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Braves fans responding to first-place team

The Braves’ surprising first-place position in the National League East has fueled a recent rise in attendance and an even sharper rise in TV ratings as many fans seem to shake off the team’s four consecutive losing seasons. 

The Braves sold out their past three home games, marking the first three-game sellout streak at SunTrust Park, and overall attendance for the season is up almost 5 percent from the same point last year. Local TV ratings are up 44 percent. 

“I think it’s gotten to the point where there is definite belief by the fans that the rebuild is more accelerated than we anticipated,” 28-year Braves season-ticket holder John Shafer said Thursday. “I think it’s for real.” 

The Braves open a six-game homestand Friday night with the start of a three-game weekend series against the Baltimore Orioles, followed by three games against the Cincinnati Reds. 

The Braves enter the homestand with a 43-30 record and a lead of 3-1/2 games in their division, having been in first place for 47 of 49 days since May 3. It’s all a welcome change for Braves fans, who suffered through 90-plus-loss seasons each of the past three years as the Braves shed expensive veteran players and undertook a painful rebuilding effort built around the minor-league system. 

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Braves president and CEO Derek Schiller said Thursday that advance sales for the next six games suggest attendance will continue the momentum of the previous homestand, when the team averaged 35,137 fans per game. For the season, the Braves are averaging 31,645, up from 30,289 at this point last season. 

Braves attendance rose significantly last year, as typically happens when a team moves into a new stadium, but is bucking a trend this year by not giving back some of those gains. While 12 of the 15 MLB teams to open new stadiums since 2000 enjoyed attendance increases in the first year, 12 of the 14 before the Braves posted attendance declines in the stadium’s second year as the novelty began to wear off.

“If everything paces as it’s currently going, we certainly believe it is possible and even probable that we’ll beat last year’s inaugural season at SunTrust Park attendance, which unto itself is a very large statement,” Schiller said. 

“Fans have reacted very favorably to the team but also to SunTrust Park and The Battery Atlanta (the mixed-use development adjacent to the ballpark). It has created the destination we all hoped for.” 

The Braves currently rank 11th among the 30 MLB teams in home attendance. Across MLB, attendance is down about 6 percent this season, with the Braves one of 10 teams showing an increase.

The Braves are on pace to draw 2.56 million this season, which would be about 60,000 more than last year and 540,000 more than in the 2016 season. Last Saturday’s game drew a record SunTrust Park crowd of 41,916. 

The TV audiences for Braves games also reflect renewed interest in the team.

Through 72 telecasts on Fox Sports South and Fox Sports Southeast this season, the Braves are drawing an average audience of about 72,000 households in the Atlanta TV market, up from an average of 49,000 at this point last season. 

Braves telecasts on Fox Sports South/Southeast have averaged a 2.93 Nielsen rating in the Atlanta market this season, compared with 2.03 at this point last year, and are trending upward. The June 14 win over the Padres drew a 4.54 local rating on Fox Sports Southeast, the highest-rated Braves game on that network since the SunTrust Park opener last season. The June 12 win over the Mets, shown locally on both ESPN and Fox Sports Southeast, drew a combined 4.8 rating here. 

Another measure of enthusiasm is fans’ online voting for the National League All-Star team. Three Braves – first baseman Freddie Freeman, second baseman Ozzie Albies and outfielder Nick Markakis – rank first in the voting at their positions, and several other Braves rank surprisingly high. For example, rookie Ronald Acuna is the fifth leading vote-getter among outfielders despite playing in only 29 major-league games. 

The vote totals “not only speak to the popularity of these players and this team locally and even regionally, but also nationally,” Schiller said. “It has certainly awoken the entire fan base.” 

Shafer, who first bought Braves season tickets in the worst-to-first season of 1991, thinks the fans are important in how this season plays out on the field. 

“I have gone from being hopeful of about 85 wins this season to truly believing that there is a realistic chance we will not only make the playoffs but could conceivably win the Eastern Division,” he said. “I think a strong fan base and a really engaged crowd are going to make a difference with these guys. It lifts them to another level.”

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