Braves executives reflect on SunTrust Park’s opening homestand

Mike Plant, the Braves’ president of development, shows off SunTrust Park during a tour last month. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Mike Plant, the Braves’ president of development, shows off SunTrust Park during a tour last month. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

On the last night of the first homestand at SunTrust Park, two Braves executives — both of them immersed in the stadium project for years — expressed satisfaction and exhilaration about the ballpark’s opening week.

Mike Plant, the Braves’ president of development, and Derek Schiller, the team’s president of business, reviewed the homestand in a joint interview Thursday night, agreeing that the new stadium performed extremely well.

“It has exceeded my expectations,” Plant said.

The new Cobb County stadium officially opened, on its original schedule and budget, with much pomp and pageantry April 14 and hosted games for seven consecutive days before the Braves left for a three-city trip. The next game at SunTrust Park is May 1, the start of another seven-game stand.

“There is a huge sense of pride that we’ve accomplished the first goal, which was getting this place up and running and getting thousands upon thousands of fans through the doors,” Schiller said Thursday night. “It’s an exhilarating feeling after working on this project for so long. There are so many people who have contributed to this.”

Plant said the response he has received from fans “is a validation of the vision we had of what we thought we could create.”

“This has controlled our lives seven days a week from the minute you get up until the minute you go to bed,” Plant said. “And when you wake up in the middle of the night, you start thinking about it.

“To see it all come alive … it is a pretty great accomplishment for our organization.”

The issues that most worried many fans — traffic and parking — went more smoothly on the opening homestand than had been feared and forecast. The adjacent mixed-use development, The Battery Atlanta, showed early signs of its potential to enhance the fan experience, even though only about a half-dozen restaurants and bars were open. And on the field, there were a lot of home runs hit, including one that splashed into the water feature beyond center field.

Operations hit a few snags, too. The much-touted plan for post-game Uber pickups didn’t work and had to be changed. Some concession stands had intermittent computer problems with accepting credit and debit cards. Some concourses, particularly behind home plate, became too heavily congested.

“If you’re in this business, you understand no one is coming out of the box with operational perfection,” Plant said. “The key is to minimize … the big things that make you say, ‘Oh, how did we miss that?’ We didn’t have any of those.”

Here’s a look at several aspects of the ballpark’s opening week:

Attendance

The seven games attracted 215,394 fans, an average of 30,771 per game. The first two games drew sellout crowds of 41,149, while the third game drew 37,147 and the next four ranged from 21,834 to 27,498.

Attendance increased by an average of 5,261 fans per game from last season’s first seven games at Turner Field. But the same general pattern that has long characterized Braves attendance held: big crowds on weekends, much smaller crowds on weeknights when school is in session.

“When kids are in school, it does affect our attendance,” Schiller said. “Conversely, during summer months, we not only get all those families with kids, but we get a wider travel market with people coming from out of town throughout the Southeast. We always know that there is going to be a bit of a bell curve that occurs with attendance in this marketplace.

“We are still very happy with the attendance. It’s a lot of people to come through here in our first homestand.”

How it played

With a new stadium, fans and players always wonder: Will it prove to be a pitcher’s park or a hitter’s park? Seven games don’t provide a definitive answer, but the Braves’ new home sure has looked hitter-friendly so far.

The ball carried well, and the wind often blew out and toward right field, where the distance to the power-alley wall is 15 feet less than it was at Turner Field, 375 instead of 390.

Sixteen home runs were hit in SunTrust Park’s first seven games, an average of 2.29 per game. By comparison, 130 home runs were hit in 80 games at Turner Field last season, an average of 1.62 per game.

Technology

Fans tested the boasts from the Braves and technology provider Comcast Business that the ballpark would have the fastest WiFi speed of any North American sports venue.

According to Comcast, average WiFi data consumption per user for the stadium’s opening weekend exceeded that at this year’s Super Bowl in Houston by 20 percent — 401 megabytes per user at SunTrust Park compared with the Super Bowl’s 333 megabytes per user. Schiller called that “a game changer in the entire industry.”

More than 21,000 unique devices connected to SunTrust Park’s WiFi last weekend, engaging in more than 61,000 sessions, Comcast said.

Lessons learned

Before the next home game, Plant said, “we have five construction designs we’re going to tweak to make operations better.” For example, he said, a carry-out window will be installed on The Battery side of a restaurant that has entrances both inside and outside the ballpark.

Noting that much construction work remains to be done in the mixed-use development, Plant said: “We’re not kicking back.”