Ted Turner and the Rise of a New Kind of Baseball Owner

Ted Turner used his experience owning a network to his advantage while owning the Braves. (via Alan Light)

I would love to own a baseball team. I would love to own it and nurture it and be the person ultimately responsible for its rise or fall. And I would love to eventually pass it along to my children, who would run it into the ground, because neither of them likes baseball. Alas, I think that dream is dead, like so many of my other dreams.

It used to be that a guy like me could conceivably own a team. Oh sure, you almost always had to be rich to buy in, or have strong financial backers, but regular guys could absolutely work their way up from nothing to become team owners. Bill Veeck Jr., for instance, while his dad was a sportswriter and eventually the president of the Cubs, didn’t have an endless fortune to draw from when he first bought into the American League. Almost all of his money was tied up in his team in Cleveland and, when he divorced his first wife, he had to sell the club to finance it. When he was finally run out for good after 1980, it was because he literally couldn’t afford to pay the rising salaries of his players.

But all of that’s changed. Oh sure, teams still complain that they can’t afford the rising salaries of players, but in an industry making in excess of $10 billion in profits, that’s about as believable as my mom telling me she doesn’t have a favorite son (we all know it’s my brother). Major League Baseball has even seen fit to install artificial brakes on the free agent market, like draft pick compensation and the competitive balance tax. This is done in the name of parity; that it should also help to curb spending is surely by accident.

And you have to have billions in backing now to even think about owning a club. The Marlins have existed in Miami, the seventh-largest metro area in the country, since 1993. They had the entirety of the third-most populous state in the union to themselves for five seasons until the Rays came along and have won two World Series. And they haven’t managed to build much of a fan base thanks to a duplicitous ownership group that has repeatedly proven to be seemingly indifferent to what few fans the team has. Nevertheless, Forbes estimates the team is worth a billion dollars and, when Jeffrey Loria sold it in 2017, he got an extra $200 million on top of that.

For this steep rise in franchise values, Major League Baseball owes a major debt of gratitude to its first modern owner: Ted Turner. Turner, especially during the early days of his nearly three decades at the helm of the Braves, was something of a joke in baseball circles. But it was his vision that opened the league’s eyes to the money that was waiting out there to be taken.

Robert Edward Turner III was born in 1938 in Cincinnati and was a self-described “scrawny, uncoordinated kid growing up, too clumsy for physical sports, always chosen last and put out in right field.” The family moved to Georgia when he was nine and his father settled into the advertising business, eventually owning an empire of billboards. Ted attended Brown, which he was summarily expelled from in 1960 after being caught with a woman in his dorm room.

Turner returned to Georgia, where he threw himself into the regatta circuit and was placed in charge of his father’s business in Macon until the elder Turner’s suicide three years later, leaving the entire advertising empire to him at the age of 25.

But in 1969, the 31-year-old multimillionaire decided to diversify, founding Turner Communications Corp. and buying up radio stations and a failing television station on channel 17, WJRJ. He re-christened it WTCG, an acronym that privately stood for “W-Turner-Communications-Group,” but publicly was known as “Watch This Channel Grow” and, predicting the plot of Weird Al’s UHF almost two decades later, began to compete with the three national broadcast networks in the Atlanta area by offering “entertainment” programming when their competitors were all broadcasting the news. Like Weird Al’s U-42, Turner even held a successful telethon to help keep the station solvent.

“No news is good news,” Turner said. “We get our highest ratings when the other three stations are running their news programs. Frankly, we’re basically an escapist station. We’re never going to be heavy on news because we’re trying to do something different…We’re heavy on…programs that interest young adults. Most people want to go home and sit down and relax.”

But Turner’s biggest coups were yet to come: stealing the rights to Braves and Hawks games out from under the national affiliates, which had broadcast them ever since the teams had moved to town. The swashbuckling Turner told the Atlanta Constitution that “WSB was asleep at the switch. I made an appointment with [Braves chairman] Bill Bartholomay and told him we’d like to run the games. I made him a deal, and he told me if I wanted to we’d shake hands on it immediately and he wouldn’t give WSB a chance to match it.”

The agreement called for the number of games being broadcast to the greater Atlanta area to jump from 20 on WSB to 60 on Turner’s network, tripling both the money the Braves were making from their TV rights and the games available to fans. Meanwhile, Turner struck a similar deal with the Atlanta Hawks to run their games in the winter. Thanks to his maneuvering, the next year, for the first time ever, WTCG turned a profit.

Major League Baseball was initially very hesitant to embrace television. The first games ever broadcast were carried around New York City by NBC on August 26, 1939, with the television building at the World’s Fair and a Broadway theater, both of which were showing the contest, packed with crowds. A game was broadcast over a 30-mile radius in Hollywood the following year, reaching 300 sets.

But there was fear, just as there had been with the radio, that fans would stay home from the park if they could see the games there. At a time when team income was almost entirely driven by attendance, this would have been unacceptable. By the late 1940s, all three of the New York teams had embraced the medium, and others were on the verge of jumping in. Phillies owner Bob  Carpenter told The Sporting News that “I’m not like a lot of fellows who think that everyone will sit home and watch. A lot of skeptics said that when we sold our radio rights–people would sit home and listen–but they didn’t. And they won’t sit home and look.”

Pickled Tink in Portland
The Pickles are a dilly of a team, even though they're not professional.

The Braves had a TV contract well before they even moved to Atlanta. The franchise worked out a deal in 1965 to move the club but was obligated to finish the season in Milwaukee. To prime the pump, they signed a three-year deal with WBS to broadcast 18 games a season for what the Constitution reported was more than a million dollars per year. In 1968, they expanded their TV offerings by two whole games.

One local resident, Cheryl Pridmore, wrote in to the Constitution to complain, “I enjoy the other teams on television, but now that Atlanta has a professional team, a good one at that, I’d like to see them play. If I recall correctly, the Braves were playing out of town recently and the Atlanta fans saw another game played while the Braves’ game was telecast elsewhere…This is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon or evening but there’s only one big problem, not enough Braves’ baseball. I’m for seeing a Braves’ game every night on television.”

Braves fans were decidedly starving for their team, and every game was an oasis in the desert. “Throughout the 20-city area where Braves baseball is telecast,” wrote Paul Jones in the Constitution, “an average audience is estimated to top two million viewers.” For some context, Georgia’s entire population in 1970 was four and a half million people. “The Braves baseball games have been among the highest rated sports events in television here,” Jones continued, “having been topped only by World Series games. At one point, the Braves pointed out that more women in the Atlanta area viewed Braves baseball than any other event on television, except All In the Family and The Flip Wilson Show.”

But as much as they might have wanted to expand their offerings, WBS and the rest of the “Braves Network” were stuck in affiliate deals that required them to primarily air network programming. Turner, who had no network to please, had the flexibility and the vision to see the opportunity and the financial resources to capitalize on it. His network alsowould assume the responsibility of selling the rights to join the network. Within a year, his reach included Miami and New Orleans.

“These cities alone will increase the potential audience by more than a half million viewers…Turner and Channel 17 have done an incredible job of selling the games to other stations and cables and to major sponsors,” said Braves PR director Bob Hope. Also, in rural areas where baseball telecasts had yet to penetrate, new cable TV promised to “bring baseball to millions of additional viewers…Some 395 cable systems will be included in the ‘network’ this year. Hope said that the cable alone has some one million subscribers” across the South.

While Turner continued to thrive in his new arrangement, the Braves did not. They finished below .500 in both 1972 and 1973, drawing fewer than a million people to Fulton County Stadium for the first time since moving from Milwaukee, even as Hank Aaron threatened to break Babe Ruth’s home run record down the stretch in the latter season. Buoyed by an 88-win campaign in 1974, however, attendance rebounded, only to plummet again in 1975 after the club traded Aaron and dropped to 94 losses and just over half a million fans. They were losing, according to team president Dan Donahue, around a million dollars a year.

Discouraged, the ownership team decided to sell and to give the 37-year-old Turner the first crack at buying the Braves for $10 million. He didn’t have the money, and so he offered them a million down and nine more, with interest, over the next decade. While initially hesitant, both about the Braves taking on so much debt and the co-mingling of ownership and broadcasting (Turner would be just the second person, after Gene Autry, to run both a team and the team’s flagship broadcast network), the rest of the owners came around because, according to Turner, “the Braves were a bad team in a relatively small southern city and I don’t think many of them saw me as a threat.” He was approved in January of 1976 and promised, “the team won’t be sold again in my lifetime…I’ll operate on a long-term philosophy.” He also promised to make the Braves into winners.

His early days attempting to bring about that transformation were full of the kinds of missteps that have become hilarious stories over the years. He gave the Opening Day crowd a pep talk before the first home game. He jumped on the field in the middle of the second inning to congratulate Ken Henderson after a home run. He played poker in the clubhouse with the players. And on May 11, 1977, mired in a 10-game losing streak, he sent his manager, Dave Bristol off on a “scouting trip” and appointed himself to lead the club. Turner’s tenure lasted a single game, a 2-1 loss. NL president Chub Feeney immediately demanded he step down and soon made sure a rule was passed preventing owners from serving as field managers.

No one could accuse the aggressive new owner of not caring, however, or of not following through on his promise to bring in quality players. He invested heavily in the free agent market, signing Andy Messersmith after he was declared available in the Seitz decision. The next offseason, he traded for former AL MVP–and impending free agent–Jeff Burroughs, sending Texas five players and a quarter of a million dollars and then signed the slugger to a multi-year deal. Then he went after Gary Matthews Sr., in the process talking himself into a fine and a suspension for tampering when he taunted the Giants ownership that they’d never outbid him. Even as the Braves continued to struggle, at least Turner was committed to making them better.

And soon, the indebted executive would have more than enough cash, he thought, to keep acquiring high-priced talent. In 1975, Turner began investigating satellite TV, and in 1976 he began taking steps to build an uplink for his little UHF station in Atlanta that could carry it across the country.

In his autobiography, he explains, “we expected our subscriber base to start at close to a million households and grow quickly into several million, so the revenue for this business could get very big very fast.” Turner changed the call letters of his station from WTCG to WTBS, called it “the superstation,” and was off and running, with TBS carrying Braves games to everyone who had a basic cable or satellite subscription, knowing he was picking a fight with the other major league owners and with commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

Turner and his network were dragged before regulators in Washington, where Kuhn argued that “the importation of games into other markets would disrupt things to the point where the league’s viability might even be threatened” while Turner kept hammering away at how the league “colluded to create local monopolies.” Which, of course, it did, with the help of its antitrust exemption.

But Turner kept fighting, portraying himself as the underdog, until the FCC gave its approval. Soon after, Turner rebranded the Braves as “America’s Team,” rubbing it in the faces of other owners. But, as small as he might have behaved, what he did was seismic in nature. He had invented a new ownership structure, one in which the team owned the means of distributing its games and could beam its games to anyone, anywhere, who ponied up for a cable subscription. And, eventually, he proved it could be profitable; TBS was taking in $180 million in revenue by 1984. Soon, the Tribune Media Company would follow suit, purchasing the Cubs in 1982 to lock in their broadcast rights on WGN.

While MLB has since pumped the brakes on letting just anyone watch local games on basic cable, the transformation of ball teams into media companies is still ongoing. The Blue Jays were purchased by Rogers Media in 2000, and Turner himself lost control of the Braves in 1996 when Turner Broadcasting merged with Time Warner, who then sold the team off to Liberty Media in 2007. The Orioles, Dodgers, Mets, Cubs, White Sox, Red Sox, Giants, Phillies, Astros, and Mariners all have significant ownership stakes in the networks that run their games, providing them with greater revenue streams. Most of the rest are run on the Fox Sports regional networks that are now under the control of Sinclair Media.

As long as the money is good, this trend will continue. And barring some kind of total collapse of the underlying league infrastructure, people like you and me will never get close to owning a ball team.

And maybe that’s a good thing. For all the hand-wringing about the game’s declining popularity, baseball attracts more fans now than it ever did in the 1970s. Deals like this have shored up the league’s finances so that most teams can endure the rise and fall of a fickle public’s attention. It is functionally impossible for owners to lose money on their investments, meaning there is continuity.

For better or for worse, this is the league we’re stuck with. And we will be for the foreseeable future. And, for that, we can thank/blame Ted Turner, the visionary who created the mold teams are increasingly pouring themselves into.

References and Resources

  • Blodgett, Bill. “Braves-WSB Sign Pact; 18 TV, 55 Radio Games.” The Atlanta Constitution. March 6, 1965.
  • Daniel, Dan. “MacPhail Opposing Plan to Televise Series.” The Sporting News. August 27, 1947.
  • “Hollywood Puts Oomph In Stars’ Opening.” The Sporting News. April 4, 1940.
  • Hopkins, Sam. “Turner Makes Ch. 17 Work With Sports.” The Atlanta Constitution. Dec 25, 1972.
  • Jones, Paul. “Braves Get Instant Replay.” The Atlanta Constitution. April 6, 1973.
  • Jones, Paul. “Braves TV Switched.” The Atlanta Constitution. June 15, 1972.
  • Parrott, Harold. “New Dodger Stunt–Twin-Bill Televised.” The Sporting News. August 31, 1939.
  • Pridmore, Cheryl. “Braves Baseball.” The Atlanta Constitution. July 30, 1966.
  • Turner, Ted. Call Me Ted. Grand Central Publishing, 2008.


Mike Bates co-founded The Platoon Advantage, and has written for many other baseball websites, including NotGraphs (rest in peace) and The Score. Currently, he writes for Baseball Prospectus and co-hosts the podcast This Week In Baseball History. His favorite word is paradigm. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBatesSBN.
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GottaHaveHart
Member
GottaHaveHart

“…in an industry making in excess of $10 billion in profits…” It’s 10B in Revenue.

Cubbie23
Member

Great, great article. So amazing to read how trailblazing Turner and TBS was to the entire sport!

Fredchuckdave
Member

Fantastic article, can’t wait to read your brother’s writing