Braves national following: Celebrating 50 years since TBS debut

Ted Turner holds a press conference on Marlch 29, 1997 before the opening day at Turner Field. (AJC Staff Photo/David Tulis)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Ted Turner holds a press conference on Marlch 29, 1997 before the opening day at Turner Field. (AJC Staff Photo/David Tulis)

Wherever the Braves go, a congregation of fans await them. That’s life as one of the more distinguished professional sports brands in America.

Winning has that effect, as does representing an entire region. But the catalyst for the Braves’ immense popularity was their national exposure for decades on TBS.

A revolutionary, inimitable idea turned the Braves into appointment viewing. Fifty years ago, Ted Turner’s vision came to fruition. The Braves debuted on TBS in April 1973. Three years later, Turner took them national. Braves games aired on TBS over a fully national feed until September 2007.

“It was crazy,” Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine said. “For me, even when I got drafted by the Braves, I didn’t know much about them. We didn’t have TBS in my town (in Massachusetts). Once I started playing in the big leagues, my parents started a petition to get TBS on the local cable company. We got it, and everybody up there became Braves fans.

“Sometimes you forget how far-reaching a station like that was. When we started to get good, it was amazing the following we had on the road everywhere we went. It was because of TBS. People watched us all over the country. I’ve heard so many stories from people, even now, that are Braves fans because of TBS back in the day. They’re not from Atlanta. They have no connections to Atlanta. We were on every night so that’s what they watched. I’m not going to say we unseated the Dallas Cowboys as ‘America’s Team,’ but we were at least in the conversation.”

Turner Sports, now called Warner Bros. Discovery Sports, is a modern sports hub largely due to its past relationship with the Braves. The Braves, meanwhile, have WBD Sports to thank for their following today.

The Braves forged so much of their history while playing on TBS. Hank Aaron, the greatest player in franchise history and one of the most important athletes in American history, became the home run king in 1974. The country fell in love with Dale Murphy, still the favorite of many fans, for 15 seasons, seeing him win consecutive MVPs from 1982-83.

The nation saw the Braves win a record 14 consecutive division titles and 15 overall. America watched Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox win a whole lot of games – and get tossed out of a bunch of them, too. It saw Phil Niekro’s perplexing knuckleball and remarkable longevity. It watched Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz combine for six Cy Young awards.

It saw switch-hitter Chipper Jones enjoy one of baseball’s most illustrious careers. It saw Andruw Jones make defense look so elegant. It saw soon-to-be Hall of Famer Fred McGriff arrive and Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium set ablaze. There were too many to name them all: Terry Pendleton, Ralph Garr, David Justice, Deion Sanders, Steve Avery, Javy Lopez, Jeff Blauser, Ron Gant, Bob Horner, Rafael Furcal, Andres Galarraga and countless others wore Braves uniforms on TBS.

“I feel like that was kind of the catalyst that set the stage for stars being fan favorites regardless of whatever team was your favorite,” said WBD Sports EVP and Chief Content Officer Craig Barry, who’s been with the company for nearly three decades. “Even if I was a huge Dodgers fan, Maddux could be my favorite pitcher. … We saw the power, the ability to take a local team and build national stars through the power of just exposing frequency and saturation. Exposing Dale Murphy and various others. And even though the team kind of sucked until the 90s, they still had a huge national following.

“And when they became the dominant national favorite, you saw these other markets – if you’re an Astros fan, a Phillies fan, a Dodgers fan – you were watching because Atlanta was such a huge matchup against your team. So it was really, really appealing. And the fact that we created the ability to bring those games in those matchups, I think was very, very valuable for the fan.”

The announcers were famous, too. Skip Caray, Ernie Johnson Sr., Pete Van Wieren, Don Sutton and Joe Simpson provided the soundtrack for young and old while shaping generations of future broadcasters (including new Braves play-by-play announcer Brandon Gaudin).

“It was just pretty cool to watch my dad become, like, this national sportscaster who’s getting fan mail from all over the country,” WBD Sports broadcaster Ernie Johnson Jr. said. “To have baseball fans reaching out to him to tell him how much they appreciate the broadcast, it really meant something to him.”

There was a lot of losing in the earlier years (sans 1982). But the country watched the worst-to-first Braves in 1991. It saw the team of the 90s capture its World Series championship in 1995. It witnessed the Braves capture five National League pennants in the 90s. It saw the franchise maintain its run through the early 2000s, capped with the “Baby Braves” in 2005.

One of those Baby Braves, Atlanta native and Bally Sports/TBS broadcaster Jeff Francoeur, grew up watching the team on TBS before wearing the uniform.

“(TBS) gave us such a fanbase,” he said. “You go to Colorado, you get 20,000 Braves fans. We went to Seattle last year, it was unbelievable. For my grandparents who grew up in Massachusetts, it was perfect. They watched every game of mine because it was on TBS. I think you truly did become ‘America’s Team’ because of that.”

During their TBS run, the Braves became the Braves. Until 2008, almost their entire Atlanta history was documented by the superstation. The Braves have retired 10 numbers of individuals who’ve played for the club; eight of them played or managed during the TBS era. The Braves had 20 winning seasons during their TBS run.

Even if you weren’t in the South, everyone is drawn to accessibility, winning and star power. The Braves offered all of it.

It was Turner’s aspirations realized. He went from president of Turner Advertising Company, a billboard business, to building a media empire. Those successes included striking a deal for WTCG to air Braves games. In 1976, Turner bought the Braves, beginning one of the more memorable runs by an owner – and personality – in professional sports.

The Braves were eventually successful under Turner. And they were usually interesting, whether it was his quotes, his team’s results (good and bad) or even Turner managing the team himself – he finished with an 0-1 mark after that day in 1977.

Above all, Turner was a businessman who believed putting the Braves on his station would wind up a crowning achievement – even if others doubted him.

Turner, 84, shared the following written statement with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via a spokesperson:

“What a milestone! Fifty years of our hometown team, the Atlanta Braves, on our hometown station, TBS. Bringing the Braves to then WTCG in 1973 - and later becoming the Braves owner in 1976 - are achievements I will cherish forever. A ‘home base’ for the Braves on TBS was a perfect match as the games became a programming staple on our network. This also helped equate being a fan – beyond the ball field – to countless followers across the country, instilling a love for the Braves, known as ‘America’s Team.’ I will always feel proud of this incredible partnership and legacy that continues to shape the fabric of Atlanta. Go Braves!”

The Johnson family has long been tied with WBD Sports. Johnson Sr. played for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves and was a beloved commentator and broadcaster for the franchise from 1962-99. Johnson Jr. started with Turner Sports in 1989. He also worked alongside his father at SportSouth from 1993-96.

Johnson Jr. called Turner a pioneer, adding: “It all started with him. He took a chance going from the billboard company to just having these ideas that people would say, ‘Oh, that’s not going to work.’ Well, let’s see if it works. OK, we’re going to put the Braves on TBS. We’re going to put them on a satellite. They’re going to be on a superstation and they’re going to be America’s team.”

Barry described Turner as fearless with a love for being “the little engine that could.” He praised Turner for taking calculated risks, noting his willingness to buck common thought completely changed the industry. Most important, he said, was how Turner prioritized the consumer.

“He really felt very strongly about what the fans and the consumers would want, whether that would be on a news, entertainment or sports side,” Barry said. “Although he was a very, very savvy and shrewd businessman, I think he was a true innovator around understanding what the wants and needs of his consumers were first and foremost. He understood if he delivered that, that the fans would stay there and be there for him and for the product. Ultimately, he was right.”

It’s been 16 years since the Braves were mainstays on national television. Yet they’d built generations of fans and continue enjoying that benefit.

“We have Braves fans everywhere, all over the country because of that,” said Braves reliever Collin McHugh said, who grew up in the Atlanta area. “I don’t know how strategic it was at the beginning of it, but it worked. We have such a built-in fan base, not just in the South, but all across the country because they could see the team play wherever they were.

“I think it’s nice when you go on the road and you see Braves hats at the top of the CN Tower (in Toronto) and you even go to Boston, you’ve got people coming to see you. People up there saying, ‘I’ve been watching (the Braves) since I was a kid.’ I remember very fondly all the memories – not just having a team on national TV every night – but a really good team for 14 straight years.”

The Braves’ TBS run also helped lay the groundwork for the network’s present. MLB on TBS has had a national flavor since 2008, showcasing premier matchups throughout the season. The Braves still play on the network occasionally, most recently against the Mets earlier this week.

TNT is lauded for its NBA coverage that includes the popular “Inside The NBA,” hosted by Johnson Jr. In April 2021, WBD Sports reached a seven-year deal with the NHL. The network broadcasts parts of the MLB, NBA and NHL playoffs, in addition to NCAA March Madness and other events. WBD Sports also has contracts with All Elite Wrestling and ELeague, among other deals internationally.

It all started with Turner and the local baseball team.

“It was a groundbreaking thing,” Johnson Jr. said. “And it’s great to see that it wasn’t just, ‘Yeah, they tried that and it flamed out.’ It was the birth of a really great relationship. We’re still doing baseball on TBS 50 years later. It’s been a remarkable run.

“You didn’t know it at the time, you didn’t think about it very much. It was just, ‘Oh, here comes this idea. Let’s see how it plays out.’ But then you think about it. You see where we are today, where you’ve got (NBA) League Pass, the MLB package and all that stuff. You can basically watch any game you want. And now, you think back to the Braves coming into living rooms across the country – way, way, way, way, way back when – it’s pretty cool.”