With confetti in the air and cigar smoke blowing in his face, Atlanta Braves CEO Derek Schiller embraced the scene as his team celebrated its first World Series title since 1995.
The Braves beat the Houston Astros in six games, culminating with a 7-0 victory in Texas Tuesday night. The championship parade is set for Friday, and then Schiller, who took over as CEO in 2018, says the franchise will take a brief pause to rejuvenate.
“It was surreal and we haven’t come down from it yet,” Schiller said in an interview on Thursday. “Our goal from day one – from when I joined the organization 18 years ago to when I became CEO – was to win a World Series. Part of what you’re seeing is we finally reached our goal.”
Soon, it’s back to business.
Schiller wants to build the Braves fan base and take advantage of the team’s unique location in a region of the country where there’s little geographic competition. He also sees new revenue opportunities in sports gambling and crypto that need to be explored. And there’s the future of viewing and what happens to traditional TV revenue as consumers cut the cord.
For Schiller, a season that ended on the highest possible note was filled with months of adversity.
Despite winning the National League East division each of the prior three years, the Braves were in a bleak spot two-thirds of the way the through the season, with a 55-55 record as of early August. In July, they lost star outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., who suffered a torn ACL in his right knee, after already watching their other two opening day outfielders hit the injured list.
Off the field, the organization found itself embroiled in an ugly political controversy. After Georgia officials passed a restrictive voting law, the MLB moved the 2021 All-Star Game to Denver from Atlanta. The league was praised by some and criticized by others, but the move was a setback to Liberty Media, the Braves’ owner, which lost significant revenue that would have come to Truist Park and the Battery Atlanta shopping district.
“We expressed our views on that, and there was certainly an attitude of disappointment because we wanted to showcase the ballpark and The Battery on the world stage,” Schiller said. “And we were working on it for a couple of years.”
In the end, getting to host three World Series games and win two of them was a fine tradeoff.
“There is a certain gratification that we were able to take the work we had done, and know while it didn’t happen then, it happened on the World Series stage,” Schiller said.
Schiller’s roster stepped up in a big way. During the regular season, first baseman Freddie Freeman hit 31 home runs and infielders Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley hit 30 and 33, respectively. Pitchers Charlie Morton and Max Fried both recorded 14-win seasons. Outfielder Jorge Soler then exploded in the World Series to win the most valuable player award, and pitcher Tyler Matzek proved unhittable out of the bullpen.
The Braves help out Liberty
Liberty, which purchased the Braves in 2007 for $1.5 billion from Time Warner, said the Braves were second in attendance this season, bringing in 2.3 million fans at $6.5 million per game.
In its third-quarter earnings report on Thursday, Liberty said the Braves generated $234 million in revenue, up from $216 million in the second quarter, and more than double sales from a year earlier, when the pandemic kept fans out of the park. The World Series boon won’t show up until fourth-quarter results.
The Braves “over-delivered on what the expectation was for 2021,” Schiller said. “That was partly a result of the planning and execution. And it’s also partly the way the fan base responded.”
“We also delivered upon the emotional attachment side,” Schiller said. He added that Liberty and CEO Greg Maffei “are overjoyed as we are.”
Delta and Coca-Cola, both headquartered in Atlanta, are two of team’s main sponsors. Schiller said “a few but not a lot” of sponsorship contracts include clauses about winning the World Series. While he didn’t provide specifics, Schiller sees the possibility of using his newfound leverage to renegotiate some deals.
However, he’s particularly excited about the fanbase. Heading into 2022, Schiller said renewed season tickets, including premium seats, have the Braves “nicely” positioned. Beyond the local market, Schiller wants to take the World Series trophy on the road and reach a larger regional consumer base.
Other than the two teams in Florida, Georgia’s neighbor to the south, no other nearby state has an MLB team. The area that includes Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee is a geographic desert for the highest level of baseball, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes the Braves have no MLB competition within 450 miles.
“Braves country is the southeast part of the United States,” Schiller said. “It’s about six states. We’re going to do a lot within those states to make sure that they know who brought the trophy home and give them an opportunity to celebrate and feel a part of that.”
Fox Sports said an average of 14.3 million viewers watched the Braves beat the Astros in Game six. That’s up from 12.6 million viewers who watched last year’s deciding game, as the Los Angeles Dodgers won their first World Series since 1988. Game six of the 2020 World Series between the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays peaked at 14.3 million viewers.
“We’re a top-tier brand in professional sports and certainly in MLB,” Schiller said. “And now, winning the ultimate prize gives us that much more stature to build upon.”
‘Get it out of the shadows’
Beyond sponsorships and fans, Schiller is looking at alternative business opportunities for the team.
As it stands, 29 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized sports gambling, according to the American Gaming Association. That includes Mississippi and Tennessee, two of the Braves’ marketing territories.
Some Georgia politicians estimate the state would generate $60 million in revenue from sports wagering, but there are hurdles to overcome. Schiller said that before the pandemic the Braves were “very active” in lobbying to bring mobile sports wagering to Georgia and that the team will soon revisit those efforts.
“We think it should happen here,” he said. “I’m still an advocate for that, and we as a team think there are a lot of good opportunities for it. And more than anything, we support it because it’s already happening. It’s time for us to get it out of the shadows and regulate it.”
Then there’s crypto.
“I would think there has to be a discussion,” Schiller said. With the Braves’ enhanced profile, “it’s incumbent upon us to try and take advantage of that, working with our sponsors and develop new sponsor opportunities,” he said.
One topic the Braves, and other MLB teams, will have to address is the future of regional sports networks, or RSNs.
Schiller negotiated the Braves’ current local media rights deal with Sinclair-owned Bally Sports. That RSN deal brings in more than $80 million annually and runs through 2027.
With cord-cutting increasing and the cable model deteriorating, RSNs are at risk, and the trickledown effect could hurt sports franchises. Schiller said he isn’t worried.
“There’s certainly a shift that’s occurring in regional sports networks and how sports content is distributed,” he said. “But we’re in the live content business, and live content is always going to be best positioned in these types of scenarios. While there might be a little bit of disruption that we’re seeing occur, this will all balance itself out.”
In wrapping up the interview, Schiller reflected on what he learned as Braves CEO over the last two years, particularly in navigating the pandemic.
“Culture matters, especially when hard times come,” he said. “Your culture internally and culture with your external community — it matters.”
Schiller said he had to communicate actively with ticketholders, who couldn’t attend games, and sponsors, who were without an audience.
“The pandemic taught us you can’t just put your head down and wait for the good times to come and bury yourself until that does,” he said.