As the April 14 Opening Day nears for the new Atlanta Braves stadium complex in Cobb County, many Sandy Springs residents and officials have voiced fears of traffic jams. A common complaint is that the team is more focused on its stadium business than on its neighborhood impacts.
It turns out that the Braves have worried about traffic, too, because it could impact stadium business. Evan Gitomer, the executive in charge of marketing and seat-selling at the Braves’ SunTrust Park, sits in on traffic-planning meetings, he said at a Nov. 10 talk at Temple Emanu-El in Sandy Springs.
“Parking meetings are not my favorite,” Gitomer said. But sales and traffic-planning departments must work together, he said, because the Braves are selling an entire fan “experience.”
“What we learned is, the experience doesn’t start when [fans] walk in the doors,” Gitomer said. It includes how long, and how painlessly, it takes them to get to the ballpark, he said.
That’s one reason the Braves have made such changes as moving game start times back to 7:30 p.m., he said, a decision that came from a 12-day study of when rush hour starts to thin out.
Gitomer spoke about the stadium as part of Temple Emanu-El’s community lecture series. He’s a consultant with the sports marketing firm Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment, hired by the Braves to direct stadium marketing, starting with selling the naming rights to SunTrust.
Gitomer has worked in similar positions for such teams as the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and, most recently, the Orlando Magic basketball team. He talked about getting into the sports marketing business after seeing how games can bring people together with events that are “trivial” in the grand scheme of things.
“You start to see this camaraderie that’s built,” he said. “You see people going to those games and hugging complete strangers.”
However, the Braves’ move from Atlanta to Cobb has not always generated camaraderie. About 250 people attended a September forum in Sandy Springs to voice concerns about traffic. At the Temple Emanu-El talk, a few residents expressed similar fears.
Gitomer said that, while the Braves have their own concerns, they’re also comfortable with the solutions.
“We’re in Atlanta. Traffic’s not great here,” he said.
He noted that SunTrust Park will have about 9,000 fewer seats and many more entrances than the old Turner Field, nicknamed “The Ted.” Unlike The Ted, the new stadium is paired with a massive mixed-use project called the Battery, featuring many shops and restaurants. The idea is that traffic will be spread out, instead of jammed at game time, as many fans choose to come earlier and stay later for shopping and eating.
However, some Sandy Springs officials say they are more concerned about the Battery’s traffic impacts than that of the ballpark.
Gitomer said the Braves also expected some traffic improvements due to the ballpark being located closer to its north metro Atlanta season-ticket population. He said that “55 percent of the people that come through our gates come with a child,” leading the team to assume fans will travel from home rather than from the workplace, cutting down on long-distance travels from work centers such as downtown.
Seat sales are “very good,” Gitomer said. He explained that the goal in baseball is selling about half the seats as season tickets, and the Braves are “well beyond half” now. He said competition with Atlanta’s other sports teams with new stadiums is a factor, but baseball is different in deliberately keeping some low-priced seats. At SunTrust, the cheapest seats will be $6 and the most expensive will be around $500.
Fans at Temple Emanu-El were eager to know whether they would be allowed to bring food into SunTrust games. Gitomer said the team hasn’t decided yet and that safety is a factor.
Regarding in-house concessions, the team is focused on quality rather than rock-bottom pricing, he said, contrasting it with the Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s recently announced plans to sell $2 hot dogs. At SunTrust, he said, concession companies pay the Braves a flat fee, not a percentage of sales, so they have an incentive to sell higher-quality food.
Residents at the talk also were curious about rumors of a grocery store joining the Battery complex. Gitomer said the Braves are in talks with two grocery chains, but added that it’s a tough business driven by highly specific demographic statistics.
“I wouldn’t say it’s impossible,” he said of a grocer coming to the Battery. “I would say I would anticipate one will happen.”