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Are the Braves unlikable?

Far fewer people are watching the Braves this year despite the team not being worse. Why is that?

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Sports Business Daily recently came out with a study of changes in ratings for each MLB team in 2014 compared to 2013. The focus of the study was on the Dodgers and the massive problems they have had gaining widespread distribution for their regional sports network but near the bottom was a table about biggest changes in ratings for this year. The teams with a major decline in viewers were mostly teams that got worse (Rangers, Red Sox) and the Dodgers who currently are not on the tv packages for many of their viewers. There is one team on that list that has suffered a major decline in viewers this season without getting worse and without issues in distributing their games to viewers. That team is the Atlanta Braves who despite leading their division at the All-Star break have seen their average rating per game decline by 32% or 28,000 viewers.

Bad teams will tend to get lower ratings than good teams, and if fans can’t find the games on their tv they obviously are not going to watch. But then why are fans not watching the Braves this year despite the fact that they are good and that there has been no change in tv distribution?

Well not to be too basic in my thinking but the logical reason is that for a large number of viewers they don’t want to watch this Braves team. The team isn’t bad. There hasn’t been some sort of betting scandal that has ruined the purity of the game. I’m not aware of some phenomenon sweeping the Southeast keeping fans entertained and not watching the Braves. I’m not aware of large numbers of Southeastern viewers deciding collectively to start living a more healthy lifestyle and give up tv. The only answer I can come up with is that for a certain segment of Braves fans this team is unlikeable.

There have been a lot of complaints about the team striking out too much on twitter and especially in forums like the AJC comments section. Personally, I think the amount of winning the Braves have done the past two seasons does a lot to prove that a high strikeout rate doesn’t actually make the team worse if the strikeouts are offset by other positives. But one thing I cannot argue against is that for some people a team that strikes out as much as the Braves do isn’t very fun to watch.

BJ Upton is a player who I think gets far more criticism than is warranted. I think he is good defensively, adds value on the bases and hasn’t been the Braves worst position player this year. I would prefer a better centerfielder but I don’t have the visceral dislike for him that many people have. But he strikes out a ton. He has memorable misplays in centerfield that while they don’t make him an overall poor fielder are frustrating. He argues a lot when he gets called out on strikes though he almost always has a case. But is it really my place to tell people they are wrong if stuff like that makes them not want to watch BJ play?

The Braves have hit very poorly with runners in scoring position this year. Players like Justin Upton tend to strikeout a lot in situations where an out in play would score a run. Again in the long run these things are random luck and don’t necessarily make it less likely that the team wins games. It is frustrating to watch though and for some fans this might make them less interested in watching the Braves.

Another argument I have heard is that the team is boring because it lacks any star power. Freddie Freeman is probably the team’s biggest star and his defining qualities seem to be his goofiness and love of hugs. Not exactly the kind of guy whose name on a marquee brings in the casual fan. On a personal level I love Jason Heyward as much as any athlete ever but overall my feelings don’t seem to be particularly widespread. For 32% of fans who watched the team on tv last year, this team isn’t worth their time despite not really being any worse at winning baseball games than they were in 2013.

Another issue is the team isn’t scoring many runs this year. A common saying is that offense sells tickets and defense wins championships. The Braves seem to be proving that this year as they have been one of the best defensive teams in the league, one of the best pitching teams in the league, and one of the lowest scoring teams. Maybe people just don’t like watching a team that doesn’t score a lot regardless of how good the team is.

The question then becomes how much does this matter? Personally, I like this team. I like Jason Heyward, I like Justin Upton, I like Andrelton Simmons, I like Evan Gattis, and I like Freddie Freeman. I really like Tommy La Stella. More important to me as a lifelong Braves fan who spends too much of his free time tweeting about and writing about the Braves I like that the team has the second best record in the National League. Give me this team over a team of Martin Prado’s any day of the week because this team is better and as a sports fan that is what matters to me.

That judgment though is very much a value judgment and not one felt universally by Braves fans. What has become very clear though since the Braves acquired the Upton brothers is that winning is not the only thing that matters to some Braves fans. They want to a team that fits whatever platonic ideal they have of a baseball team. They want a team with stars, they want a team where the highest paid players aren’t also the worst players, and they want a team that doesn’t lead the league in strikeouts. There’s nothing really wrong with that. People can like whatever they want. It makes me sad that so many fans have turned against what is one of the best teams in baseball but people can do what they wish with their time.

The decline in viewers this year is a problem but it is not a problem that really calls for action on the part of the Braves. Remaking the team into a more likeable group that wins less is no solution, just ask the Diamondbacks.  Maybe the team could be marketed more effectively, maybe the team could do a better job getting the message out of how effective the team building strategy the front office has undertaken has been. Regardless, what we have seen this year has been something I can’t ever recall seeing before. A team in first place, with no off field incidents or criminal characters has become unlikeable to a large portion of their core fan base.

Thirty-two percent of fans who watched the team last year, have said they have had enough and it seems to be entirely based on the manner in which the team plays. It makes me sad but people get to make their own choices. I just miss the sense of widespread community that used to exist amongst Braves fans. For me sports are a safe, consequence-free form of tribalism that allows me to engage in that type of base emotion without actually causing harm. Sports are at the end of the day, unimportant in the grand scheme of things. It is just odd to me how many people seem to have abandoned a winning team just because they don’t like how the team is winning.

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