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Griff says...Braves Fans are Fair Weather Fans? Not fair!

Atlanta Braves fans have been maligned continuously over the years for not supporting their team in correspondence to the team’s record and competitiveness. Every year I hear sport commentators and sports writers make sarcastic comments about it. So I think it deserves a closer look and discussion.

First, let it be noted that the Atlanta Braves are the longest continuously operated sports franchise in America. They began with the Boston Red Stockings in 1877 and moved eventually to Milwaukee and now Atlanta. That says something important about fan loyalty right there, otherwise the franchise could never have survived that long. A totally new market and fan base had to be picked up on two separate occasions.

Starting with our first Division title in the Cox era in 1991, Braves fan attendance continuously outperformed the league average and did so until 2005, coinciding with our last run in the Division championships and playoffs. Does that mean Atlanta fans are fair weather fans? Not necessarily.

In 2009 the Braves fan attendance ranked 15th of all teams with about 2.3 million. On the other hand our payroll ranked us 11th of all teams with 96 million. So our spending ranking is a bit more than our attendance ranking. Since attendance has slid each year recently it looks bad on paper. Certainly payroll has been cut over the years since Ted Turner owned the team. The current owner, Liberty Media, basically inherited the team as part of a debt payment from Time Warner. It appears at least, that they have no real interest in the Braves except to keep it from being a serious liability. However, they do not seem to understand the tried and true business principle of investing money to make money. They seem to think that cutting the payroll saves money. One would think by now they would realize that if you cut payroll continuously and it leads to less than stellar records and fewer playoff appearances, the result will be lower fan attendance. That causes lower revenues and strains on profitability. Duh! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know if we could have kept Teixeira that we would be a significantly better team now and probably would have been in the playoffs last year.

I uncovered a statistic that may surprise some of you fans out there. In 2009 the Braves ranked 3rd of all teams in fan loyalty. The statistic measures fan attendance patterns related to winning percentages. To put that into perspective, the Phillies were the 5th worst. So, the impression that Braves fans are fair-weather fans is not fair. The statistic doesn’t really surprise me that much. From the Turner days, the Braves picked up a large audience base of fans from all over the country. Clearly, if you wanted to over the years, you could watch almost every Braves game on one channel or another. I have done so myself. There is a huge base of hard core fans. Being an avid Braves blogger, I can tell you that the blogs have hundreds of comments for every post within a day, and many familiar names are logged on every time I post myself. They live and die for the Braves. They spend more time blogging than working it seems. (But I don’t just in case my partner is reading this.)

There is no doubt that Braves attendance has diminished since our playoff run. Certainly some of it has to do with less than competitive teams, frustrations about not making it into the playoffs and tailing payrolls that kept us from getting some of the best free agent players. But I can think of many factors that have affected the perception that we are not great fans as well as reasons the attendance has dropped off.

First, Atlanta is a transition and destination city. In other words, many people are moved to Atlanta for job reasons since it is a logical regional hub for the Southeast. Also, due to our climate and diverse economy, it also attracts many new residents from the Midwest and Northeast. I am one myself. Whenever you have new residents, if they are baseball fans, they bring with them loyalties to the teams they left. Since I was a Braves fan when I lived in Wisconsin, in my case I continued as a Braves fan when I moved her. I had some interim stops along the way, including Boston for four years. But I never became a Red Sox fan and never even attended a single game. That is just natural. It takes quite awhile for new residents to warm up to a new team. In fact, I would venture to say that for many, unless the team is high profile and challenging for the playoffs and even more, many people will not be attracted to the stadium.

Next, economic factors have definitely had an impact on attendance in recent years. Of course you could say that for any city but Atlanta has been hard hit in many industry sectors and economic indicators that are lagging behind others in the country, including unemployment, bankruptcies and foreclosures. Certainly it is logical that if you combine a relatively new fan base with monetary family pressures, baseball games may be one of the first things cut out or reduced from the budget.

Finally, the cost of going to games is really astounding. You can hardly have two people attend a baseball game with reasonable seats and some refreshments and parking without spending $100. I realize that is true of every city or worse, but when you combine that financial pressure with the other points I made, it creates a downward trend. In my opinion, going to a baseball game should be an equivalent cost to going out for a nice dinner.

What is the answer to the Braves attendance issue? The answer is partly that we need a new owner who cares, partly we need invigorated management, better players who can win and better marketing and promotion incentives from the Braves. I don’t see us getting rid of Liberty anytime soon so the rest are imperative to be executed. I read a lot of blogs and it is common to hear people talk about not wanting to rabidly endorse the team fearing they will be disappointed come playoff time. That is actually a real issue. In our 14 consecutive Division titles we only have one World Series Championship. Often times the team underperformed when the playoffs began.

To some degree and in my opinion, that is a function of management. I’ve stated in numerous blogs that Bobby’s consistent business approach to each game is great until you near and enter playoff time. He treats every game the same. Personally I believe there needs to be enhanced motivation and intensity in September and October and I rarely see that happen. The players mimic their manager. Sure Bobby is fired up in every game and yells and encourages all players in every game. In September and October a whole new level of focus and intensity is required rather than the same old same old. I have said it before and I will say it again. I love Bobby Cox but it is time for a change. I’d like to see Jim Leyland come in and kick some butt and get things all fired up. Probably won’t happen though.

The Braves scouts have always been good. I don’t see the recent scouting and minor league organization management changes getting worse. But I do have concerns at the GM level. I’m not going to go into a long Wren bashing rant. That’s another blog. But I will say that it appears he often ends up on the losing end of deals, that he rarely closes a tough deal, and that he typically closes easy deals too fast and gives up too much. Seriously, for Damon to have stated interest in Atlanta and all we hear is about how the White Sox are still in it and that Damon’s wife doesn’t want to move to Detroit, I have to wonder why we haven’t closed the deal and what Wren’s approach is currently. From my perspective it tells me that he is not as good a negotiator and not as creative a deal-maker as Schuerholz was. Of course John was phenomenal and no one today is as good as he was. No doubt Schuerholz consults and advises on every deal, but it is not the same when Wren is the pitch man and closer instead. This is a weakness in our organization. It handicaps us from getting the best players when available.

Finally, there are ongoing attempts at marketing promotions to fill seats. Some are really quite good. But there are not enough of them consistently, not enough flexibility in the promotions offered, and most require too many game tickets committed to buy. I come from a marketing background and it seems simple enough to me to figure out what a typical individual, couple and family can afford for a day out at a game, and come up with a single game package that fits that budget. I say for a couple it should be $50 and for a family, perhaps $100. Yes you can get such deals now, but you won’t see anything from where you will sit. For sure the refreshments are totally overpriced. Talk about restaurants being overpriced. Stadium refreshments are ridiculous.

After all, if the seats are empty, you are losing money so why not get creative even if you only gained an additional $5 per seat if filled. It is the same principle as filling seats on an airplane. You have to get creative and do what is necessary to fill the seats because the plane is going to make the trip whether you have 100 people or 250 on the flight.

Having said all that, if the Braves team starts winning and challenging the Phillies, you will see the fans start to appear again. But economically, it is not going to be the way it was 10 years ago for awhile. So get used to it. But don’t keep blaming the fans for being fair-weather fans. They are still watching on TV even if they can’t afford to get to the games or even if they aren’t ready to invest serious emotional support until it has been proven that the Braves will not disappoint.

For my money, this is the year for the Braves and the fans to start coming back. I do predict we will get into the playoffs this year and I don’t care if it is via Wild Card or NL East crown. Often times the Wild Card teams have more momentum and desire going into the playoffs than the division leaders anyway. I will commit to going to some games at Turner Field this year if you will. But when I can’t I will be rooting for them in front of my 52 inch HD TV.

My next blog will be on Monday. The topic will be about the importance of Team Depth. Griff says…later.

9 comments:

  1. I think you really did a great job of hitting on all of the key points. I don't feel like 15th in attendance is that bad, it isn't great but it isn't embarrassing. I think one of the ways that they could get more people to the games is turning the games more into an event with a big focus on tailgating and maybe something creative like celebrity owners like the Dolphins did. When you raise the price to the point it is at, it seems you might have to raise the entertainment value as well. Maybe let students in for 5$ and they can be in one section but they have to stand and cheer 3/4 of the game. Anybody have any thoughts on what would get you to the games more?

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  2. Don't forget about the competition for entertainment dollar since the Braves run began in 1991. The Falcons opened a new stadium, the Hawks moved into a new arena, the Thrashers arrived, and the city has hosted the Olympics, Super Bowl, and Final Four. Peple have a limited entertained budget.

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  3. A few things.

    First of all, Liberty Media's ownership contract only runs through 2011. It's highly unlikely they renew the contract since, as you said, they don't really care about or even like owning the team all that much.

    That leads me to my next point. John Shuerholz was not the Braves' GM. He was the Braves' GM under Ted Turner's ownership. And what a lot of people don't seem to realize is that the GM does not have the final say in any desicions regarding the team. The owner does. If the owner says "you are not allowed to spend more than this", then the GM is NOT allowed to spend more than that. He can't just go and make counteroffers and "be creative" with money that he doesn't own. And let's not pretend that Turner and Liberty are just two anonymous owners who only dispense money for the GM to use. Turner was VERY involved with baseball decisions when he was owner. He even made himself the manager until the league ruled that it was illegal. Turner loved the team and wanted to see it do well and was willing to throw in a few extra dollars to get "that guy." Liberty, as you said, only views the Braves as some franchise they acquired in a tax deal. They are not terribly invested in the team as long as it doesn't just bleed money.

    That said, Wren doesn't deserve nearly the criticism he receives from so many ignorant bloggers. He can only work within the confines set for him by the owners, and the owners he works for do not care nearly as much as the owner that Shuerholz worked for. Comparing the two is frankly unfair.

    Damon quite obviously wants to come to Atlanta. He's dropped plenty of hints and he's stalled on Detroit's offer for a week. It wouldn't take any sort of "smart moves" on Wren's part to sign Damon, as the Braves are obviously his first choice. The fact that he hasn't signed clearly points to the fact that Liberty is simply not willing to free up the money to spend. It's not Wren's fault that we don't have Damon, it's Liberty's fault. Not that I'd really WANT to match the Tigers' offer for Damon. Damon absolutely helps the team, but he doesn't help the team to the tune of $7+ per year. Maybe if we still had Anderson in the field, but Diaz is just as smart of a baserunner as Damon is, even if he's not as fast. Which even that isn't a guarantee, as Damon is getting old and creaky while Diaz is still young and has never been given much of a chance.

    And all this nonsense about Wren "not closing deals" or whatever is a joke. Look at all the great non-moves that Wren has made. He went into 2009 trying his best to get Peavy, but stood his ground on holding onto Hanson. Who got the better end of that deal? Who still has the #1 prospect in the game? Who still has some of the best pitching depth in the minors? If Wren has any faults, it's that he's too unwilling to give up young prospects for proven talent. But to fault him for "not closing" deals is ridiculous.

    Plus, let's not forget who gave up a guy named Neftali Feliz for a guy named Tex.

    I'd rather have Wren than 90% of the other GMs in the game today. He's shown that he doesn't let sentimentality get in the way of what's best for the team (I'd bet my house that if Sheurholz had been GM then we'd have ended the year with Glavine as the #5 guy instead of Hanson), and he doesn't let other teams take advantage of him in deals. He knows how to value players, and he knows when to step back and do what's best for the team instead of just getting in a marquee name.

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  4. Sounds like I may have located Wren's brother. It's perfectly fair to compare GM's current and past. How else would you compare them? It goes without saying that Wren can only work within the dollars allotted. None of us are on the phone listening to what is being said during a deal. But you only have to look at the outcomes or non-outcomes to form an opinion. And my opinion is that he can't close tough deals because he hasn't yet. And in the easy deals he gives away too much. He was already offering Damon deferred money included in our offer so clearly management/ownership was already being flexible. Not sure how you can compare Damon to Diaz. The issue is lead-off man. Although Diaz has filled in well in that role, he is not going to be the lead-off man unless McLouth falls on his face. We wouldn't be after Damon if we didn't need a good lead-off guy. As far as the Peavy deal, Hanson was never going to be allowed to be part of that deal so he was never in jeopardy. It was trading Escobar and too many other demands from the Padres that stopped the deal. Once that became known, few hard core Braves fans were in favor of the deal anymore. And Heyward was never a consideration to be traded anyway. I'm not saying Wren is the worst but he has not shown much yet to say he has a good track record.

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  5. "But you only have to look at the outcomes or non-outcomes to form an opinion."

    That's where you're wrong, and it's that sort of simple-mindedness that leaves me with very few places to go for intelligent Braves discussion.

    You can not look at just the outcomes of an event to form an opinion. Of course you CAN form an opinion that way, but it will be an uneducated opinion. You have to look at not only the outcomes of an event (this goes beyond baseball), and look at the circumstances that surround the event.

    Schuerholz' circumstances were immensely better than Wren's, and Wren has still managed to do a fine job with such terrible circumstances. Unless you just want to conveniently forget how we improved by 14 wins in one offseason under Wren's command.

    And then you complain about him giving away too much? Anything beating the Tigers offer is giving away too much for Damon. Damon is good, but he's not worth matching or beating the Tigers' offer when compared with what we have. I compared him to Diaz because that's who he would be replacing (something I though was obvious, but I guess not), and Damon is not so much better than Diaz (or McLouth) that we should completely tie up our funds and remove us from any midseason acquisitions for something we might actually need. And for your sake, I'll just go ahead and ignore the double standard of "he gives away too much" and then ignoring his unwillingness to trade Hanson (or Escobar, since you brought it up) for Peavy.

    "He was already offering Damon deferred money included in our offer so clearly management/ownership was already being flexible."

    What? Even with deferred money, the amount of the deal was still inside the $4 that the Braves are reporting they still have to spend. That's not the ownership being flexible, that's ownership saying "$4 million is what you get, if he doesn't want it then too bad." If anything, Wren deserves credit for actually trying to SAVE some money by deferring half of it.

    I was really excited about this new blog because it seemed to have some intelligent writers who actually knew something about the game and weren't just making value judgments against some "glorious past" like every other uninformed blogger out there. Turns out I was wrong. I should have realized it as soon as you said that you had just discovered the "WAR" stat.

    Good luck with your blog. Maybe you'll eventually come around and start seeing the bigger picture so you can form some more educated opinions. If I wanted to read something written by someone who just gives everything the equivalent of "the eyeball test" before passing judgment, then I would have stayed over on Bowman's blog.

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  6. Wow, you have a real mean streak. First I was an ignorant blogger, now I'm simple-minded. Apparently your opinion is based on a wire tapping of Wren's conversations so you know he did great on all the deals. Short of that, everything else is an opinion based on what occurred. Since budgets are only set one year at a time, clearly Wren was borrowing money from next year and years to come and that likely required ownership approval. I'm not suggesting Damon is worth $7 million. I'm suggesting we may be close and could beat the White Sox offer. If he wanted to go to Detroit he could have already accepted that offer. Keep in mind your opinions are just opinions as well. I think you are right about this. There probably are no blogs out there where you will feel comfortable. I'm sure everyone is beneath your baseball intellect. Perhaps you should start your own and make it an article bestowing the benefits of Wren's deals and see how many people attack you. But based on your harsh attitude I wouldn't expect a lot of support. I'm not perfect and I don't get paid for this but I get plenty of compliments. I don't expect everyone to agree with me. That's why it is a blog. But you needn't go into a rage about everything. Get a life.

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  7. Griff - I agree with you more often than not, and I definitely appreciate the efforts you've made with this blog so that I can stay a well-informed Braves fan (not easy to do living in Columbus, Ohio). Please continue with the blog, Braves news, and your opinions. And don't let jerks like the previous guy hold you back.

    Side Note - Have you considered eliminating the "Anonymous" feature from this site so we all know who we're reading and/or addressing?

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  8. Griff - geez, what is wrong with that jerk!? Don't waste your time with ignorant, know-it-alls like him. He is one of the reasons why I stopped bantering on braves.com comments. I cannot stand not being able to make an opinion without someone else telling me my opinion is dumb.

    Keep up the great work Griff - i think you are perfectly right on with what you say!

    Mark in Florida

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  9. Guys, thanks much for your kind and supportive comments. I appreciate it a lot. I agree with the anonymous handle suggestion and have forwarded it for consideration.

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