Nine years ago when the baseball Braves moved in from Milwaukee and promptly drew 1.5 million spectators, Atlanta was viewed as the hot new city for major league sports. The Braves were followed in short order by the NFL Falcons, the NBA Hawks and the NHL Flames, all of which came to town believing that the South's most cosmopolitan citizenry would pour into arenas and ball parks, and that Atlanta would be the base of a large and growing television market encompassing the entire Southeast.
But in recent years, while attendance in most sports has increased and hours of network TV sports broadcasting have jumped dramatically, Atlanta's reputation as a hot city has turned cold. This season the Braves will be lucky to draw half as many fans as they did in their first year in Atlanta. And the television station that airs their games is certain to lose about $200,000 on the package. Moreover, last fall the Falcons twice set records for "no-shows." But the problems of baseball and football in Atlanta are mild compared to those of the basketball and hockey leagues, neither of which can get their network games—regular season or playoff—on the local affiliates.
Atlanta is the 16th-largest television market in the country. Its reaction to sports has left sponsors, league presidents and TV executives bewildered. Some charge that the city obtained "too many teams too fast" and point to it as an example of the perils of rapid expansion. But San Francisco-Oakland, Kansas City and Minneapolis-St. Paul have experienced similar expansion and in these cities some (and in the case of K.C., all) of the new sports have flourished. Consequently, the thinking that Atlanta is the most extreme example of nationwide sports oversaturation could be wrong. More likely, the city is an anomaly when it comes to the big leagues.
All of which affords little satisfaction to CBS in basketball and to Atlanta fans in hockey. The network and the NBA lost prestige when CBS affiliate WAGA decided not to carry any league games this season. "We did them last year, which was the first in CBS' three-year contract with the NBA," says WAGA Station Manager Paul Raymon. "The first time I looked at the ratings book I had a pretty good idea of what we were going to do. There was some pressure put on us by CBS in New York to run the games, most of it just friendly persuasion by the station relations department. In some ways I feel badly about not showing the NBA Game of the Week because I know the head of CBS Sports, Bob Wussler, is trying to change the network's sports image. But it didn't make sense from our point of view to run the games, and we won't run them next year, either."
The NBA package has been picked up by WTCG, the South's strongest independent UHF station, which can be seen either over the airwaves or via cable throughout Georgia and in parts of Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. Headed by Ted Turner, a flamboyant 35-year-old former Yachtsman of the Year and sort of an oceangoing Rhett Butler, WTCG now is known as the Atlanta station for sports, even though it also has a library of 2,300 films it could put to more profitable use.
"Our profit will be minimal at best from the games," says WTCG Station Manager Sid Pike. "If we ran movies instead we could make much more money."
But showing flicks would not enhance the station's reputation for sports. "Counting the NBA, we did over 70 basketball games this year, including colleges and the Hawks when they were on the road," says Turner. "We received letters of thanks and calls of appreciation, but we don't want people to send bouquets—just watch."
That is more than NHL fans can do. The league's Game of the Week could not be seen in Atlanta, even though the Flames are ninth in NHL attendance, hockey is currently the In sport in the city and a group of fans offered to pay some of the costs of televising the network games locally. And Stanley Cup games can't be seen either. That makes Atlanta the only NHL city in the U.S. that carries no network hockey telecasts.
When NBC's affiliate, WSB-TV, announced last fall that it did not intend to pick up the games, it inspired some angry mail, and both Atlanta newspapers published letters criticizing the station, the city's most successful.
"We carried the network NHL games for two years and we got ratings of about three," says WSB-TV Program Director Van Cantfort. "We get fives on this station for test patterns. We were already doing some Flames road games, and I wasn't about to commit the station to six or seven hours of hockey on any one day. We put movies on instead, and did a heck of a lot better in the ratings."
John Wilcox, the president of the Hawks, Flames and the Omni, Atlanta's $25 million sports showplace, says, "It is depressing because our ownership is tied to the South. We're interested in showing how far Atlanta has come since that fire in 1864. The problem with hockey bothers me particularly. Two years ago NBC came to Atlanta to give a seminar on hockey for advertising and media people, and did an excellent job that was well received. Now the NBC station drops the game. I don't know what will happen here, but it is something we probably will have to learn to live with."
That is a chilling prospect for sports fans in once-hot Atlanta.
TED TURNER'S WTCG HAS KEPT ATLANTANS' HOOPS UP