishing touch, covering the structure and some of the surrounding area at an average snow depth of 20 inches.

The 164 freeskiers and snowboarders from 27 nations, including former and potential future Olympians, will drop from the top of the ramp into an approximately 40-degree in-run, then launch into mid-air off the jump at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. They will perform tricks – think flips, spins, twists, rotations – while traveling up to 70 feet in the air before landing and stopping near where home plate ordinarily would be.

“What they do is absolutely dramatic and stunning to watch,” said Tiger Shaw, president and CEO of U.S. Ski &  Snowboard and a two-time Olympic skier in the 1980s. “The term ‘action sports’ really encapsulates this.”

Shaw expects crowds totaling between 10,000 and 20,000 on Friday and Saturday nights. Ticket prices range from $25 to $200, or from $40 to $370 for a two-day ticket. The men’s and women’s competition, sanctioned by the International Ski Federation, will be televised live on NBC Sports Network beginning at 7 p.m. both nights.

“We knew the novelty of putting a giant ski jump in the Braves stadium would attract a lot of interest,” Shaw said. “I think there’s incredible curiosity about having a snow-based event in a ballpark in Georgia.”

The event, which was held in Boston’s Fenway Park in 2016, is part of Park City, Utah-based U.S. Ski &  Snowboard’s effort to widen its audience by bringing the sports to metro areas. The organization hopes to host a Big Air event annually in major U.S. cities leading up to the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.

“Our sports (typically) take place on mountains, which tend to not be near metro areas — cold places far away for many in the U.S.,” Shaw said. “And so the more we can bring our sports to the masses and bring it into the cities — it’s such a great stadium event.

“If we can think of it as a giant demonstration of what our sports are, we hope that it drives fan interest, people following us and our athletes, and Olympic excitement.”

Snowboarding Big Air made its Olympic debut at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, and Freeskiing Big Air is scheduled to make its Olympic debut in 2022.

For the Braves, who operate the soon-to-be-renamed SunTrust Park, this week's event follows other efforts to diversify the calendar — and revenue streams — at the stadium and its adjacent mixed-use development, The Battery Atlanta.

A college football game between Kennesaw State and Jacksonville (Ala.) State was played at SunTrust Park in November 2018. A celebrity flag football game was held there in February 2019 as part of the leadup to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. A nine-hole golf course was set up in the ballpark in October 2017 for a “Stadiumlinks” event, with golfers taking shots at on-field targets from nine locations in the stands.

Schiller said the Braves are brainstorming other possibilities. He wonders if an NHL game could be played in the stadium someday. The Braves’ interest in Big Air began when the Red Sox held the event at Fenway Park.

“Everybody at that point in time was wowed by it,” Schiller said. “ I don’t know that there was an immediate sense we’d be able to do it in Atlanta, but then we got contacted by the U.S. Ski & Snowboard asking if we would be interested.”

First, the Braves had to satisfy themselves that the extensive irrigation system under the playing field could withstand the weight of the steel structure and the snow.

“There were a lot of engineering discussions, a lot of due diligence, that took place before we decided it’s something we could do,” Schiller said. “But the event always maintained a huge appeal for us because of how unique it is.”