THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
The sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to a Canadian group of investors who will take the National Hockey League team to Winnipeg, Manitoba is yet another Time Warner failure. The media giant selected the wrong people in Atlanta to buy the company's National Basketball Association Atlanta Hawks, the NHL Thrashers and the lease agreement with the city of Atlanta for the use of the city built arena.
Time Warner officials, like an awful lot of other officials at media companies, in the late 20th century decided that getting bigger was better and buy out other companies. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp bought the Los Angeles Dodgers and attempted what was then called "vertical integration" and bring a sports franchise into the company. Murdoch's thinking or his advisors thinking was to put Dodgers telecasts into the homes of the Pacific Rim countries like Japan.
Murdoch failed and sold the Dodgers to Frank McCourt's group in 2004.
Time Warner ended up with the Atlanta Braves, the Hawks, Thrashers and control of the leases at Atlanta's new baseball stadium and the city arena. Time Warner then merged operations with America Online or AOL.
AOL Time Warner was a financial disaster.
AOL Time Warner got rid of World Championship Wrestling in March 2001 because it just didn't fit in with the corporate culture of the company. AOL Time Warner ditched the CNN's Sports Tonight program soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The show would continue on the CNNSI network which started in 1996. But AOL Time Warner ended that channel in 2002. The Hawks, Thrashers and the arena lease was sold off in 2003. Turner South, a regional cable network that was founded in 1999 and carried Braves, Hawks and Thrashers games was sold off in 2006.
In 2007, the Braves franchise was sold. AOL Time Warner also got rid of its share Comedy Central along with a record label.
The company now known as Time Warner has a long history of getting rid of sports properties. After Murdoch attempted to take over Warner Communications (a Time Warner predecessor) in the early 1980s, the company decided that it no longer was interested in owning the New York Cosmos despite the team's success at the Meadowlands. It can be argued that Warner Communications ruined not only the Cosmos with handing out large contracts to big names but the North American Soccer League as well. Eventually the Cosmos and the NASL folded.
AOL was eventually spun off.
Time Warner has stomped all over Ted Turner's legacy in sports. The Hawks, the Thrashers, the Goodwill games, even a sports show on CNN. Time Warner has destroyed CNN as a legitimate source of news and turned Headline News into something that resembles bad daytime/tabloid television. CNN and Headline News are profitable because of the 1984 federal legislation that created a bundled tier that saved cable channels like CNN, Headline News and ESPN.
It is quite clear that Ted Turner was and remains the most important person in Atlanta sports. He bought the Atlanta Braves and turned the medium market franchise into a national brand thanks to WTBS. Turner hired top notch people to run his sports enterprises, Dr. Harvey Schiller, Jack Kelly, Stan Kasten.
At one time, New Jersey-native Kasten ran the Braves, Hawks and Thrashers.
Turner understood the value of having Braves baseball on WTBS and was mocked by baseball purists for turning Braves baseball into TV programming. Braves baseball games started at 5:05 p.m. on Wednesdays in a television block which served as a prelude to a Wednesday night movie. The Braves, a team out of Atlanta, had a national following and showed others in baseball that baseball was TV programming not just a game. Turner also brought the first Soviet player to the NBA as a part of the back and forth of staging the Goodwill Games.
Turner named the hockey team the Thrashers.
Turner ran a successful enterprise which was run into the ground by a company that got far too big, Time Warner and then AOL Time Warner. The company never replaced the sports people who ran Turner Sports, Dr. Schiller, Kelly, Kasten and a host of others. The only smart thing that AOL Time Warner did was to leave John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox in charge of the Braves but the big money that Ted Turner provided to the club was gone. Today, the Atlanta Braves baseball team is run as a mid market franchise and is no longer "America's Team."
To blame Time Warner for the demise of the Atlanta Thrashers may be a bit of a stretch as the company washed its hand of the team eight years ago. Back in 1997, it was a foregone conclusion that Ted Turner was going to get a National Hockey League expansion team in Atlanta and that Dr. Schiller and Kasten were the kind of people the NHL wanted. Turner had the checkbook to buy a franchise for $80 million, there would be a new arena opening in the city and he could put together a regional cable TV network. There was always a possibility that the NHL could get a cable TV network contract with Turner Sports. He could also get corporate support. But the Time Warner takeover of Turner's company and then the AOL-Time Warner merger ended that.
The AOL Time Warner debacle came under President Bill Clinton's watch. Clinton also signed the 1996 TeleCommunications Act into law, an act that virtually destroyed local radio and ended up created two radio giants—Infinity and Clear Channel—and changed the industry.
Vertical integration failed.
Time Warner's Turner Sports still has some major properties. The NBA on TNT, Major League Baseball on TBS, NASCAR on TNT, NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament on TNT, TBS and TruTV along with ncaa.com, nascar.com,nba.com, pga.com, pgatour.com. Atlanta Braves games are on Peachtree TV but Turner does not produce the games.
Time Warner was an original partner of the Fred Wilpon/New York Mets' SNY regional sports network. But Time Warner got rid of Time Warner Cable in 2009. Time Warner and Time Warner Cable are separate companies and Time Warner Cable has a piece of SNY.
Media companies got bigger and were too big to fail but failed. Time Warner and Clear Channel have been bad stewards of media properties. Time Warner is out of the sports ownership business. Bad owners ruin sports and the guys at Time Warner and then AOL Time Warner whether it was Gerald Levin or Steve Case is at the top of the list of bad sports owners.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle.