The Braves Clubhouse Store at Truist Park has been open since early July. (Courtesy Atlanta Braves)

Sales of authentics up in Atlanta despite empty ballpark

Major League Baseball’s abbreviated season has been marked by empty stadiums, postponed games over COVID-19 outbreaks and some players bursting the “bubble” by breaking curfew on the road.

In Atlanta, though, one bright spot has been the Braves Authentics merchandise business. The team, like many others in MLB, sells game-used equipment such as balls, bats, bases, jerseys and helmets, and the Braves’ numbers are up 20% over all of last season, said Derek Schiller, the team’s president and CEO.

In other MLB markets such as Milwaukee, the authentics piece has seen a slight decline. The Brewers historically do a fair amount of sales during games, but with no fans in attendance, they have lost that opportunity, said Rick Schlesinger, the team’s president of business operations. 

That’s not the case in Atlanta.

Game-used items are put up for sale online and the Braves have “authenticators” working the game. They collect the piece, put a sticker on it, date it and document when it was used in the game. This season, two authenticators are working the 30 home games at 41,500-seat Truist Park. It’s been easier for them to do their job, considering there are no fans in the stands. 

“That business has been really robust and a nice additive,” Schiller said. “It’s a cool process to watch unfold.”

Braves left fielder Ronald Acuña Jr., for example, hit his first home run Aug. 1. 

Ronald Acuña Jr.’s first home run sold online for $15,060. (Courtesy Atlanta Braves)

That ball sold at auction for $15,060, which was “really incredible,” Schiller said. Most balls authenticated from a game sell for much less, starting at about $50, he said. Some have sold for $300 to $3,000. 

At an empty ballpark, the home run balls alone have become a newer piece of the authentics biz.

“We don’t do auctions on all the balls, but we put (the Acuña ball) up for auction,” Schiller said. “Typically, home run balls are captured by fans sitting in the outfield. Now, for pretty much the first time … we can gather those balls going in the seats and use them for those purposes.”

Other balls that land in the stands are part of a team outreach to loyal fans. The Braves are among clubs that this year are sending foul balls to season-ticket holders sitting in the seats closest to where those balls land as a token of appreciation. 

Schiller said, “We’ll send the ball with a note that says, ‘We know you couldn’t be at the game, but we saw this ball that came into your seating area. Hope you enjoy it, and look forward to seeing you next year.’”

What’s driving the authentics merchandise business? Schiller thinks fans want to maintain a connection to their favorite team even though they can’t attend games in 2020. They know they can obtain something that nobody else has access to because no fans were in attendance.

“It’s one of the small shining lights of this otherwise very challenging and unusual season,” he said. “We manage that business ourselves, just like we do the rest of our (in-venue) merchandise operation. For us, it was easy to continue that business without too much interruption.”

The Braves Clubhouse Store, run by the team, has been open since early July, a few weeks before the regular season started. The team store has been doing pretty well considering the circumstances, Schiller said. Traffic has grown as more bars and restaurants have reopened at the Battery Atlanta, the mixed-use district next to the ballpark.

The team store limits capacity in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Dressing rooms are closed. Fans can try on gear over their clothes and those items that aren’t purchased are put in quarantine for a minimum of 24 hours after someone has touched them.

Before the team store opened, the Braves set up portable stands on the plaza connecting the ballpark to the Battery, which they continue to operate during the season. Early on, those pop-up locations helped guide the team and determine the demand for merchandise leading up to the team store reopening for business, Schiller said.

The plaza has a big video screen where Braves fans can congregate and watch games at Truist Park. There’s enough space on the plaza where they can spread out, wear masks and “feel at least like they’re somewhat connected,” he said.

“We see the protocols staying in place,” Schiller said. “Nobody knows when the end is in sight for changing these things. All of us are learning how to live with this and have some degree of separation. In the meantime, we’ll do little things like opening the Clubhouse store.”