The news two weeks ago that the Atlanta Braves could soon be on the market was met with jubilation in the Braves' Nation. After years of being tied up like a dog on a short chain, the prospect of no longer being owned by the corporate structure known as Time Warner, or AOL, or whatever they're calling themselves this week, seems promising.
It could be a double-edged sword, however. There's also the possibility that a new owner could be worse than Time Warner, that the payroll be even less than it is now, and that the situation gets worse instead of better.
But there's motivation on Time Warner's part to ensure that does not happen. The Braves will be on TBS, still one of Time Warner's core assets, through 2012. If they sold the club to just anybody, there would be no guarantee the new owner would keep the club competitive. So it's in Time Warner's best interest to put the team in the hands of someone that will keep the payroll at a high level.
We've already heard that people are ringing Time Warner's phones off the hook with interest in the Braves. That's good news. The more candidates, the better the candidates. If someone's going to pay upwards of $600 million for the Braves and Turner South, then they'll certainly have the funds available to keep the team competitive.
It's easy to assume that the new owners will come in and immediately increase the payroll back to where it was for a number of years. Of all of John Schuerholz's accomplishments, keeping this team in the playoffs despite seeing his payroll drop 20% ($100 million to $80 million) is one of his best. And who knows, the new owner might believe that's all he'll need to keep the club at its current level.
The answer, probably, is somewhere in between. We cannot assume that the payroll will be pushed back up to $100 million the day the new owner is handed the key to Turner Field. And it's probably not likely that they would almost punish Schuerholz by saying, "well John you've done it at $80 million that last two years, so what's the point of raising it back to $100 million?"
There are other things that a new owner could do that could be even more important than setting the payroll at a certain level. The corporate structure has limited Schuerholz to have little flexibility the last few years. Back when Ted Turner owned the team, Schuerholz would go through team President Stan Kasten to ask Turner to add salary. Turner would usually say yes. But that flexibility went out the window as soon as Turner Broadcasting became Time Warner, and became even more limited when it became AOL/Time Warner.
That flexibility could be just as important as seeing the payroll increase. Just think, the last few years, when the Braves were battling for another division title, Schuerholz has been limited to add medium-salaried players that would only add a million or so to the team's payroll. There have been no big money acquisitions in July or August for several seasons. But the advantage a new owner could give back to Schuerholz is the flexibility of possibly adding a large salaried player that could push the Braves, not only into the playoffs, but back to the World Series.
And there's other flexibility that has been lost the last few years. When Turner was the owner, there was some leeway in the scouting budget. The team was more competitive both in international scouting and in going after players in the draft that might have a signability issue. But if there is a face for Schuerholz or team President Terry McGuirk could go to and ask for a little more money, chances are more will get done.
Now don't get me wrong. If the new owner wants to come in and increase the payroll back to $100 million, increase the scouting budget by 50%, and hire more scouts, I'll be thrilled. But that flexibility, which has been lost the last few years by being owned by a faceless ownership, is just as important.
And that's the real thing that could be helped by new ownership: a face. For those of us that remember the days of Turner running up and down the aisles in his flip-flops to go get his beer, and him jumping into the dugout after a Braves' win, we've missed having a face to identify with the franchise. Heck, even when Ted backed away a bit in the late 80s and early 90s, he still brought Jane Fonda to the games. We at least knew there was someone there that actually gave a damn.
Even though McGuirk does give a damn, it hasn't meant as much to see him down in "Ted's box." We all knew he was still a President reporting to someone we had never heard of, some Internet guru in Virginia that probably believed, as evidenced by the desire to now sell the team, the Braves were a waste of time.
So it's important to get someone to own the team that the fans can identify. The Astros' Drayton McLane is very involved. I've seen him in Kissimmee in spring training talk with the fans and interact on a personal level. Even the more impersonal owners, like Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox and King George in New York, can still be identified as the owners of their teams.
Maybe it's so we can have someone to blame if something doesn't go right, but there's more to it than that. Just look at the Atlanta Falcons. For years, they were owned by Rankin Smith. He was visible, but usually had to shun the fans to avoid being killed. Arthur Blank took over and instantly became the fans' friend. He wanted them to know that the buck stopped with him, and that personal connection has really meant something.
Even though the Falcons failed to make the playoffs this season, their fans have got to feel more confident knowing that Blank will do everything in his power to get the team back there. And they know that because they've come to feel that Blank is one of them - a Falcons' fan.
But with the Braves' being owned by a corporate structure, a huge corporate structure, we haven't felt like they've given a damn whether or not the team has made it past the first round. This has nothing to do with McGuirk or any of the other people in the front office, but the "people" above them - the ones we don't know. Those are the people we need to replace with a visible owner that the fans can trust and have confidence in.
The new scoreboards and Tooner Field and all the other ballpark improvements have been nice, and there's no doubt it's help improve the experience at the Braves' games. We might not get another owner that runs up and down the aisles giving people high-fives on his way to get a beer, but we do need a face that we know actually does care a great deal about the future of this franchise.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Faceless franchise needs an actual face
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