Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Out with the old, in with the new – TBS and Major League Baseball

An era in Major League Baseball, (make that sports broadcasting) ended Sunday afternoon when TBS (Turner Broadcasting System) televised their last Atlanta Braves regular season game linked to TBS’ longstanding agreement with the Braves. Monday night, the next phase of TBS’ broadcast of Major League Baseball games began with TBS televising the one-game National League Wild Card playoff between the San Diego Padres and the Colorado Rockies. The one-game extension to both teams’ regular season marked the seventh time two MLB franchises have been tied at the end of the regular season forcing both teams to play an extra regular season game, with the winner advancing to the playoffs.

Coverage of the formerly-Ted Turner-owned Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball team was perhaps TBS' signature program. Prior to the landmark event of getting WTCG/WTBS' signal on a satellite for distribution to cable systems throughout the U.S., Turner syndicated live games in the mid-1970s to stations (mostly network affiliates, as the region had few independent stations) throughout Georgia and adjoining states, extending as far north as Turner's WRET (now WCNC) in Charlotte, N.C. Usually, the Sunday afternoon game, and one game during evening prime time were provided to local stations, with mid-week games airing mainly during the summer rerun season on the networks.

In 1976, looking for programming for TBS, Ted Turner decided instead of paying a rights fee for the National League Baseball team he would buy the team. Turner paid $10 million for the Braves (the same expansion fee Montreal and San Diego’s owners paid to join the NL in 1969). Turner, ever the entrepreneur, sensed a real opportunity (creating a partnership between a sports franchise and a broadcast entity) giving birth to what is now considered a template for sports franchises and regional sports networks (the Yankees and YES and the Red Sox and NESN).

Most, if not all other MLB teams used a regional syndication approach like this in their respective parts of the country. When WTCG reached a significant penetration of Southern homes, however, circa 1978-1979, Turner discontinued syndicating, making the Braves the first team to provide no live coverage of its games to traditional terrestrial TV stations other than in its home market.

Turner once famously tried to get Andy Messersmith to use his jersey, which was numbered 17, to promote TBS in its early years. The back of the jersey read, "CHANNEL 17." Major League Baseball immediately stopped this plan because, according to MLB rules, team jerseys are not supposed to have advertising other than that of the jersey manufacturer.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Braves games on TBS got very high ratings, usually around a 2.0 and sometimes even higher. This was the time when the station termed them, in a promotional campaign, "America's team." Probably a majority of those viewers were fans of the team in the Southeastern United States, namely the states of Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Viewers in those states were among the first to receive WTCG/WTBS on their cable systems, as Turner Broadcasting steadily built a network of cable and satellite providers throughout the U.S. The team also attracted fans living in rural areas without local baseball teams available.

In 2003, Braves games on TBS began to undergo significant change for the first time in many years. They let Don Sutton and Joe Simpson be the lead commentators while longtime play-by-play men Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren had their roles cut back. The slogan Braves Baseball on TBS was replaced by Major League Baseball on TBS. After the All-Star Break, TBS brought back Skip and Pete to work with the two analysts while in the following year, the title reverted back to Braves Baseball on TBS.

These changes reflected increased rights fee payments to Major League Baseball. In turn, national sponsors could fulfill their advertising commitments by purchasing ads on TBS, in addition to ESPN or FOX.

While just carrying 70 Braves games on TBS, TBS sold Turner South to Fox Sports, and let them keep the games (Turner South had been carrying games in order to ensure wide distribution in the Southeast). After that, the FSN South broadcasters did all Turner South Telecasts, which was renamed SportSouth later in the year to distinguish it from FSN South. FSN South's 25 game package (usually on Wednesdays) is a vestige of its days as the former SportSouth (launched by Turner), as well as a means to ensure that ESPN's game would generally be the only one seen nationwide on Wednesdays without subscribing to MLB Extra Innings. With the decision to allow FSN to broadcast over 85 games, TBS was no longer the Braves' primary broadcaster. Coupled with the impending sale of the team, Pete Van Wieren said, "It's like an end of an era." At the end of the 2006 season, Turner Sports decided not to renew analyst Don Sutton's contract with the network, while Ron Gant joined FSN South/SportSouth on a full-time basis, meaning that Joe Simpson would be the main analyst for all Braves telecasts

2007 marked the last year of Braves baseball on TBS in a fully national feed[1], covering 70 Braves games as in recent years. From 2008 until 2013, the Atlanta market will get 45 Braves games per season on Peachtree TV. Those games are available to be aired in the Braves regional territory, but Turner Sports has not yet announced how they will make those games available outside Atlanta. The remaining games will air on FSN South or SportSouth, meaning the Braves will now revert to primarily regional coverage, as most other teams have done ever since recent expansions gave MLB a virtually nationwide footprint.

Previously, TBS had announced a deal to air those same 45 games nationally, before signing their new contract for national Sunday afternoon and playoff games, Major League Baseball on TBS. Some of the national games could end up including the Braves.

The agreement was signed on July 11, 2006; TBS earned exclusive rights to all Division Series playoff games, as well as rights to the All-Star Selection Show held in late June or early July, beginning in 2007. A national Sunday afternoon baseball package is also part of the deal, starting in 2008. Additional games are planned for Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. These games will not be exclusive to TBS and will be blacked out in local markets (an alternate game is currently scheduled to be offered).

MLB also announced an extension to both their regular, playoff and World Series broadcast agreements with Fox at the same time (the 2006 MLB All-Star Game). The contracts worth $3 billion with Turner and Fox, signed in July 2006, cover regular season and playoff games through 2013. Turner reached a separate agreement with baseball last October for one of the two League Championship Series. It will alternate with FOX in airing the American League and National League Championship Series.

Under the TBS agreement, TBS will telecast all regular season tie-breaker games (Monday night’s bonus game), all Division Series games and the All-Star Game Selection Show each year. In addition, beginning in 2008, TBS will telecast a window of Major League Baseball games on 26 Sunday afternoons. TBS will continue to air Atlanta Braves' games through the 2007 season, a year in which that contract and the new deal will co-exist.

Commissioner Bud Selig said at the time: "We are also extremely pleased to expand our relationship with Turner Sports, an innovative leader in sports broadcasting. Turner Sports has long been familiar to baseball fans, and we are excited that their coverage will now extend to all of our Clubs in the regular season, particularly on Sunday afternoons and for any potential tie-breaker games that will impact the postseason. Their exclusive coverage of the Division Series will be a fantastic way for baseball fans to begin each October."

"Our company has valued our MLB partnership for more than three decades, and this deal will make it four decades and beyond," says Turner Sports President David Levy. "We're very pleased to be the first cable network to exclusively air MLB Playoff games, and having all of the Division Series air on one single network (TBS) for the first time ever, this package clearly fits Turner Sports focus on top quality sports properties."

For many baseball fans in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s (remember ESPN didn’t exist until 1979) most baseball fans where lucky if they were able to watch one or two games a week (beyond NBC’s Game of the Week and ABC’s Monday Night Baseball). Turner built the Braves into a national brand – even calling the Braves “America’s Team”. The proliferation of regional sports networks (Fox Sports Net, etc.), MLB’s Extra Innings out of market package and MLB.com streaming games live on the Internet really makes TBS bringing Braves games (therefore MLB games) to hundreds of millions of Americans seem almost archaic, but yes at one time TBS was really the only national cable source baseball fans could reach out too.

TBS began televising Braves games in 1977 (Turner bought the team in 1976), when Ted Tuner had what at the time seemed like a crazy concept – “bouncing his bad baseball team's games off a satellite to cable systems nationwide.”

The Braves were flying back to Atlanta during the 1976 season when Turner, the team's rookie owner and cable TV pioneer, began diagramming on a napkin what he was going to do.

"Ted was trying to show us how it could work — how the signal could be sent from Atlanta to a satellite and then be beamed to cable systems all over the country," longtime Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren recalled in a recent Atlanta Journal Constitution report. "We went, 'That's interesting,' but it was such a remote concept."

"It was like being on the first wagon train west," longtime Braves lead play-by-play broadcaster Skip Caray told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "We didn't know where we were going, but we were having a lot of fun getting there."

Soon, the Braves' broadcasters — Van Wieren, Caray and Ernie Johnson Sr. — realized America's Team had arrived.

"Ernie, Skip and I were having dinner in San Francisco, and somebody sent a drink over," Van Wieren said. "We looked over and the person waved, but we had no idea who he was. He walked over and said he was a San Francisco resident who had started watching our games on cable and enjoyed them. We thought, 'Wow, people really are watching these games!' "

"On the road," Caray said, "it got embarrassing in some ballparks because there would be more Braves fans than home team fans."

And as Bud Selig remembers, Turner’s concept wasn’t very well received by other MLB team owners. (Selig at the time owned the Milwaukee Brewers).

"There were many who felt it would be the death knell of our sport," Selig said. As it turned out, he said, the telecasts "played a great role in maturing the relationship between MLB and television."

In 1990, ESPN had just turned 10, and somewhere in the back of Rupert Murdoch’s mind was Fox Sports Net (a series of regionally based cable sports networks). MLB owners forced TBS to cut their number of Braves broadcasts to 90. But as many remember, the Braves and their success played a key role in the evolution of cable sports networks, and the programming regionally based sports networks could offer consumers.

"Without that [programming], a lot of cable systems would have died," said Terry McGuirk, at the time Turner's right-hand man and now the Braves' president. "I remember going over to Charleston one time, and the cable-system guy had, like, 15 VCRs playing tapes of really bad-quality stuff. Then all of a sudden, we arrive on the satellite with the Braves."

Said David Levy, president of Turner Sports in the AJC report: "The Braves will always have an important place in cable television history, no question."

In the minds of those managing Turner Sports – what began Monday night, and what will continue Wednesday is simply the next step in the evolution of baseball programming on TBS.

''Our history with the Braves is tremendous,'' Levy offered the Associated Press. ''This network grew up with Braves baseball when Ted was here. Ted's vision was buying the Braves and putting that content on TBS to grow that network. ... It's a long history. We're just taking a new step.''

"This is just the next part of the evolution," Turner Sports' Levy said. "Even though Braves baseball has spanned across the country, it was heavily skewed in [the Southeast], and we as a company are a national cable network and needed to have properties that matched the portfolio and the brand."

''I have mixed emotions about it,'' Chip Caray (son of Skip and now the lead TBS baseball voice) said in an Associated Press report. ''The transition from being a station that covered one team to becoming one of the broadcast partners for Major League Baseball is very exciting. It's a step toward becoming a true network.''

''My dad and Pete put 30 years of their lives into building TBS as the home of the Atlanta Braves on television,'' Chip Caray added. ''That's no longer the case. As my dad's son, it's disappointing that he's not going to be part of that and fans around the country won't get to see him or Pete.''

It does seem unimaginable that 25 years ago Ted Tuner and TBS were a lot like the first pioneers hitching their chuck wagons, and heading into cable broadcast wilderness. Today consumers live in a 500 channel universe and sports fans can purchase the right to watch more than ten thousand broadcasts a year in the comfort of their homes. Remember this – it all began with Ted Turner’s vision for TBS – that’s were it all started.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: Wikipedia, The Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Associated Press

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