Lockout hurts Braves’ chance to cash in on championship

CHICAGO (AP) — World Series champions for the first time in 26 years, the Atlanta Braves were all set to cash in.

With young stars like Ronald Acuña Jr., to go along with a swanky ballpark and surrounding entertainment district, they had everything in place.

Then a storm rolled in, and they had to pull a tarp over some of their party plans.

Perhaps no team was hurt more than Atlanta when Major League Baseball locked out its players on Dec. 2. The move put the start of the 2022 season in jeopardy and scrubbed Acuña and company from the Braves’ business plans — for now.

The afterglow of a championship, especially the end of a drought like the one Atlanta experienced, is traditionally quite lucrative for teams, going beyond merchandise and ticket sales to strengthening relationships with partners and finalizing new sponsorship deals. But baseball’s labor strife increases the difficulty for the Braves when it comes to making the most of the opportunity.

“A lot of it is kind of using that moment to grow your fan base and just elevate the way people think about your organization and perceive it,” said Brian Gainor, the vice president of innovation for 4FRONT, a sports marketing firm.

Messages were left by the AP seeking comment from Atlanta. There was no response, but the franchise has been keeping some heady company since the final out of its fourth World Series title.

The Braves hosted Chelsea FC from soccer’s Premier League in a meeting of champions in early December. Mascots from each club palled around on the field at Truist Park and posed for pictures with The Commissioner’s Trophy and Chelsea’s 2021 Champions League trophy.

“Wouldn’t have been a trip to Atlanta without visiting the champs,” Chelsea FC tweeted from its U.S. account.

It was a savvy business connection for each club. Chelsea has more than 100 million followers combined on its social media channels, while Atlanta has a multistate following in the U.S. — particularly in the South — that dates to the days when its games were broadcast on TBS.

The stop was part of a tour for the Champions League trophy that also included “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” New York’s Empire State Building, a Chicago Bulls home game and Space Center Houston — part of Chelsea’s effort to turn its title into substantive business growth.

“U.S. fans love winners. They love U.S. winners. They love international winners. Same with international fans,” Gainor said. “So it really is the best opportunity you’re ever going to have to capture the attention of fans around the world, but you’ve got to have a plan there to monetize those fans.”

The best teams start planning for championships long before they win it all, Gainor said, and they take a multiyear approach that rallies every part of the organization to the effort. Communication, both internally and externally, also is key.

Hendrick Automotive Group attributed dramatic increases in its website traffic to its sponsorship of Kyle Larson, culminating with his first NASCAR Cup Series championship in November. The success prompted the company to activate or increase its marketing efforts in some U.S. markets.

“Kyle’s able to give us that point of differentiation from the other dealer groups of, ‘Hey, this is a reason to give Hendrick a consideration,’” said Brian Johnson, vice president of marketing at Hendrick Automotive Group.

“And we’re just really scratching the surface. … This was kind of Year 1. We didn’t really get going on the program until June or July.”

Whenever baseball finalizes a new labor deal, Atlanta — like all champions over the past couple years — will have to contend with COVID-19 when it comes to its business plans for its title.

Social media content and experiential marketing are two effective monetary drivers for newly crowned teams, but access to players has been tightly controlled because of the pandemic.

“The challenge that you have with all your content right now is the ability to be with your players and film your players and create content with your players because of the protocols that are in place,” Tampa Bay Lightning CEO Steve Griggs told the AP.

Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup each of the past two years. But it played the 2020 playoffs in a bubble in Canada, and Amalie Arena was mostly empty for much of last season because of pandemic restrictions.

When it comes to the Lightning’s recent business success, Griggs said it’s hard to separate what comes from their consecutive titles and what is a result of their previous work with sponsors.

“A number of those partners came on board and wanted to spend their dollars with us not just because we won the championship, but because of how we treated our existing partners during the pandemic in both (of) these challenging seasons,” Griggs said.

The pandemic has forced some teams to take a more creative approach, especially with their content. With restrictions on player access, they have turned their focus to their fans and communities. They also have been holding virtual events.

“It forced them to create a new playbook or go about things in a new way,” Gainor said. “If it wasn’t for COVID, a lot of teams would still be celebrating championships doing things the way that they’ve always done it.”

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Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap

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