Welcome to Atlanta, where the marketers market: Inside SunTrust Park, the Braves’ stunning new stadium

Big League Stew

COBB COUNTY, Ga. — SunTrust Park, the still-under-warranty home of the Atlanta Braves, presents a simple truth: you can have one hell of a fine time here without ever seeing a single live pitch. Whether that fills you with excitement or regret probably depends on how old you were the first time you brought your smartphone to a ballgame.

There’s no doubt that SunTrust Park, which opens for regular-season duty Friday, is a beautiful facility. Brickwork, forest-green seats and navy blue accents highlight impeccable sightlines and an intimate feel; if it’s not already the ideal image of a ballpark, it’s going to be in the conversation.

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But this is also a shrine to Brands as well as Braves, a place where every delight has its price, a place where there’s always a little bit better time waiting on the next level … if you’re willing to pay up. It’s also impossible to even consider SunTrust Park without considering the conditions under which it was born … and the conditions which you’ll endure getting here.

Still, in these turbulent and negative times, let’s go positivity-first. For its most obvious purpose — giving baseball fans an opportunity to watch baseball — this is a damn near flawless facility. SunTrust Park seats 41,149, roughly a 20 percent drop from Turner Field’s capacity. The seats are terraced in five sections rather than three, with the net result being fewer seats tucked under overhangs and more seats closer to the field. Where many stadiums have rows of seats that extend outward from the field into infinity, the terraces at SunTrust Park form more of an enclosing wall. If and when the Braves can rally their fans, they’ll have a hell of a home-field advantage. (Until then, Cubs, Red Sox and Yankees bandwagoners will have the run of the joint.)

SunTrust Park is ready for its close-up. (Yahoo Sports)
SunTrust Park is ready for its close-up. (Yahoo Sports)

SunTrust Park features Braves history around every turn, from the bat Hank Aaron used to hit home run No. 715 to the brace Sid Bream wore as he trundled around third base to win the 1992 National League Championship Series. Braves players must pass the long list of Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winners. There’s even a Braves alumni lounge tucked away on the suite level, where the many former Braves who live in the area can hang out when they’re in the park. Current players get the luxury of theater seating, wide lockers and a pool table in their clubhouse. The team takes care of its own.

The team takes care of its field, too; we’re a long way from the days when the Braves had to share a stadium with the Falcons, the occasional soccer club, and whatever turf-shredding motocross event came to town while the ballclub was on a road trip. The grass resembles the greens at Augusta National; the infield dirt is as delicate as Himalayan salt. You cringe at the thought of the first pitcher scuffing up the mound, the first baserunner carving a trench en route to second base.

There are fun quirks beyond, as well. My personal favorite: the strip of brick wall that runs above the padding along the right-field fence. It’ll require right fielders to play NASA scientist on the fly, judging the angle and velocity of fly balls and either reel in the highlight catch or risk a bases-clearing carom off the bricks. You can imagine that fence coming into play on a chilly October night, a highlight that hasn’t happened for a playoff-level team that doesn’t yet exist.

But this place does that to you. SunTrust Park isn’t authentic — no stadium that’s younger than the milk in your fridge could be “authentic” — but it gives such a convincing appearance of authenticity that you feel like you’ve been here before. Start with the fact that this place bears more than a passing resemblance to the joint it’s replacing, from the brick façade to the color scheme to the locations of some key holdover clubs and brands. It’s as if Turner Field lost a few pounds, hit the gym, had a bit of work done and moved out to the suburbs.

Not a bad spot to watch a ballgame. (Yahoo Sports)
Not a bad spot to watch a ballgame. (Yahoo Sports)

From there, note all the many elements that SunTrust Park has poached from other stadiums: the Monument Garden, the center-field fountain, the glassed-in walkway allowing high-roller fans to watch the players taking batting practice beneath the stadium, the right-field party area separated from the playing field itself by only a chain-link fence. You may have seen one or more of them before, but you’ve never seen them all together. It’s the Avengers Theory of stadium construction, and you can’t deny it’s an effective strategy.

The Braves roiled the entire city of Atlanta three years ago when they announced they’d be leaving Turner Field after just 17 seasons, then roiled their new hosts in Cobb County when county leaders pushed through approval of the project in just two weeks, without a public vote. But if the Braves can pull off what they’re trying to do — a $1.1 billion development that includes the stadium, a mixed-use retail/residential development, a concert hall, and more, all owned by the ballclub — this will be a model of 21st century sports team economics.

Plus, there are clearly plenty of brands that want in on the action. Standing at field level, you have no less than 22 different brands ranging from lawn-care products to potato chips to heath care facilities to auto manufacturers, all adorning every visible flat surface and a dozen elevated ones.

Look, we’re all living in a sponsor-driven world here; you’ve had to scroll past or around or through half a dozen sponsors on this article, too. But the relentless nature of sponsorship at SunTrust Park pummels you to the point that you stop even wondering why, say, SunTrust would think it’s a good idea to have kiosks teaching people about financial literacy at baseball games, the one place you usually go to escape such day-to-day concerns.

Good times await on the SunTrust Park rooftop. (Yahoo Sports)
Good times await on the SunTrust Park rooftop. (Yahoo Sports)

For all the wonders of SunTrust Park — and there are many, including the rooftop hangout site that features couches and foosball tables — there’s also the not-insignificant matter of actually getting to the stadium. Traffic in Atlanta was a nightmare long before a chunk of one of the city’s central highways collapsed recently, and SunTrust sits right at the elbow of two of Atlanta’s busiest megahighways. (Though, given how much concern about traffic woes revolves around this new park, it’s a touch ironic that the Interstate 85 collapse would have had a much worse effect on Turner Field traffic than SunTrust.)

The traffic at SunTrust is a locals-only matter, so unless you’re living here or planning to come to a game — in which case you should have started driving yesterday — the streams of headlights and brake lights around the stadium won’t much matter to you. But here’s where we start to see the subtle shift from sports as an on-demand experience to an appointment-driven one. The Braves are hammering home the point that fans have to plan ahead — hence all the nearby entertainment/dining options — to avoid hours of seething rage behind the wheel. The days of rolling over to the ballpark on a whim are, apparently, as much a part of history as the Glavine/Smoltz/Maddux rotation. Uber and Waze are now the masters of this realm.

The app-centered economy dominates SunTrust. Parents used to reserving Disney rides weeks ahead of their visit will have no problem reserving time on the zipline and rock climbing wall the day before their game. Millennials accustomed to living life through a smartphone screen will have no problem adjusting to the routine of, say, purchasing their tickets through one app, purchasing parking through another, getting a ride to the park via a third, and navigating the ballpark through a fourth.

For many, even most, fans, all this connectivity won’t diminish their game-day enjoyment. SunTrust Park is so wired that, according to primo sponsor Xfinity, every single person in a sold-out stadium will be able to watch a video simultaneously. The hyperconnected nature of SunTrust Park thus allows fans to enjoy live baseball as one more experience amid a curated buffet of entertainment options. If you live your life one app at a time, SunTrust Park presents an ideal content experience.

The simple fact is that this is an impressive stadium — more than half a billion dollars goes a long way aesthetically — that will provide you a carefully curated afternoon of Baseball-Themed Entertainment. It’s worth a visit for stadium road-trippers, if only to see what’s coming next to your town.

I’ll bring my kids here, and they’ll have a hell of a time, and I will too, because baseball rules. And I’ll try to keep all of us off the zip lines and away from the carnival games and out of the concession lines and away from the exhibits and off our damn phones long enough to, you know, watch some actual baseball.

And then it will be up to the Braves to win … or, in the brand-driven parlance of the times, deliver an epic, bleeding-edge content experience via continuous, sustained deployment of mobile assets in a bid for world-class lower-tier scoreboard activation.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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