I know, right? Another attendance article about the Cleveland Indians!
I can’t help it. This is what I’m thinking about right now, and I have no choice but to write about the things I’m thinking about. Hopefully this won’t continue a trend of simplistic posts that are focused on singular details. Rather, I wanted to try to continue to build off the excellent work that Jacob did last week talking about the significant “honeymoon” effect of new stadiums. I also wanted to try and point out the fact that attendance can be micro-analyzed from game-to-game and series-to-series, but ultimately in a system that thrives off of season ticket holders and sales of multi-game packages, a true audience appears to be built more year-over-year. And when you really look at the high-level view, it’s easy to see how attendance is driven by looking at annual attendance numbers that don’t get lost in the details.
So, as you can see from the chart, it all matters. A new stadium matters, personnel changes matter, winning matters, and there are a lot of other things that matter as well from weather to scheduling. The Indians’ attendance in the 90s was a confluence of all kinds of events and I think we all agree it can’t be repeated. Even as successful as the Tigers have been over the last 10 years since bottoming out in 2003, they haven’t been able to match what the Indians did over the span of 1994 until 2003. So, to expect the Indians to ever get back to the “glory days” is pretty unrealistic.
I’ve been saying pretty regularly over the last few weeks that the voice at the top of the organization matters and that the Indians maybe could have sold this roster change this season better had it been executed by a new front office or owner. I’m no longer convinced of that. When thinking about the Tigers – who have been owned by Mike Ilitch since 1992 – it is pretty obvious that success and star player acquisition can cure any attendance woes. Then again, it probably isn’t coincidence that Dave Dombrowski took over the team in 2002, clearing out the scouting department and others.
Probably not that interesting to note that the biggest precipitous drops in Tribe attendance were fueled by player departure and rebuilding. How much was the loss of a star player and how much was just the subsequent losing is unknown because they went hand-in-hand for the Indians in the two most recent cases. Albert Belle’s departure is the one exception, but it occurred during an exceptional period. Manny Ramirez left, Bartolo Colon was traded at the deadline in 2002 and Jim Thome departed shortly thereafter. That modern low was only beaten by the post-2007 departures of Sabathia, Lee and Victor Martinez.
We know that the Indians made the ALCS in 2007. In 2008 they trade C.C. Sabathia and attendance went down 403,518 fans. The next year they traded Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez and it dropped another 374,598. It might be simplistic analysis, but the Indians missed the playoffs in Manny Ramirez’ final year as a member of the team in 2000. They made the playoffs the first year he was gone, yet they still drew 280,755 fewer fans after his departure. Jim Thome left after 2002 and that drop will blow your mind. The Indians’ attendance dropped 886,938 following the Thome departure. It went from over 2.6 million down to just over 1.7 million.
Of course I don’t think Jim Thome was that much more popular than every other departing player in the history of the team. Thome’s departure was also the clear and unmistakably symbolic end to the magnificent run that the Indians had. It was high profile and embarrassing for the team as they came out looking cheap and unwilling to keep one of the most popular and productive players in team history. Jacobs Field was turning 10 years old and clearly the newness of the stadium was wearing off as well. New owner Larry Dolan had bought the team in 2000 and watched the attendance go from nearly 3.5 million in 2000 to half that by 2003.
What this means for the future of the Indians and their attendance is anyone’s guess. The Indians are on pace to draw just under 1.6 million fans this year in a year where they changed the face of the team dramatically. Their payroll isn’t estimated to be any bigger than it was a year ago because they just traded Hafner and Sizemore dollars for Swisher and Bourn dollars. As always it will be something of a balance. The Indians obviously need to win both on the field and with the fans from a P.R. standpoint, but I don’t have the playbook for that. I would have guessed that the additions of Francona, Bourn and Swisher would have led to something of an upgrade in attendance this year and it just hasn’t occurred.
I think Major League Baseball scheduling the Yankees and Red Sox early in the season and in the middle of the week could have cost the team 100,000 fans all by itself. As I said, it isn’t just one thing, it’s everything, but I think it’s safe to conclude a few things.
The consistent attendance approaching 3.5 million per year for five years is unlikely to happen again. The external forces of the modern world and competition dictate that 2 to 3 million is a more realistic best-case scenario for a team in the Indians market without a new stadium in their future. I also think it’s safe to assume that any front office can pull off a turnaround. Finding stars and keeping them longer – while obvious – is the real key as Mike Ilitch has shown us. It just so happens he’s found two biggies – Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder – via trade and free agency, but that’s not the only way. The Tigers developed Justin Verlander.
The turnaround also doesn’t necessarily have to cost a lot of money. The Tigers payroll when they lost the most games in AL history was $49 million. When they added 29 wins and 500,000 fans to the very next season it cost them about $47 million in payroll. Yes, their spending has climbed and climbed since then, but it was pretty gradual over the course of four years as they climbed up to $138 million in 2008. Yes, they have Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder to go along with Verlander now, but at points the team was rebuilt using Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Gary Sheffield. Kenny Rogers was a guy that seemingly nobody wanted and at age 41 he gave the Tigers 200 innings in a season where they made a World Series run.
Back to the Tribe. The best-case scenario for the Indians is that they’ve set the baseline this season by hiring Francona and changing the foundation of the team. Hopefully, they can add a few more pieces this off-season that replace the pieces that didn’t necessarily work. This team still is lacking in legitimate star power and I don’t see them getting it any time soon like the Tigers did with Prince Fielder, but maybe their drafting has turned a corner.
They better hope so. Otherwise I’ll be looking back at the four years of Terry Francona this same way, with sadness of what’s become of my hometown baseball team and its fan-base.