When Cobb Commissioners voted unanimously to devote $392 million to building a new Braves stadium, scheduled to open in 2017, they only allowed 12 people to discuss that funding. All 12 spoke in favor of it, as business interests packed the meeting with like-minded supporters who lined up five hours before the event began. With their blessing, commissioners approved an operating agreement allowing the county to borrow up to $397 million -- even though the $400 million in private investment for the fake Braves wonderland surrounding the stadium is in no way guaranteed by the team.
Keep in mind that this is a county that cried poverty a year ago as it cut 186 teaching positions and forced the teachers who stayed to take a five-day unpaid furlough.
You can point the finger of blame at Cobb County, at Atlanta for blowing its hotel-motel tax money on a new stadium for the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons or even at Braves President and Lead Figurehead John Scheurholz. However, none of them twisted the Braves' arms and forced them from Turner Field, where they've been playing only since 1997. None of them started scouting locations and making moving plans. None of them packed a county meeting with $400 million on the line.
Who would have the power to hire line-standers and impose its will like that? As Comcast (CMCSA) proved during Federal Communications Commission hearings in 2008, it isn't beyond the pale for a media conglomerate to massage the political system and stack the deck in its favor while largely avoiding public scrutiny for it.
The Braves are only one of Liberty Media's holdings. It owns McNeil/Lehrer Productions, QVC, Evite and law enforcement GPS company TruePosition outright, while holding big stakes in Live Nation (LYV) (26%), Charter Communications (CHTR) (27%) and Sirius XM (SIRI) (49%). It's portfolio is big, its assets are valued at nearly $27 billion and its chain of command leading up to chairman John Malone and chief executive Gregory Maffei is circuitous.
It will never face the same scrutiny Cablevision did from New York Rangers and Knicks fans before its spun off Madison Square Garden Company (MSG) because it lacks an easy villain like James Dolan. It will never be as loathed as Adelphia was by Sabres fans in Buffalo because it lacks outright evildoers like convicted criminal John Rigas and his sons. It will never be as favored as Comcast was in Philadelphia when it owned a stake of the Allen Iverson-era 76ers because it doesn't have an incredibly public business partner like Pat Croce.
Because of that facelessness, it will never receive any credit for the Braves' success, but it will rarely fall under scrutiny for its shortcomings. It operates in a world largely without consequences that's shielded from public wrath through multiple layers of holdings.
If owners of U.S. sports franchises want $400 million in tax dollars -- which, by the way, is about four times the amount of public money that's going into the San Francisco 49ers' new football stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. -- without any of the protest and scrutiny that comes with it, they'd be wise to bury themselves within a company like Liberty and shield themselves with its logo. The returns on that public investment can multiply at will while the corporate owners collect in anonymity.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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