ATLANTA -- The turnstiles at Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, will click more than 3 million times this year.
That's not surprising for a team that's been more successful than any other for the past decade.
What is surprising is that most of the Braves' paying customers are white. In a city that's 68 percent black, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission, the black community has turned its back on its baseball team.
In the past three years, the Braves have drawn more than 10 million fans, yet less than 5 percent are black, according to team figures.
Former employees say the club hasn't made the black community feel welcome at Turner Field. Front office personnel acknowledge taking only "baby steps" in an attempt to correct that perception.
So how, in a city that's largely black, in a region that has produced such legendary black baseball players as Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, do the Braves succeed without such a large segment of their fan base?
Because they can.
"I would like to sell our full 4-point-something million tickets that we have available every year, but I'm very happy doing three (million)," Braves president Stan Kasten said. "That's kind of what our payroll is based on. I don't find myself thinking about the color of our customers when I walk through the stands. That isn't something I think about."
Most fans, according to a survey done by the Braves last year, aren't from Atlanta. While the results showed 63.6 percent of fans come from Georgia, nearly 50 percent drive more than 15 miles to the stadium, including 38 percent who drive more than 100 miles to attend a game.
Home run king and icon Hank Aaron, a senior vice president and assistant to Kasten, says the team used to court black fans when attendance was low in the late 1980s, but it doesn't anymore.
"They don't need the dollar from the black community," he said. "It's not needed anymore. (Blacks) aren't wanted on the field, and they're not wanted in the stands, and that's the gospel truth."
On any given night during the seven-month baseball season in Atlanta, the stands at Turner Field are as white as an Alaskan snow field. There are more black employees dressed as security guards and vendors than black fans.
It's ironic that a team that underwent diversity training this spring in the wake of John Rocker's comments about women, gays and minorities has a fan base that's less diverse than its own clubhouse. The Braves have two blacks, one white and five Latin players in their regular lineup and four blacks, seven Latinos and 14 whites on their 25-man roster.
Money, say several black leaders including Aaron, is just one of the reasons blacks are staying away from Turner Field.
"(In my day) more African-Americans attended baseball games here," Aaron said. "I've been saying all along that the price is just not there for the average black family to come to a baseball game. The price is way out of line. The average black family just doesn't have enough money to come to a baseball game.
"The game has gotten so now, you can buy a hot dog for what you could come to a baseball game for 10 years ago. The game has priced itself away from (fans), especially minorities."
Said former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Dewey McClain, an assistant to the commissioner of Atlanta Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, "Economics always plays a part in it. You look at what it would cost a family of four, spending $100 on a baseball game or doing something else, and they'll do something else."
The Braves have priced tickets to attract a diverse group of fans, including upper level seats that go for $5 and a special four-ticket package that includes food, drinks and a parking pass for $49 from April to May and August to September, but their tickets still rank among the most expensive in the major leagues.
Randy Puckett, associate pastor at Chapel Hill Harvester Church in Decatur, brought a group of 350 church members to a Braves game last week. As part of its marketing plan, the team sold the church a block of $5 tickets for $3 apiece, allowing the church to sell its members the tickets at the original $5 price to help raise funds.
While Puckett was grateful for the team's willingness to work with the church, he acknowledged that if the tickets had been anywhere other than the low-priced upper pavilion, the group would have been significantly smaller.
"My guess is the response would have been less," he said. "But I don't sense a lack of interest in baseball. The Braves have reached out to us two or three times a year. If there is a lack of interest, it's not because (the black) community doesn't like baseball; it's maybe because there's not been a concerted effort to bring them out."
McClain and others pointed out the Braves have no presence in the black community because they don't aim their marketing at blacks.
"Years ago, before they got on the winning road, they used to allow the city of Atlanta to participate in their programs," McClain said. "Then all of a sudden, they quit. They used to have a program where inner-city kids could come to the ballgames, and that was great. They were just trying to get people in the stands. Then they went from providing some tickets to zero.
"There are a lot of kids who would like to go, and there are some empty seats out there. If they made a gesture ... We'll do our part if the Braves do theirs."
Said Aaron, "They've got to promote in the area; they've got to promote baseball and let people know that they want them. They've got to go into these areas and have baseball clinics and stuff like that.
"The only way baseball is going to start attracting minorities to baseball games is go in and promote them. It's not being promoted. That's the fault of the team and Major League Baseball."
The club acknowledges it has been deficient in the area of minority marketing, though it suggests its efforts are being redoubled with promotions like Sunday's Heritage Salute, in which former Negro League ballplayers were honored, and Saturday's clinic for 1,500 kids.
"The effort is definitely there," said Sabrina Jenkins, one of the club's ticket sales managers. "We do a wonderful job as far as helping out in the African-American community. I think the Braves have been very active and very positive in soliciting African-American business."
Aaron scoffed at the idea the team is focusing its attention on blacks, saying, "They don't do enough. They have (a promotion) one day or one week and it's all forgotten the next week; that's the end of it. Out of sight, out of mind. That's not enough."
While club officials admit they haven't done enough to encourage blacks to come out to the ballpark, they say the era of free tickets is gone forever.
"Giving free tickets away is not developing people into buying tickets," said Paul Adams, director of ticket sales. "We've gone that route before, and it doesn't work. We get goodwill, but we don't get customers out of that. Our job is to sell tickets. We're not going to give up."
There's another reason blacks are turning away from baseball. A whole new generation of fans is turning to the faster-paced games of basketball and football, both as participants and fans.
"It's easier for African-American parents, fathers more so, to teach their kids football because they know a lot about football because 80 to 90 percent of them played the game," McClain said. "It's easy for them to teach their kids about basketball because 80 to 90 percent of them played basketball.
"The minority section doesn't have a problem going to basketball or football games -- they go in droves."
Braves right fielder Brian Jordan agreed.
"Baseball is not really a sport that causes excitement," he said. "You really have to have a mind-set for the game of baseball. I think most African-Americans would rather see a basketball game or a football game. It's constant, it's exciting. Most (African-American) people who come up to me say, `Baseball is boring -- there's no way I'm sitting through nine innings.' But if you go to a white family, they say, `Hey, we enjoy it, it's a social outing.' That's the difference.
"It bothers me as an African-American baseball player not to see more African-Americans out in the stands watching, but that's just the way it is."
Major League Baseball says it doesn't track the number of black players in the game, though the Braves' 16 percent is representative of the game. Compare that to the 79 percent of NFL players who are black and the NBA's 82 percent.
"The people I know are football and basketball fans," said Peta-Gaye Harris, who moved to Atlanta six months ago from New York. "Baseball's just not very popular. In my neighborhood, the kids play basketball and football. There's a lot more action."
Daemon Woods of Albany, Ga., said, "A lot of people think baseball is too slow, too boring. I used to play baseball, so I'm fine with it. I can watch nine innings of baseball on television and not get bored. I guess unless you've actually played the game, you can't appreciate it.
"If you want action, you'll watch football. If you only had a certain amount of money to spend, you'd probably spend it on the Falcons instead of the Braves, I guarantee you."
The answer, everyone agrees, is aiming more of the club's marketing at blacks and strengthening the team's presence in the black community by sponsoring the building of baseball diamonds and holding clinics for inner-city kids.
"It seems in the African-American community, whenever there's a discussion about sports, it's typically about basketball and football," said Ray White, DeKalb County's planning director. "It seems like in the competition of things, baseball doesn't win out. I don't know why baseball doesn't have the same appeal as basketball and football."
Aaron, whose Chasing the Dream Foundation provides grants to children to pursue advanced study in music, art, writing, dance and sports, says the Braves should take the lead in promoting baseball in the black community.
"You don't see in (black) areas the little manicured diamonds or the baseball bats and the mothers and fathers out there in the afternoons," he said. "It's just not happening in the black areas. The game is being promoted more overseas than it's being promoted here.
"More kids are not even playing professional baseball. The dwindling of American black players is troublesome. It bothers me."
© 2016. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us