Too Busy (Stuck in Traffic) To Hate: Atlanta, Sports, and Urban Space

Curator's Note

In November 2013, the Braves announced that they would be moving out of Turner Field, where they have played for just eighteen seasons, into a new stadium in suburban Cobb County, a decision reached after the city refused to spend millions in stadium upgrades or development in the neighborhood surrounding the field. Many fans expressed bewilderment that a perfectly serviceable stadium would be ditched after such a short time. However, as this clip from MSNBC’s All in with Chris Hayes illustrates, the fight over the stadium is tied not only to the financial negotiations between the city and the team but also Atlanta’s complex racial politics as well as definitions of what counts as “Atlanta.” As one of Hayes’ guests, Goldie Taylor, reminds us, Atlanta should be understood not as a single political body—a location defined by clear boundaries or city limits—but as “a ten-county metro region” cobbled together unevenly.

For the most part, the Hayes segment does an effective job of conveying both the region’s politics and their relationship to larger level concerns about what Hayes calls the “stadium hustle,” the process by which highly-profitable sports franchises are able to manipulate public sentiment in order to have new stadiums or arenas subsidized, often through taxes levied against local citizens. It’s an effective reflection on the relationships between sports, geography, and power. However, the segment also illustrates many of the limits of political talk, including the attempts to impose simple interpretations onto more complex phenomena. While the region of Atlanta has long resisted a comprehensive public transit system for reasons driven by both racism and a resistance to taxation, David Zirin, sports critic for The Nation, pushes a deep misreading of the move to the suburbs, flatly announcing, “it doesn’t take Bull Connor to figure out the messaging here,” while Taylor reads the move in terms of Major League Baseball’s failure to court African-American youth while forgetting that the Braves have three starting outfielders of African-American descent (Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton, and Justin Upton, for those keeping score). These misconceptions are challenged, to some extent, by Braves beat reporter David O’Brien; however, they warrant further interrogation, not only because they prevent us from fully understanding a city and region’s complex history but also because they may diminish our ability to act politically within such a diverse climate.


Chuck your piece reminds us of the role professional teams play as part of a city and as an engine of urban development. I found it interesting that the justification for the move that the Braves offered was a map of Braves ticket holders showing the dominance of fans in the northern suburbs. Not surprisingly this map also reflects the income disparity in the city. To equate the ability to buy season tickets with "true fandom" seems especially callous. How would this map look when accounting for walk-up tickets or actual attendance?

Thanks, Ethan, I wanted to include the map but the note was running way too long already. The map certainly imposed a specific narrative about fandom, one that clearly has to do with income disparities. I'd be curious to see how walk-up sales might change the map, as well.

This seems to be an interesting example for sports' inevitable involvement in "spatial governing": the physical building itself, the necessary infrastructure but even more its well-defined audience are tools to restructure a city - which then of course also impacts the character of sports (not unlike the way sports is used on TV to build a distinctive audience which in turn changes the audience composition of sports). Additionally, this example also shows the ridiculous imbalance of economic and ecological concerns characterizing sports (the Sochi Olympics being only an especially extreme example, which sometimes seems to be used to 'dissimulate' the ecological footprint of any big sports).

Thanks for this, Chuck. Your comment on the oversimplified readings of "stadium hustle" and what we might even call "stadium flight" is well taken. And your attention to the particularity of the specific city is especially interesting. Too often we filter these stories through the same framework for Detroit, Atlanta, Oakland, etc. when they have their own separate histories and cultures that must be taken into account.

For me, this case raises the issue of elite men's sports teams/leagues assuming that they are entitled to public money, positioning themselves as some kind of 'public service organisation' rather than multi-million dollar businesses. Fans in particular never think of it in those terms, but why should the city spend money on a sports stadium, principally for the benefit of a privately-owned business, rather than public infrastructure that will directly benefit the majority of its citizens? This sense of entitlement is particularly interesting when you consider how it parallels the way that men's college football and basketball teams in the US try to justify the large amounts of university funding they demand by claiming that they are 'revenue-raising' sports. In actual fact, research has shown that universities often lose money on these sports when all costs and revenues are taken into account. Elite men's sport maintains a position in public imaginaries that transcends financial concerns. As a case in point, I once received an undergraduate essay on the Australian Football League (equivalent to the NFL) as a not-for-profit organisation...

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