SunTrust Park’s rookie season winds down 

Sept 21, 2017
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The last series of SunTrust Park’s inaugural season is this weekend.

Five months and 10 days after the Braves played their first regular-season game at SunTrust Park, the stadium’s rookie season will conclude Sunday afternoon. 

“It has gone by in a blink, flown by,” said Terry McGuirk, the Braves’ chairman and CEO. 

The Braves will play their 81st – and last – home game of the season in the finale of a weekend series against Philadelphia. Then they’ll finish the season with eight road games. 

The pageantry of opening the new Cobb County stadium April 14 evolved into the summer rhythm of a baseball season as the ballpark and its adjacent mixed-use development became part of the fabric of the team. 

It’s safe to say the stadium played better this season than the still-rebuilding Braves, mired in their fourth consecutive losing season. 

“It has gone smoothly,” McGuirk said of the stadium. “It has gone positively. And we’re all about the future.” 

The Braves’ attendance was on pace, entering this weekend, to increase about 500,000 from last year. Team revenue was up 34 percent in the first three months of the season, the latest figure available. The restaurants and bars of The Battery Atlanta, the adjacent development, added a new dimension to the fan experience. 

The stadium was excessively prone to home runs in the season’s early months; then the power surge moderated. Pregame and postgame traffic did not become the widely predicted nightmare around the stadium. “The Freeze” became a marketing hit with his come-from-behind between-innings races.

The biggest negative was on the scoreboard, where the Braves posted a losing home record in their first season at SunTrust.

A walk around the upper- and lower-level concourses in the early innings of a game on this final homestand revealed fans still exploring the ballpark’s nooks and crannies.

Dozens of fans gathered in the well-appointed “Monument Garden” area, reveling in the team’s history out of sight of the game. The concourses flowed well on this night, although congestion has been a problem when crowds are larger.  A fan wearing an Andrelton Simmons jersey strolled toward the Chop House and expressed optimism about the team’s future “if we don’t make too many more ill-advised trades, like you-know-which-one.”

“This stadium is a terrific place to enjoy a game,” said another fan, Kim Wood, of Atlanta. “I appreciate the different vantage points. It’ll be even better when the team is a contender and The Battery gets finished.” 

Beyond the outfield, the lighted marquee signs on the Omni hotel and the Comcast office tower – both scheduled to open during the offseason – are a reminder this project is still a work in progress. 

“We’ve got 10 or 11 restaurants open. We’ll have 20 when we’re done,” McGuirk said. 

Overall, only 30 percent of The Battery’s square footage is open, according to Derek Schiller, the Braves’ president of business.  

“In a lot of ways, it’s not only a new ballpark. It’s a new way to build a professional sports venue … with how The Battery Atlanta interacts with the ballpark to create a better fan experience,” Schiller said. “For us, it’s all been a big learning curve because we’ve never been real-estate developers, and essentially that is what we are this year. 

“We knew it was going to be aggressive come April 14 to have some of these (restaurant/bar) establishments open, but we had been stating for a couple of years prior that we wanted to expand upon the experience of going to a Braves game. I think we delivered on that April 14. But I think every day since then there has been something additive. … Come opening day of 2018, (The Battery) will be almost fully occupied and almost fully done.” 

Well, maybe not “almost fully done”: The Braves are considering development of other parcels they own near the stadium. 

“The performance of The Battery has well exceeded our expectations,” Mark Carleton, chief financial officer of Braves owner Liberty Media, said at an investor conference this month. “... We’re looking at a couple other new buildings there as well. 

“It’s been a really great story,” Carleton said, “and it’s a beautiful place.” 

Inside the stadium, the Braves made operational adjustments throughout the season as they learned the building, but no major alterations are planned in the offseason, executives said. 

“We all feel very good about how the ballpark has operated, the experience it provides,” Schiller said. 

SunTrust Park, like Mercedes-Benz Stadium, was designed with an array of social spaces, where fans can gather to watch, or not watch, the game in environments other than traditional stadium seats. These range from premium clubs beneath the seating bowl to group spaces at the top of the stadium.

After one season of operation, such spaces and The Battery seem to be the defining characteristics of the Braves’ new home.

John Schuerholz, the Braves’ vice chairman and a baseball executive for 52 years, thinks SunTrust Park will launch a new era in MLB stadium construction, as Baltimore’s much-emulated Oriole Park at Camden Yards did when it opened in 1992.

“What Camden Yards was to baseball (then),” Schuerholz said, “SunTrust Park and The Battery have become.”

Owners and executives from numerous sports organizations, including NFL teams, have visited SunTrust Park throughout the season, particularly intrigued about the interaction of stadium and mixed-use development.

“This is a totally different kind of experience,” McGuirk said. “There is a lifestyle change around this sport that is taking place that is immeasurable.

“It is a platform on which, when we build this team out of the minor leagues into this winning juggernaut we think we’ll be, I think this thing will take off in a way that we’ve never seen before.” 

After Sunday, the next scheduled game at SunTrust Park is March 29, the earliest opening day in MLB history, when the Braves will face the Phillies to start the stadium’s sophomore season.