The Saga of Superstations and Baseball’s Historical Resistance to Technology

Ted Turner knew exactly what he was doing when he bought the Braves in 1976. (via Alan Light)

Ted Turner knew exactly what he was doing when he bought the Braves in 1976. (via Alan Light)

Ted Turner did not buy the Atlanta Braves because he wanted access to the elite society that is baseball’s owners. No, the 37-year-old Turner was in the early stage of building a media empire, and Turner was one of the earliest to realize the amazing value live sports could bring to a television network. Turner bought the Braves in 1976 and used them in part to grow his WTCG-TV (Watch This Channel Grow, renamed to TBS two years later) to two million subscribers. Turner, it turned out, was a step ahead of the whole world.

Turner had bought the Braves for $10 million, but he was able to put up only $1 million of it up front. Two years later, fueled by his cable business, his net worth had grown to a cool $100 million. The WTCG business model depended on filling air time with programming that was cheap to produce or rebroadcast. Aside from Braves games, WTCG’s main draws were reruns of I Love Lucy, professional wrestling, old movies, and cartoons like Speed Racer. Baseball may not quite be that cheap, but in the Braves, Turner wasn’t just buying a baseball franchise, he was buying three or more hours of premium content for 150 days a year. For the price Turner paid, that was a steal.

The Braves were awful for much of the late 1970s and the 1980s. They made the playoffs just once in that span, in 1982, and had just three seasons above .500 (1980, 1982 and 1983). By 1990, things were so ugly that one Los Angeles Times writer lamented “TBS: Is It Short For These Braves Stink?” in a column asking why such an awful team had such an outsized space on cable television. But even with the Braves failing to produce on the field, TBS and its reach into the many rural areas that lacked major league baseball television coverage of any sort helped grow the Braves fan base in an unprecedented way. TBS turned the Braves into America’s Team and helped bring major league baseball into a vast number of homes it otherwise never would have reached.

By the 1990s, the Cubs (WGN), Yankees (WPIX) and Mets (WOR) had superstations of their own. Between the fees cable operators (such as Cablevision or Comcast) would pay to include superstations in their packages and the advertising fees the stations could bring in via their large audiences — often at their peak during sporting events — superstations became huge revenue streams for their teams. Cable subscriptions rose from about 16 million homes in 1980 to over 50 million homes by 1990, pouring even more money into these revenue streams as the decade wore on.

It seems like the rapid growth of cable in the 1980s would have been a no-brainer for baseball to lean into the superstation as a way of reaching new fans and bringing people into the game. But baseball had other ideas. In 1985, baseball’s new commissioner Peter Ueberroth declared that superstations were hazardous to the game’s health. “The superstation comes into certain areas and achieves higher ratings than the local club on television,” Ueberroth said. “It is a basic unfairness, and it’s tearing baseball apart. The second problem with superstations is that they’re affecting attendance negatively on all levels.” Ueberroth also claimed the saturation from having so many games on television was about to cause a drop in revenue, and that the presence of superstations was responsible for the stagnant attendance figures baseball had posted in the mid-1980s.

Turner agreed to pay the other owners $30 million over the next five years to prevent them from somehow taking action, whether via a lawsuit or through groveling to their buddies in Congress. But he disputed Ueberroth’s claims. “There are no studies to put any proof in that,” Turner said, referring to the idea that superstations were to blame for baseball’s attendance issues. Turner said there was “no correlation whatsoever” between superstation broadcasts and the attendance drop, and he noted, “Last year we only had a race in one division.” Indeed, two divisions were won by double digit games, and the Cubs led the National League East by at least five games for the entire month of September.

Major League Baseball’s resistance to superstations persisted throughout the 1990s. Fay Vincent told the New York Times in 1992 that superstations “restrict the viability of local broadcasting because they diminish the attraction of the local games and divide the advertising market.” Gerald Weaver, vice president of common carrier and WGN distributor has a more blunt view of it. “Baseball wants to be rid of us. They’ve been trying for years.”

Times reporter Richard Sandomir wrote, “Baseball insists that it isn’t seeking to end superstation telecasts, just exercising further control over how games are distributed.” To enforce that control, MLB was asking Congress to pass laws enacting a number of regulations. These regulations were a clear attack on the viability of the superstation.

Among the list of demands was blackouts when superstations were competing with local networks for the same game. This presented two problems. First, maintaining the blackouts would require individual cable operators to monitor and engineer the stations in every individual market. “Blackouts are anathema to cable operators,” Weaver said. “Baseball games are of indeterminate length. What do we do? Black out two hours, three hours, four hours?” But more importantly, these blackouts wouldn’t just apply to televised games over the air or on basic cable, but also games broadcast on premium channels like SportsChannel. The result would be much like how MLB currently uses blackouts to force consumers to subscribe to cable to watch their local market rather than going over the top with MLB.TV.

MLB also planned to challenge the compulsory license, a regulation that allows cable systems to pay into a federal copyright pool for the right to pick up and broadcast whichever superstations they please. This freedom is what made TBS viable in its early days. Without it, local cable systems — not the stations themselves — would have to negotiate with teams for the rights to games. “Everybody who watches Braves games for free now might pay $10 a month, or Cubs’ fans in Arizona would buy some games on pay-per-view,” Weaver said.

Sandomir wrote that David Alworth, baseball’s broadcasting director, “denies that baseball’s legislative activity is designed to limit distribution of games now available, but to get what it deserves financially.” Alworth is splitting hairs here. Understand what the business of Major League Baseball actually is. Yes, the owners produce baseball games, but the money is made only by restricting access to these games. When it comes to baseball’s owners getting what they “deserve financially,” it always comes down to restricting the public’s options to consume these games.

Baseball’s history shows owners resisting new technology with the potential to open the game up to numerous fans for over a century. The owners even resisted the implementation of stadium lights to make night games a possibility. As I wrote at VICE Sports, experiments with night baseball games appeared as early as the late 1800s, and White Sox Park hosted a successful night game in 1910. Yet the major leagues resisted lights and night games until the mid-1930s, in part because people in bigger cities “are educated to see the best there is and will stand only for the best. High-class baseball cannot be played at night under artificial night,” Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith said.

MLB’s resistance to new technology appeared every time a new dominant medium appeared on the scene. After lights, it was radio, which many owners feared would keep fans away from the ballpark and in the comfort of their own homes. Those fears were unfounded but would be repeated again for television. Surely, the logic went, the addition of sight to sound would result in butts firmly planted on couches rather than in stadium seats.

Baseball eventually would come around on all of these technologies, but not until they were fully subsumed into the game’s moneymaking machine. Radio was leveraged for advertisements. Television was carefully regulated to keep the supply of nationally televised games low — other than local games, a Game of the Week was typically all that would be available over the air until the postseason. The approach with cable was similar, as the superstation was rejected and the regional sports network model won out. In 1997, TBS was converted from a superstation to a basic cable channel, which allowed the station’s new owner, Time Warner, to collect subscription fees from cable operators — the same model that has fueled ESPN and the regional sports networks.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

This marked the beginning of the end for regular national broadcasts of individual teams. TBS, which once carried as many as 150 Braves games, reduced its carriage to 96 broadcasts in order to placate national networks like ESPN and Fox that were concerned about their packages of games losing value when put against the Braves on a daily basis. In 2007, TBS stopped broadcasting Braves games entirely. WGN, which went through a similar conversion from superstation to basic channel, dropped its sports programming in 2014, with CEO Peter Liguori citing rising rights fees that made televising Cubs and White Sox games a money-losing proposition.

Cable broadcasts, once decried as one of baseball’s biggest bogeymen, have become the industry’s single biggest area for revenue growth, as seen in the rising fees for both national and local broadcast rights. Once the owners were able to make the system work for them and limit, rather than increase, the number of games available to fans, the MLB leaned all the way into cable. Now, not only does every  team broadcast its local games through a regional sports network, but nearly all of baseball’s postseason is broadcast through cable.

It is my theory that this  process would have repeated itself had it been a plucky entrepreneurial small-market owner who had pioneered baseball broadcasts through the internet rather than MLB itself through MLB Advanced Media’s brilliant innovations. We would have heard the same arguments: that internet broadcasts were diluting the supply, and that the internet was somehow hazardous to the league’s health. Luckily for MLB, it got there first and was able to fit the internet broadcasting model perfectly with the regional sports network through local blackouts, one of the same systems they proposed for superstations.

The superstation was far from a perfect model, but it made baseball accessible in rural areas, some for the very first time, much like the advent of radio helped extend the St. Louis Cardinals’ fan base from Missouri to the entire Midwest. The moniker of America’s Team for the Braves was well earned; you will find Braves fans in rural pockets not just around Georgia and the southeast, but in places like where I grew up in western Wisconsin, hours away from both the Twins and Brewers.

Now, under the blackout system, even fans in places like Iowa or Las Vegas who are willing to pay for the MLB.TV service find themselves blacked out from as many as a third of games. MLB did make the concession of a single-team package for MLB.TV, but it is still only fully accessible with authentication from a regional sports network. If you want to watch baseball, but you don’t want to pay (or can’t afford) the ridiculous monthly fees charged for basic cable, you’re out of luck.

The current system allows a team like the Diamondbacks to pull in a $1.5 billion deal over 20 years despite averaging just 83,000 households of viewers. By forcing baseball fans to go through basic cable (and, at the same time, forcing cable companies to carry regional sports networks to placate the vocal minority of sports fans), MLB has created a model in which the cable subscribing public subsidizes the sport no matter how tiny the fraction of it that actually watches the games.

That’s great for baseball the business, as the television contracts the league and individual teams sign now regularly are measured in billions rather than millions. But what about for baseball the national pastime? Baseball has a fan base that skews old, with a median age of 55. It keeps its playoffs hidden on cable television networks like Fox Sports 1 and MLB Network that don’t appear even on some basic cable lineups, and it uses blackouts to wall out younger fans who want to break away from the cable monopoly. And it even aggressively prevents highlights and GIFs of its action from being shared on the internet, the exact kind of content leagues like the NBA are using to bring in a new generation of fans.

Major League Baseball worries about a diluted supply of its games, but I have to wonder if  baseball officials realize their policies also have an impact on the public’s demand for baseball. As long as the current sports cable bubble remains in place, demand isn’t an issue. But when something like an a la carte cable model or an alternate method of broadcasting over the internet comes around and blows up the current system, baseball will need active participants in its sport, not passive subscribers who come across their local Fox Sports Network only when they’re surfing channels.

Will MLB realize this early enough? I have no doubt Major League Baseball will continue to be a viable business; I do not think baseball is dying by any means. But I do worry baseball is going to lose the cultural power it once had, its status as a near-universal touchstone for the American people.

Unfortunately, major leagues owners have proven over and over again they value short-term profits more than the people they can reach. If they ever decide to open the gates and truly make baseball accessible for the average American, it will only be because they have run out of ways to make an easy buck by keeping the game under lock and key. The longer they wait, the less surprised they can be when America decides to move on.

References & Resources

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.
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7 years ago

Very interesting article Jack. Do you feel that baseball is beginning to turn around its fear of technology as MLB owns bandwidth to broadcast games over the Internet and is now even sharing (renting) that bandwidth with hockey and other sports?

Also, do you feel fantasy sports has helped open MLB to new technology?

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

I often have a difficult time during the playoffs finding out just what station is carrying the game. But the same is true with the NBA as well; I often had to search to find where the game was.

7 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

With too many rounds of playoffs, and the announcers are so terrible, I wind up barely watching the playoffs, even when the teams I root for are in them. Then, with a few weeks of break from watching, and the World Series on so late, just watch the first few innings of the Series, often with the game on mute.

7 years ago
Reply to  Carl

Hate the way the sports overlap. Too many rounds of playoffs. Weird that hockey ends and it’s 90 degrees outside. And the World Series extends into November.

7 years ago

Excellent piece.

7 years ago

So Campbell’s doesn’t make money creating soup, it makes money by restricting my access to it? That is, only letting me have some if I pay them (and not somebody else) for it?

Telling a multi-billion $$$ industry and the Wharton MBAs it hires that I know better than they do is always a dicey proposition. But then on the other hand, it is so much fun.

7 years ago
Reply to  Richie

Last I checked, Campbell’s doesn’t have a congress-approved monopoly on soup. If it did, then it could certainly make more money by restricting access to it (assuming there were no ready substitutes for soup, and the appetite remained).

Making snide ad hominems rather than actually thinking about an argument is so much fun. But then again, on the internet it is so common.

Jim G.
7 years ago

Interesting article Jack. In the early 80’s, before WTBS was available in my area (MI), KTVU out of San Francisco was a “Superstation” (along with WGN). I remember watching Giants games and became a fan from states away. Even though I was watching mediocre teams, it was fun watching Vida Blue, Jack Clark and Johnnie LeMaster. (Maybe not so much on LeMaster.) I think Gary Park was the announcer. At that time Jack Brickhouse and Milo Hamilton did the broadcast for WGN. That was fun to watch, too.

7 years ago

I am from SE Louisiana which is a 6 hour drive to the nearest MLB team . And when I was I kid in the 70’s, the only baseball on TV was 1 maybe 2 games per week – Game of the week on Saturday on NBC, and sometimes Monday night baseball on ABC. Thats was it.

But with the advent of the superstations and cable TV, someone from the sticks like me could watch not 1, but 2 teams play (Cubs and Braves) just about every day for an entire season.

I am now a lifelong fan of MLB, and watch several games a week. Although I probably read more about baseball than I watch because of Fangraphs and Harball Times.

I am sure there are a lot of baseball fans from flyover country in the 80’s who would not have discovered the game for themselves if it were not for the superstations.

87 Cards
7 years ago
Reply to  Steve

Put me in the Flyover League in the 1970s and MLB teams based in the Mountain Time Zone then….KTTV (LA Dodgers), TBS, KTVU and WGN supplemented my NBC Game of the Week habit and set me on a life-long baseball habit.