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Roy Blount Jr.
March 21, 1977
While Boomtown Atlanta grows in splendiferous ways, Sportstown Atlanta attempts to outgrow its shabby reputation
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March 21, 1977

Losersville, U.s.a.

While Boomtown Atlanta grows in splendiferous ways, Sportstown Atlanta attempts to outgrow its shabby reputation

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That cannonball coming through the stained-glass window!" cries noted sports mogul Ted Turner. He is referring to a siege-of- Atlanta scene in Gone With the Wind. "I'm tired of that stuff! Yankees think all this city does is get burned! Let's burn some Yankees! Let's...."

As he talks, Turner is going down the buffet line, waving a plateful of salad, in the Omni Club in Atlanta's lavish new Omni coliseum-hotel-shopping center complex. The other pre-hockey game diners chuckle and nudge each other. They seem appreciative, but not entirely convinced. Neither Yankees nor local folks can be faulted for seeing Atlanta as a city forever being burned in sports.

Although it is only the 14th largest marketplace in the country, and although its sole nationally known team before 1966 was the Georgia Tech football Yellow Jackets, Atlanta now has within its city limits four big-league franchises—one less than New York but one more than Boston. In fact, the city's economic boom of the '60s and early '70s was largely founded on the status conferred by the baseball Braves, football Falcons, basketball Hawks and hockey Flames. But the teams themselves have almost every year been either financial or competitive dogs—or both. So much money and so many games have gone up in smoke that Atlanta's own sports pages have taken to calling the city "Losersville, U.S.A." It will be a neat trick if Atlanta manages to avoid losing at least one of its professional teams to some other municipality, perhaps a Yankee one.

This is especially embarrassing nowadays. With the nation's population and business shifting toward the Southeast, and the aforementioned GWTW pulling the biggest TV audience ever (until Roots, much of which was filmed in Georgia) and Jimmy Carter in the White House along with a horde of fellow Georgians, the eyes of the world are on Atlanta—Georgia's capital and the Deep South's big-league city. When Chairman Hua makes polite, or hostile, conversation by asking how the Falcons are doing, President Carter may be tempted to lie for the first time.

The unfortunate truth is, Atlanta may have taken on too many teams too soon. In a recent survey conducted by Philadelphia economist Bob McMahon, Atlanta ranked alongside Cleveland as the city with the worst attendance percentage in pro sports. The Braves' attendance dropped from 1.5 million in 1966—year one—to 535,000 in 1975, and the Falcons' average attendance fell almost 20,000 from 1966 through 1976. "Over-sportsed" is a term heard these days in the city. If someone had come through town in the '60s selling memberships in the Holy Roman Empire, Atlanta might have signed up for one of those, too. When the Hawks arrived from St. Louis in 1969 the Atlanta Journal said in an editorial, "For a moment, we felt like a wife whose husband has brought her home 300 pounds of bass, and no deepfreeze. 'What are we going to do with all these teams?' we felt like saying." But the editorial went on to welcome the Hawks.

Then, three years later came the Flames, creatures of NHL expansion. Civic-minded persons are still fighting to lay off all of those fish. Not long ago Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and Georgia Governor George Busbee called in the city's most prominent business leaders and prodded them to have their companies buy $750,000 worth of expense-account hockey tickets for this season. So far all that money has been pledged—$25,000 of it, astonishingly enough, was put up by the Flames players, on their own initiative. Some of the Flames have even indicated a willingness to accept salary reductions. When athletes start sacrificing their own money, you know things are perilous.

A great many Atlantans, however, fall back on hopeful assertions like, "Well, you know Coca-Cola isn't going to let this town lose any teams," and "Having the President from around here isn't going to hurt us, you know." (Actually the only professional sport President Carter seems to care anything about is stock-car racing.) The one person really firing any cannonballs or flinging any fish at the enemy, whoever he may be, is the energetic Turner.

Since buying the Braves a year ago, the peripatetic Turner has operated nonstop. He has ridden in a pregame ostrich race. He has run out and embraced home-run hitters at the plate. He has scattered scrip on the field for selected fans to gather up against the clock and then redeem for cash. There may be a certain daytime-TV vulgarity about Turner's promotions, but last year they increased attendance by 52% (to a still-low 812,000). He has also greatly improved the Braves on paper, shelling out enough money to sign free agents Andy Messersmith and Gary Matthews and to acquire Relief Pitcher Mike Marshall from Los Angeles and slugger Jeff Burroughs from Texas. "I'm just one of the guys," he says. "I tell them, I don't want to talk to any agents. If you and I were going fishing you wouldn't send over an agent to find out what kind of beer to bring, would you?' "

Turner also owns the UHF station that carries most of Atlanta's televised sports and an outdoor advertising company. He has helped keep the Flames going with sizable loans, and in January he assumed enough of the Hawks' staggering debts to take over controlling interest in that club. Unlike his lodge brothers, Turner doesn't claim to know much about baseball, basketball or hockey. So, accompanying him into the Hawks' front office was an entirely new element for the team in Atlanta—a good basketball man. Former ABA Commissioner Mike Storen runs the Hawks for Turner as president and general manager. Storen has already shaped up the members of the Hawks' office staff, some of whom "weren't necessarily coming to work in the morning," he says.

Turner's biggest coup, however, was his recent one-year suspension from overt baseball activity by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for excessive eagerness in pursuit of free agent Matthews. No one has derived so much mileage from Kuhn's disapproval since the author of Ball Four. Atlantans rallied heartily, or frantically, around the only owner in town who puts out for them. Mayor Jackson and other civic leaders carried a pardon-Turner petition of 10,000 signatures to a conference with Kuhn, who at the time had yet to declare when the suspension would begin and was already saying he might reduce it to half a year. When Kuhn ignored that petition, the Braves' board of directors went to court for an injunction against the suspension. Turner is reveling in the controversy; in truth, he is committed to spending the summer away from baseball anyway, sailing the yacht Courageous in the America's Cup trials.

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