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Atlanta Scrapes Together A Season


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ATLANTA SCRAPES TOGETHER A SEASON

After Ted Turner bought the woeful Atlanta Braves in 1976, he befuddled the major league establishment with a bizarre mix of promotional events. Turner dropped the starting flag at pregame ostrich races and personally pushed a baseball around the bases with his nose. A fan favorite: Wedlock & Headlock Night--a pitcher's mound wedding before the game, pro wrestling afterward.

All of which pales next to the circus-in-the-works that is the 1995 baseball season. With no end in sight to the six-month strike, the Braves, like 27 other major league teams, are slapping together the most ad hoc schedule in sports history. As 135 has-been and never-was replacement ballplayers stretch at the club's West Palm Beach (Fla.) spring camp, executives are revamping their ticket-sales program, rejiggering promotions, and trying to turn a no-name roster into a credible team. "We're the caretakers of the game," declares John Schuerholz, general manager of the Braves. "Baseball has to be served."

WAIT AND SEE. The replacement ploy may keep balls flying, but it won't keep the Braves' financials aloft. True, these players won't draw anything close to the team's normal $50 million payroll--but they won't draw many fans either. Ticket revenue could drop 70%. Television proceeds, too, will suffer if ratings bomb, as expected. In fact, the strike already has cost Turner Broadcasting System Inc., the Braves' parent, $15 million.

No team will have an easy time in this ersatz season. The Florida Marlins placed 1,000 phone calls to round up enough bodies for a spring roster. The struggling Milwaukee Brewers have recruited business leaders to help sell 10,000 season tickets. And at 23 ballparks, the Teamsters are threatening to block deliveries and boycott, demonstrating odd solidarity with players who never saw a picket line they wouldn't cross.

The Braves' front-office scrambling is evident. Since the players walked last Aug. 12, Promotions Director Miles McRae has hustled to make up product giveaways, player appearances, and social events from late-season games. Only one Braves sponsor, candymaker Leaf Inc., has canceled all ties for 1995, and stalwarts Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, and Delta Air Lines are proceeding with full sponsorship programs. But half of last season's 105 backers are still undecided. "A lot of sponsors want to do things, but they don't want to do it until late in the season" when regular players are expected back, says McRae.

Ticket sales look more promising. Fans who don't renew season tickets will lose their claim to priority seating when the new Olympic Stadium opens for baseball in 1997. Such strong-arm tactics have helped the Braves sell 20,000 seats, down only one-third from last year, with 2,000 on the waiting list. But single-seat sales won't fare as well. The Braves can hardly run ads featuring replacements or those on strike. In lieu of that, the club is cranking up a nostalgia theme, celebrating the team's 30th season in Atlanta. It's not exactly as compelling a draw as Greg Maddux' fastball, and Braves officials concede they could lose $185,000 per game in ticket revenue from last year's levels until striking players return.

If fans don't come to the stadium, they likely won't watch on TV either--a worry at TBS, which uses the Braves as a source of cheap programming. On Feb. 21, TBS announced it would broadcast a regular schedule of Braves games, even with no-names in uniform, and advertisers are staying on board for the 122 games TBS plans to carry. But the cable network could be liable for costly paybacks or makeup advertising if viewers don't materialize. "Advertisers will ultimately end up paying only for what they get," says Kevin O'Malley, senior vice-president for programming at TBS Sports.

It's up to Schuerholz and field manager Bobby Cox to assemble a team that people will want to watch. Most of the roster will come from the minor leaguers working out in the Florida sun today. They're none too impressive, but Schuerholz insists he's not just going through the motions. "It's always important to have a winning record. If you compete, you've got to win," he says. After all, even ostrich races are won by somebody.

PLAYING BALL WITH JOE NO-NAME

If substitute teams really take to the field--and it could happen--here's what the Atlanta Braves management confronts:

TICKETS To keep their seats for next year, fans are renewing season tickets--but attendance could drop 75%.

MARKETING It's tough to market a team with no household names. Single-seat sales are expected to suffer.

PROMOTIONS Last year, the Braves scheduled 65 product giveaways. Only 15 are expected in '95.

TELEVISION Turner Broadcasting System, which televises Braves games, may have to give rebates to advertisers.By David Greising in West Palm Beach, Fla.


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