Lockout intrudes on celebration, but Braves say sales still strong

Manager Brian Snitker hoists the World Series trophy after the Braves defeated the Astros in Game 6 on Nov. 2, 2021, in Houston.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Manager Brian Snitker hoists the World Series trophy after the Braves defeated the Astros in Game 6 on Nov. 2, 2021, in Houston. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Baseball’s lockout came at an inopportune time for the Braves, casting a pall over the sport as the team was still celebrating a World Series championship.

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The players mostly disappeared from view, their photos even removed from the Braves’ website. Trades and free-agent signings were frozen, largely taking MLB teams out of the headlines. The loud cheers of the Braves’ championship parade faded to a silent baseball winter.

“As a fan, I think the buzz did stop more quickly than it would have without a labor dispute,” said Bernie Mullin, founder and chairman of The Aspire Group, an Atlanta-based sports and entertainment marketing firm. “Because of how strong and popular the Braves are, they are probably as protected as anybody could be to ride out the impact of the lockout, but nonetheless it has to have slowed them down.”

The Braves’ stirring postseason provided an early boost to ticket sales for 2022. A few days after the World Series, the team said “thousands” of new season tickets had been sold. Then, on Dec. 2, MLB owners locked out the players -- the sport’s first work stoppage since the infamous strike of 1994-95.

Braves CEO Derek Schiller said this week that ticket sales remained strong through December and January despite the lockout, which prohibits the team from using current players in promotions or advertising. It can -- and does -- use the World Series trophy, however.

“For this point in time heading into our season, a couple of months away, we have sold our most overall tickets in well over 20 years,” Schiller said. “This year will definitely be our highest season-ticket total … since the late 1990s.” He declined to disclose the number of season tickets sold, citing team policy.

“We’ve seen huge amounts of activity on all segments of ticketing, whether it be single-game, group tickets, season tickets or premium seating,” Schiller said. “We’re closing in on selling out all of our premium seating.”

He also said sales of team merchandise have continued at a record pace.

Still, the lockout is undeniably an intrusion into the celebratory aftermath of a championship.

“The lockout for us is certainly out there, but it’s more in the background,” Schiller said. “People are just so excited to talk about the accomplishment of our first World Series championship in 26 years. … But certainly (the lockout) comes up from time to time. People ask about it.

“We’re confident that Major League Baseball, at the league level, is going to manage through that. But right now we’re focused on continuing to celebrate what happened in 2021 and trying to repeat in 2022.”

Pitchers and catchers typically report to spring training in mid-February, but the chances of that happening on schedule decreased further when a Tuesday negotiating session ended without substantive progress toward a new collective bargaining agreement.

Braves fans who shared their feelings with the AJC in recent days were mixed on how they’re dealing with the lockout.

“If this spring is affected, I’m unlikely to renew,” Sarasota, Fla., resident Michael Henshaw, who has season tickets for the Braves’ Grapefruit League schedule in North Port, Fla., said by email. “It’s already too expensive, and … giving billionaire owners more and more money when they don’t care about fans is killing the game.

“Unlike 1994, there are a lot more entertainment options. The Braves won, and maybe it’s time to move on if the sport (doesn’t) care about the fans.”

But Austin Perry of Smyrna, a Braves season-ticket holder since 2017 and a former resident of The Battery Atlanta adjacent to Truist Park, is unperturbed about the shutdown.

“Personally, the lockout is not affecting my anticipation of the season,” Perry said. “At the end of the day, the lockout will end and games will be played. ... In the event we miss some, it will be a worthy sacrifice to ensure labor peace for 10-plus years.”

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Freddie Freeman waves to fans during a Nov. 5, 2021, ceremony at Truist Park celebrating the Braves' World Series championship. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Freddie Freeman waves to fans during a Nov. 5, 2021, ceremony at Truist Park celebrating the Braves' World Series championship. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Freddie Freeman waves to fans during a Nov. 5, 2021, ceremony at Truist Park celebrating the Braves' World Series championship. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

John Shafer, a Johns Creek resident who has been a Braves season-ticket holder since 1991, said he and other fans he knows are taking the lockout in stride so far, without the widespread anger that surfaced during the 1994-95 strike.

“I think it is a dampener for sure,” Shafer said, “but most people really were anticipating it. We’ve been somewhat encouraged that it does appear the sides are, in fact, talking. ... I think everybody is still on the bandwagon because we are world champions.”

Colin Lord, a Braves fan in Nashville, Tenn., remains optimistic enough about the regular season opening on time that he and his wife have two tickets to all four games in the first scheduled home series against Cincinnati on April 7-10.

“The worst thing about the lockout is the limbo of if they’ll re-sign Freddie (Freeman),” Lord said. “If games are missed in April, that won’t stop me from attending whenever games resume. That said, if they don’t re-sign Freddie, that would change my enthusiasm about attending games.”

Freeman is a free agent and can’t sign during the lockout. Whether the Braves ultimately retain him is a bigger concern for most fans than the labor negotiations.

“As long as they play ball on the first day they’re supposed to be playing, I don’t think anybody really even wants to hear the minutiae of what’s going on in that (negotiating) room,” said Chris Dimino, who co-hosts a daily show on Atlanta sports radio station The Fan. “Braves fans are still flying pretty high, but the Freddie thing is absolutely hanging over their heads more than the lockout.”

Fans’ patience will be tested, however, if the labor dispute lasts much longer and particularly if it claims regular-season games.

“As long as there is minimal impact and disruption on this upcoming season, I would expect fans to basically put it behind them pretty quickly,” said Mullin, a former Hawks and Thrashers CEO, whose Aspire Group sold tickets for three MLB teams last year. “If you lose some spring training games, so what? If you start losing regular-season games, then it can be problematic.”

Meanwhile, in the executive offices at Truist Park, the 2021 season continues to brighten baseball’s silent winter.

“We walk around here with a constant smile on our face,” said Schiller, who pointed out he was wearing a World Series championship sweatshirt. “There’s only happiness around here.”