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Volume 20 No. 46


The Atlanta Braves are trying to accomplish something that no big league team has ever done: open a new stadium and 1 million square feet of mixed-use development simultaneously.

It is a daunting challenge, but the project, which will take the Braves from their current home near downtown Atlanta 12 miles north to Cobb County, presents a slew of opportunities for the team. It now steps into the role of real estate developer to market both the stadium and the retail, office, entertainment and hotel components proposed next door.

To help the Braves determine those assets and develop a sales strategy, the team has turned to Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment to consult on selling naming rights and founding partnerships for the proposed 41,500-seat ballpark as well as sponsorships around the associated development. As of last week, both parties were

The Braves’ new ballpark and connected development are scheduled to open in 2017.
Photo by: ATLANTA BRAVES (2)

in the final stages of negotiating a multiyear contract that runs up to the stadium opening in 2017, said Derek Schiller, the Braves’ executive vice president of sales and marketing.

In addition to sales consulting, Schiller said the Braves expect Van Wagner to help develop stadium technology, among the services the agency offers teams and facilities.

Bob Jordan, a Van Wagner senior vice president, is working with MLB Advanced Media to update all 30 ballparks with the latest wireless technology. This season, Jordan also serves as MLB’s consultant for activating new video cameras tied to expansion of instant replay in baseball.

The Braves initially looked at a half-dozen agencies before selecting Van Wagner, said Schiller, who would not disclose the other finalists. Schiller cited a personal history with Jeff Knapple, the firm’s president and CEO, whom he has known for almost 20 years. Knapple sold naming rights for Philips Arena at the time Schiller worked for the former Atlanta Thrashers.

The agency’s scope of services extending beyond its naming-rights group also appealed to the Braves, Schiller said.

The assignment for Van Wagner comes on the heels of it landing a big deal with the Minnesota Vikings, where it is leading the sale of naming rights and developing technology for the Vikings’ $975 million stadium project. The agency’s role in the Twin Cities also covers selling seat licenses and premium seats for the stadium, which is scheduled to open in 2016.

Seat licenses are not part of the stadium development in Atlanta, and the Braves have not made a decision whether Van Wagner will go beyond strategy and sell suites and club seats for the new ballpark, Schiller said.

On the sponsorship front, naming rights and founding partnerships sold for the ballpark could extend to parts of the ancillary development. Van Wagner’s expertise will help the Braves sort through those complexities, Schiller said.

Braves’ Schiller: Control of process is essential.

The model is similar to what AEG did for L.A. Live across the street from Staples Center, said Mike Plant, the Braves’ executive vice president of business operations. Arena sponsors Panasonic, Coca-Cola and American Express also have a presence at the retail and entertainment district.

In Atlanta, the Braves will ultimately take the lead for selling naming rights to both properties, supported by Van Wagner’s team of marketers.

“We want to maintain control over all these different processes because we believe that we have to protect our long-term interests in doing so,” Schiller said.

In that respect, it is much different than a typical destination development, where developers expect to control the project regardless of their level of investment, Plant said.

“Developers buy some land, master plan it, go vertical and create a lifestyle,” he said. “They don’t have a ballpark with 3 million people coming to it every year. For us, that’s the big difference.”

Mike Plant, Braves EVP of business operations, sees a sales model similar to L.A. Live.

For the past month, Van Wagner officials have met with the Braves to lay the groundwork for developing a comprehensive marketing platform.

“We’re looking at the development as a big opportunity,” said Chris Allphin, Van Wagner’s vice president. “Part of the heritage of our company was developing content for signs at Times Square in the ’70s. It’s about using advertising and sponsorship to improve the overall experience.”

While there are several examples of mixed-use developments by teams near existing facilities — Patriot Place, Ballpark Village in St. Louis, L.A. Live — one recent project could provide an example for the Braves and Van Wagner to learn from: TD Place, the new sports and entertainment complex in Ottawa. That development involves the renovation of a CFL stadium and hockey arena at old Lansdowne Park, surrounded by commercial, retail and residential development.

The project developer, Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, also owns the Ottawa Redblacks, a new CFL team starting play in July; the Ottawa 67s hockey club; and an NASL expansion franchise. Their role is similar to what the Braves are undertaking in Atlanta.

Ottawa Sports, in conjunction with its consultant, Premier Partnerships, focused on its assets and the scope of what the group had to offer before going to market, said Adrian Sciarra, Ottawa Sports’ vice president of partnerships and merchandise.

To date, those deals range from TD Bank’s 10-year deal valued at $1 million annually to put its name on all aspects of the development, including the sports venues, to Gabriel Pizza’s six-year deal to sponsor the three teams and run a restaurant in the mixed-use piece, Sciarra said.

The Braves will push to get some major partners on board early to help them shape the signature pieces of development.

“If you can get a naming-rights partner interested well before you’re done with design, it gives you so many more enhanced opportunities,” Schiller said. “They want a unique component that you can touch and feel with the ballpark. We’re in that situation where we can still do that.”

Don Muret
Aramark is poised to take over general concessions at FirstEnergy Stadium, the home of the Cleveland Browns, two years after the vendor assumed the premium dining contract there.

Last week, Aramark was in the final stages of negotiating an eight-year contract with the Browns, said Brent Stehlik, the team’s executive vice president and chief revenue officer. The number of years matches the term of Aramark’s premium deal, Stehlik said.

Aramark replaces Delaware North Sportservice, which had run the stadium’s concessions since the facility opened in 1999.

Driving the team’s decision to select Aramark was the opportunity to expand the company’s unofficial “Taste of Cleveland” concepts from the club level to concessions, Stehlik said.

When Aramark began operating the stadium’s premium food service in 2012, it introduced a new brand, Cleveland Browns Hospitality Group, to serve the suites and clubs and cater special events and corporate functions at the venue.

Michael Symon’s B Spot burgers will expand beyond the club level at FirstEnergy Stadium.

As part of the rebrand, Aramark brought in three well-known local chefs to serve their signature items on the club level. Michael Symon’s B Spot burgers, Rocco Whalen’s homemade meatballs and pizza and Jonathon Sawyer’s french fries topped with gravy and mozzarella curds resonated with Browns fans. For the 2012 season, the Browns’ premium food revenue grew by more than 20 percent over 2011, the final year that Levy Restaurants managed the operation. Last season, the upward tick continued, team officials said.

“We’ve seen a significant improvement in per caps and fan experience on our club level,” Stehlik said.

This year, as Aramark folds concessions under the same hospitality group brand, the three chefs will bring their recipes and flair to the public concourses, joined by Chris Hodgson, another homegrown chef, who made his mark running a Cleveland food truck. Last year, Hodgson opened Hodge Podge on the stadium’s club level, serving gourmet hot dogs and tater tots. The same concept will be rolled out to general concessions in 2014.

Aramark has committed to making an investment in the mid-seven figures to pay for concessions upgrades tied to the second phase of a $120 million stadium renovation, Stehlik said. Those improvements will be completed before the 2015 season.

> HOME PLATE: Open Table, a mobile application that allows diners to make reservations at restaurants, is now in use at several MLB ballparks.

Legends Hospitality introduced Open Table this season as part of taking over all food service at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. Los Angeles Angels season-ticket holders can download the application on their smartphones to make reservations for the Diamond Club behind home plate and the Knothole Club on the club level by the right-field foul pole. The Knothole Club is open to all ticket holders after the first pitch, said David Lippman, Legends’ on-site general manager.

Improving the fan experience is driving use of the technology in sports, vendors said. Food providers pay a few hundred dollars to Open Table for purchasing the software and are charged a small fee per reservation. Concessionaires refused to disclose the reservation fees. For traditional restaurants, the fee is about $1 a reservation, according to the Open Table website.

Legends first used Open Table last season at Yankee Stadium’s Audi Club, then brought the technology to the West Coast. The system should eliminate miscommunication between fans and ballpark food operators under the old phone reservation format, Lippman said.

Elsewhere this season, Aramark debuts Open Table at Citi Field’s Acela Club and Pat LaFrieda’s Chop House, company officials said.

Delaware North Sportservice has used Open Table for about two years at Dempsey’s, a restaurant at Camden Yards. This year it expands the system to Progressive Field, Target Field and Cardinals Nation, part of Ballpark Village across the street from Busch Stadium.

In Phoenix, Levy Restaurants plans to push Open Table to a greater degree after it did not see much use last season at the Game Seven Grill next to Chase Field, Arizona Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall said. “I think it makes perfect sense for popular spots with limited openings,” Hall said.

Don Muret can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @breakground.

On the first day Chip Wile went to work as president of Darlington Raceway, he walked out of the office and found a family of three from North Carolina who wanted a tour of the facility. Wile loaded them into his Ford Explorer and circled the track, stopping between turns 3 and 4 to show them the 22-degree banking.

The impromptu tour surprised staff at the South Carolina speedway. The track, which has about 15 employees, hadn’t offered tours since 2008, but now it does so regularly, and it’s sold dozens of tickets as a result.

Wile has added new events and strengthened local business ties since taking over at Darlington Raceway.

It’s that type of personal engagement that executives at International Speedway Corp., which owns Darlington, hoped Wile would bring to the job when they named the former Motor Racing Network salesman track president last year.

“It’s a great example of executing the vision we have for that property,” said Daryl Wolfe, ISC’s chief marketer. “You could say that’s just a few fans, but that changed the lives of those fans’ personal relationship with Darlington Raceway.They wrote personal notes and said they were going to come back for a race.”

Wile, 34, will oversee his first Sprint Cup race in his new role this weekend, and ISC is hoping it’s the first in a series of events that helps Darlington reclaim its regional and national clout as one of the best in NASCAR.

The track’s Southern 500 race was once considered to be part of the sport’s “Grand Slam,” along with the Daytona 500, Talladega’s Winston 500 and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Coca-Cola 600. It also carries great nicknames like “The Lady in Black” (because its white walls end the race blackened by tires) and “The Track Too Tough To Tame” (because drivers hit the wall so often).

But like many racetracks in recent years, Darlington has struggled. ISC moved the Southern 500 from its traditional Labor Day weekend spot to the spring and sent one of its two Sprint Cup races to a track it owns in California. The changes made the track less relevant, and the facility, which once regularly hosted 75,000 spectators for NASCAR Sprint Cup races, saw ticket demand wane after the recession. ISC reduced the track’s capacity 20 percent to 60,000 seats.

“We’re working hard to build back up Darlington’s place in the sport,” said Clay Campbell, president of ISC-owned Martinsville Speedway, who Wile reports to at ISC. “The Southern 500 was one of the crown jewels. [The track has] tons of history and always will be a special place.”

ISC brought in Wile last year after Chris Browning, who had run the track since 2004, resigned.

The hire caught many in NASCAR by surprise. Historically, ISC had promoted senior executives from its other tracks into positions as president of another facility. That was the case at Kansas Speedway, where the company promoted former track vice president Pat Warren to the top job, and Richmond, where it put former Michigan International Raceway vice president Dennis Bickmeier in charge.

Wile had no track experience. He’d never sold tickets or managed a race. In fact, he’d only been with ISC for one year.

The University of Georgia alum was a stick-and-ball athlete growing up and didn’t attend a race until he interviewed for a college internship with Keystone Marketing, a motorsports marketing agency. He went on to spend almost a decade working with teams such as Bill Davis Racing and Penske Racing before joining ISC as director of business development with its radio network, MRN. He served as a liaison between the network and the tracks and impressed staff with his relationship skills and passion for NASCAR. That was a major reason ISC tapped him to lead Darlington.

“He’s got deep connections across the industry and understands how it works,” Wolfe said. “Being able to leverage those relationships and contacts and the fact that he’s high energy and very passionate about the sport — all of those ingredients played a role in looking at him as a strong candidate to lead the future of Darlington Raceway.”

Since taking over last August, Wile has worked to add new events at the racetrack, strengthen its local business ties, and boost its ticket sales to college students.

Darlington hosted the inaugural Speed & Feed BBQ Cook-Off and Car Show last November, and a running event in September that included a marathon and drew 3,000 participants.

He also has reached out to the South Carolina state government to strengthen ties to the statehouse. Gov. Nikki Haley, who has attended the Southern 500 in previous years, visited in January for an economic development event attended by executives from 36 regional companies. Of those, four companies that had never done business with the racetrack bought ticket packages or plan to do hospitality for this weekend’s race. “We felt like getting those folks out here and getting them engaged went a long way,” Wile said.

The signature program he started is a college ticket sales initiative with the University of South Carolina. Since 2005, Darlington had held its race during Mother’s Day weekend, which was after exams for most nearby colleges. The race was moved up on the schedule this year in the hope that the track could attract college spectators from the dozen-plus schools nearby.

To do that, Wile partnered with USC’s Sport and Entertainment Management Department to have 30 students sell tickets to this weekend’s race. Their goal was to sell $500 in tickets each. Those who did received a free ticket as a result. College tickets for the race cost $19, but students weren’t limited to selling just to their peers. The student who sells the most tickets will be hired as an intern next year.

The program has provided a lift in college sales, Wile said, and it fits into NASCAR’s effort to attract younger fans. He hopes to expand it to other schools. “It is a goal for all of our facilities to get back to selling out,” Wile said.

ISC has been pleased with Wile’s work so far. Ticket sales for this weekend’s race are tracking well against last year, and corporate sales are up from a year ago.

“Chip’s reassured the community that we’re here, we’re relevant, and we’re going to grow,” Campbell said. “It’s going to take him time, but he’s off to a great start.”

Frank Wren, Braves executive vice president and general manager, speaks on the day’s first panel.

The Braves’ Derek Schiller and the Falcons’ Jim Smith discuss selling a new stadium with moderator Adam Zimmerman, CSE president of marketing.

Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff

Providing team annual reports are Frank Wren of the Braves, Thomas Dimitroff of the Falcons, Bruce Levenson of the Hawks and Angela Taylor of the Dream. At left is moderator Jeff Genthner.

The Atlanta Hawks could place a big bet on redeveloping the area around Philips Arena known as The Gulch — by adding a casino.

“A casino is just an example of a potential accelerant for something like this,” said Hawks managing partner Bruce Levenson recently. “States have looked at ways to capture additional revenues for things like education, and they’ve looked to casino gambling among other ways of developing undeveloped areas and creating more opportunities for the state. So, yeah, I think that would be interesting.”

Bruce Levenson
Levenson spoke at the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Business of Sports Summit on March 28. He said entertainment operators view The Gulch as an attractive site, with its location in the heart of Atlanta’s robust convention business and being surrounded by tourism hot spots, such as the Georgia Aquarium.

Casino gambling is illegal in Georgia, but opening the doors for it in the state could represent a big payoff. “Overnight, we would become the premier tourism and convention destination in the country,” said Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts, a longtime proponent of bringing casino gambling to Georgia.

Just one Las Vegas-style casino in downtown Atlanta could generate up to $1.7 billion in economic impact and create 10,800 jobs, according to a 2007 study by Atlanta-based PKF Hospitality Research. Those numbers could hold true today as well, said PKF President Mark Woodworth, since Atlanta’s employment numbers are returning to peak levels.

Legalizing casinos in Georgia would require a constitutional amendment that’s subject to voter approval. Having an organization such as the Hawks campaigning for casinos could boost the effort.

“With the right backing, I wouldn’t mind trying it again,” said state Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, who introduced a bill in 2009 to legalize some forms of gambling in Georgia. “Every city that has good entertainment seems to thrive.”

As lawmakers struggle with budget constraints and look for new revenue streams, casinos could be a logical option, Pitts said.

“The people are ready,” Pitts said, pointing to voters’ approval for Sunday alcohol sales and the lottery. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Amy Wenk writes for the Atlanta Business Chronicle, an affiliated publication.

The Atlanta Hawks aren’t standing still as the city’s other pro teams try to lure more fans with new stadiums and entertainment venues.

Bruce Levenson, managing partner of the Hawks, said team officials are in the preliminary stages of “reimagining” their home, Philips Arena, and the area around it, a 120-acre collection of downtown parking lots and railways called The Gulch.

The idea comes as the Atlanta Falcons prepare to start construction on a more than $1 billion downtown stadium and the Braves get ready to name the development team for a mixed-use project around their proposed Cobb County ballpark. Like the Falcons and Braves, the Hawks want to create a richer experience to pull fans off their couches and get them to the game.

The Gulch, near the Georgia Dome (left) and Philips Arena (center), presents both potential and problems for its sports neighbors. 

“We have this enormous, infamously called Gulch area right next to our arena,” Levenson said. “We’ve got to figure out how to make that a destination spot for our fans.”

The Hawks have not hired an architect or master planner, nor have they had formal discussions with developers. For now, they’re essentially brainstorming.

“What we envision is everything from a world-class practice court, to a modern sports medicine complex, to a sports entertainment center,” said Rutherford Seydel, co-owner of the Hawks.

The next step could involve exchanging ideas with political and business leaders and stakeholders. Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said he would welcome those discussions.

“We would certainly be open to talking to the Hawks and Philips Arena,” Blank said. “As much connectivity as we can have, the better off we all will be.”

The Hawks’ timing seems sound. Two big attractions are set to open in downtown Atlanta this year, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame.

“With all the activity downtown, it’s a good time for the Hawks and Philips Arena to be looking into this,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress. “We are entering a new environment among our sports teams where they are coming outside their arenas to increase the fan experience.”

The area is one of Atlanta’s best-known and most complex development sites — a former freight yard bordered by Centennial Olympic Park Drive and Mitchell, Spring and Marietta streets — but most people simply drive over the Gulch without even noticing it.

“It’s a symbolic hole in the heart of the region that is difficult to traverse,” said Douglas Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

“It’s a phenomenal amount of land in a major city and it’s ripe for something to happen,” said Larry Gellerstedt, CEO of Atlanta-based Cousins Properties Inc.

But redeveloping The Gulch remains challenging. It has a slew of stakeholders, including city transportation authority MARTA, federal agencies, state and city leaders, Norfolk Southern and local businesses.

In recent years the Georgia Department of Transportation and other groups have worked on plans that could turn The Gulch into a regional transportation hub for rail and buses, but the momentum for that project has stalled because there’s little political will for it at the local or state level.

Cousins, Forest City Enterprises and Atlanta developer The Integral Group completed a master plan for The Gulch last year. The project awaits a federal environmental impact assessment that could take another year to complete.

Any developer that acquires the site “can do whatever they wish,” but until the environmental work is done and approved, the project can’t receive federal funding, the Georgia DOT said in a statement.

Douglas Sams and Maria Saporta write for the Atlanta Business Chronicle, an affiliated publication. Business Chronicle staff writer Amy Wenk contributed to this report.

Purchase, N.Y.-based scoreboard outfitter ANC Sports Enterprises has developed a new software system, vSoft, that allows for more real-time development and editing of scoreboard content.

Scoreboard systems, in part because of their size and video fidelity requirements, traditionally have required substantial pregame content development and editing. ANC’s vSoft is capable of real-time changes through a drag-and-drop user interface.

The system is being used in several prominent sports facilities, including Fenway Park in Boston, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, as well as minor league ballparks. Pricing varies because of differences in scale and customization between venues.

“We see this as the next generation of control systems,” said Mark Stross, ANC Sports chief technology officer. “Scoreboard operators don’t have to guess anymore. They can see what they’re building in real time.”

Officials for the Boston Red Sox, which was to open its home schedule last week, said the new system has greatly improved the workflow of scoreboard animations through the new system and allows for the creation of additional content on tighter deadlines.

“This has made us a lot more efficient,” said Jack Lanzillotti, manager of Red Sox Productions, game operations. “We’re still doing a lot of what we were doing before, but it’s now so much easier to accomplish.”