Most evenings in Storm Lake, Iowa, just as the sun begins to set behind the Gooch Feed Mill in the center of town, a new American phenomenon occurs. Hundreds of Storm Lake families—perhaps half the town, says the local newspaper's sports editor, Barry Poe—turn on their television sets to watch their favorite baseball team. The name of that team? Why, none other than the Atlanta Braves.
The fact that the Braves are the rage in America's heartland (Early, Iowa, 14 miles down the road from Storm Lake, claims—probably erroneously—to be the geographical center of the contiguous 48 states) says a little about Atlanta's rise in the standings and a lot about the team's method of broadcasting. Instead of showing games only in the Atlanta area over his independent station, WTBS, Braves owner Ted Turner bounces WTBS's signals off a satellite and aggressively sells his team to 4,152 cable systems covering all 50 states. The result? A fistful of dollars for Turner, to help offset the huge losses incurred by his fledgling Cable News Network, and a Braves fan behind every bush. Incredible as it seems, 21.2 million Americans now can watch Rufino Linares' every move.
In Valdez, Alaska, a hardscrabble oil town on the North Slope, about 50 regulars pile into the Totem Inn four afternoons a week to watch the Braves. WTBS provided the first live television in Valdez, according to barkeeper Louie Steamer, and it's been one long rally ever since. In Reno there are reports, probably apocryphal, that the ladies at a local brothel have hung a team picture of the Braves in one of the public rooms. And in Sunbury, Pa., 105 miles west of Philadelphia, former Phillies fans who have been turned on to Atlanta after tuning in to WTBS charter buses to go see the Braves in Philadelphia or New York.
Then there is Storm Lake, population 6,954, a friendly little town of cornfields, churches, and ice-cream parlors. Traditionally, Storm Lake has been Cardinals and Twins territory. "And the Cubs are still on the tube, if you need a good laugh," says nursery operator Brad Jones. But thanks to SuperStation WTBS and its 120 Braves telecasts per year, America's Team has claimed the hearts and minds of Storm Lake.
"They fill a void, because we're so far away from anything, there's nothing to relate to," says Steve Getty, 24, news director for KAYL Radio in Storm Lake, which is part of the Cardinals radio network. Getty, who has felt the lure of larger markets, rarely misses an Atlanta game. Are the Braves keeping him in Storm Lake? "Possibly," he says. "If I ever look for a job, two questions will flash through my mind. Do they have cable TV? And do they pick up TBS?"
A national following for the Braves was exactly what Turner foresaw when he started sending out his distant signals in 1976. Back then, the number of prospective viewers might barely have filled Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Today, every fourth TV home in the nation gets the Braves. As Turner said in a 1981 biography, Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way, referring to the lords of baseball, "They thought I was a dumb rich sucker, who stepped up with $10 million to buy a losing franchise with only one-tenth the people to draw on as the big cities. But I'm giving Atlanta to the nation—to the world...! When they [the Braves] start to win, and get into some playoffs, they're going to take America by storm."
No wonder, then, that baseball and the networks are battening down the hatches. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn considers WTBS a creeping disease that invades other teams' markets, stealing away both ticket-buying fans and viewers. "That's a hill of beans," says Turner. "I've never seen one iota of proof." Still, ex-Phillies fans are chartering those buses. And Kuhn told the Congressional Subcommittee on Telecommunications last April, "The fact that we cannot yet produce a corpse, Mr. Chairman, to prove that we are being hurt is beside the point. Do they [Turner, WTBS et al.] want an autopsy and a few bankrupt clubs...?"
ABC-TV, which will carry the baseball playoffs this fall, also is anxious. The network may be rooting against the Braves for the simple reason that competing teams can televise the playoffs on their local stations with their own announcers. Since WTBS is at once both local and national, woe to ABC's ratings should the Braves keep winning. "ABC has pulled a lot of dirty tricks on us," says Turner with a laugh. "Maybe we can get back at 'em a little."
Meanwhile, it's all one harmonious tepee in the hinterland. In Farmington, Mo. last week, Mrs. Betty Lollar, mother of San Diego Pitcher Tim Lollar, noticed in her TV listings that the first game of a Braves-Padres double-header was going to be aired by tape delay at 4:30 a.m. on the local cable station. "I would have stayed up if necessary," she says, but such an expression of motherly love wasn't necessary. By surprise, the cable carried the game live, and son Tim began pitching at 4:30 p.m. Farmington time. Up in Storm Lake, Steve Getty watched the twin bill with a crowd of Braves rooters at Puffs White Cap Inn. He looked deep into the past and shook his head. "Five years ago," he said, "you'd mention the name Biff Pocoroba to anyone around here and they'd go, 'Who?' "