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A high price to play
Cities finding new stadiums, Olympics may not offer great returns on their investments
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It’s a time of year sports fans eagerly await: The start of football preseason practices, sparking anticipation for the fall nights and afternoons to come. Baseball pennant races heat up on the march toward the postseason, though sadly not for the Braves this year. And basketball lovers know their season isn’t far behind.

In addition to a popular pastime, sports are big business for pro teams and leagues. Whether they bring in the same kind of return on investment for their home cities is less certain, though most still willingly chip in every time a pro sports owner, with pockets turned inside out, begs for cash to build a new facility.

Metro Atlanta is building two new ballparks, one downtown for the Falcons, replacing the 24-year-old Georgia Dome, another in Cobb County for the Braves, who will vacate 18-year-old Turner Field after next season. It seems a waste to see buildings of such recent vintage deemed obsolete. For both, it’s more about want than need.

The Falcons want more expensive seating and luxury boxes than the Dome can provide, and to lure a Super Bowl back to Atlanta, a prize awarded to the shiniest new cathedrals with the most seats to sell.

The Braves decided they couldn’t turn the run-down neighborhood around Turner Field into an upscale, mixed-use destination. So they will abandon a site choked by highway traffic and unserved by MARTA rail, a fact that still makes no sense, for Cobb — a new site choked by traffic and with no transit, but closer, the team feels, to its suburban fan base.

Like any parent knows, if you give two of your kids new toys, the third will want one, too. Now the Hawks’ new owners want a new arena or major upgrades to their 16-year-old home, Philips Arena. Sixteen years is barely broken in, but in today’s “keeping up with the Joneses” scramble, what was state-of-the-art five minutes ago is now considered decrepit. It’s again because of the desire for more and pricier seats, which a few coats of paint can’t fix.

Though a few cities still celebrate venerable ballparks — Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Lambeau Field, for example — the “newer is better” mindset prevails. The new fields then are surrounded by bars, shops and restaurants and enhanced with giant TV scoreboards, all to market the “experience” of attending a game at jacked-up prices.

Yet there may be a blowback building in the quest to subsidize billionaires’ bottom lines with tax money paid by many who never buy a ticket.

It is starting with the Olympics, the grandest of all sporting events, and the priciest. Boston recently scrapped its bid to host the Games because it couldn’t gather public or political support to foot the bill. Suddenly more cities are passing on the right to play Olympic host because of the staggering cost. Several still are paying that price: Montreal, Barcelona and London piled up billions in debt, and Athens struggled to put on the Games amid Greece’s still-failing economy.

Atlanta’s Games, held 19 years ago this summer, were a different story. Based on Los Angeles’ model years earlier, Atlanta organizers paid for venues with private sponsorships, not tax dollars. They broke even, and were able to donate facilities back to the communities, including Olympic Stadium, which became Turner Field. Only one of those, the rowing and paddling venue on Lake Lanier, remains in use for its original sport.

However, costs have risen to the point private funding alone can’t cover. It’s one thing to shell out for a ballpark that should last for decades (except in Atlanta, home of the temporary home), but another to incur decades of debt for a two-week tourism bump. A study last year showed few Olympic cities have benefited economically from holding the Games. As more cities bow out, organizers will have to make tough choices: Stage the Games cheaper or revisit cities with existing infrastructure.

Some U.S cities are learning to be as wary of new stadium plans. After sour deals in Miami and elsewhere, leaders are weighing whether such investments pay off. It’s a question of prestige more than hard dollars; no one wants to see a team flee for greener pastures, as Atlanta’s two hockey teams did.

That has long been teams’ extortion ploy: Give us a new ballpark or we’ll find one elsewhere. A handful of NFL teams have done so, leaving behind broken-hearted fans and city leaders desperate to build anew to attract a new ballclub.

But studies show the economic bonanza of pro sports is not as lucrative as believed. It seems all those jobs and visitors a team lures to town just wind up moving to other activities. As a result, government leaders are trying to structure stadium deals that lessen the burden on payers of local, state, sales and hotel taxes. Before long, some will just say “no.”

The Obama administration is aiming to end the federal tax-exempt status of bonds issued to build sports venues. Such a change wouldn’t impact the current Atlanta projects, but it could dampen cities’ desire to rebuild in the future if those taxes are factored into the real cost.

We all love watching Atlanta’s teams and take pride in the exposure they bring our state. And we admire and respect Arthur Blank for his success with the Falcons, Hall County’s home team. We just don’t think it’s wise to keep soaking taxpayers for new stadiums that aren’t needed while the economy remains wobbly, jobs and incomes aren’t growing and priorities like schools and roads should take precedence.

Most fans are content with the Dome, the Ted and the Highlight Factory. We wish team owners were as easy to please.

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