What can the Tigers teach us about the Indians attendance numbers?

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.


  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The Indians attendance (blue line) looks like the Demon Drop after those good times in the late ’90s.

  • matt underwood

    Scherzer was acquired from Arizona; Verlander is the only home grown pitcher in the rotation

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Damn you Dunderwood you got me. I forgot Mad Max started with the D-Backs. I was just testing you, yea, that’s what happened!

  • Steve

    “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”

    Payroll went up $15 million.

  • Garry_Owen

    Cool chart. Would love to see other reference points included in there, as well, such as: Population levels; median income levels; employment levels; significant local and national economic events; absence, return, presence of football (or “more successful” football, in Detroit’s instance), etc.

    This comparison with Detroit is very apt, on so many levels, and should continue. In theory, Detroit’s attendance trends could be very informative and indicative of what may happen in Cleveland.

    Nice work. Keep it up, and keep improving it. There’s a major award in this, somewhere.

  • Garry_Owen

    For example, look at the simultaneous precipitous dive for both teams in 2008. That is where the housing bubble and financial markets crashed. That is where Detroit and Cleveland both started taking repeated hits to the collective jimmy.

  • Steve

    The steep decline in the economy hit in Sept 2008, after pretty much every ticket for the 2008 season was sold.

  • Garry_Owen

    And the 2009 figure reflects that decline. Thanks.

  • add in ‘average age.’

    i know most of the readership is young and maybe cant relate. but the older you get, the less likely it is that you’ll find the energy embark on a weeknight trip to the city wrapping up your getting home 11, 1130, midnite, etc. i didn’t have to dig too far to find this on the region’s age.

    this has been so for forever. but when your market is both shrinking AND getting older, the math speaks for itself.

    i find all these attendance articles and conversation most curious. it’s a depressing and self-loathing gambit that leads to the sadness of midwest urban decline. is the intention to point out to the owners that this is a horrible market which is likely to get worse?

    because if the intent is to whistle past the graveyard saying the ’95 indians would draw the same in 2013.. i’m not sure that’s true.

  • Garry_Owen

    In my opinion, the discussion really begins and ends with non-baseball factors. What happened with the team itself over the years is, in my opinion, only tangentially related to attendance. The fact of so many trades/non-signings certainly may have had some influence, but only to the extent that it provided a smaller sample of people – with stressed finances, increased age, etc. – the final justification to choose not to spend their money on the team. Those team-related things are more in nature of punctuation than the subject, verb, object structure of the attendance sentence.

  • let me add this w.r.t. the detroit comparision. detroit has 2,000,000 more people in their CSA.

    also, just for reality sake, in the top 50 CSAs, only three have declined from 2010 to 2012: detroit, cleveland, and buffalo.

  • well said.

  • Garry_Owen

    Very interesting.

    The commonalities among these 3 cities are very broad and very deeply ingrained; not the least of which is the commonality that all 3 either refused or simply failed to acknowledge economic realities and respond effectively in advance. Meanwhile, they are surrounded by other cities that did (Pittsburgh, Columbus, Indianapolis, Cincinnati (to some extent)). There were lessons to be learned by just looking down the highway, if anyone wanted or had the courage to do so. Alas . . .

    Want to fix attendance at Tribe games? Fix the city.

  • Jeremy Campbell

    NO BIG NAMES. Getting Nick Swisher is like hiring the star of “Sharknado” to be in your next movie. Oh yeah.. and winning helps.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    “Want to fix attendance at Tribe games? Fix the city,” wouldn’t hurt but either would winning. Being swept by Detroit at home in a four game series when you entered being just what 2 or 3 games back doesn’t exactly ring for future support from fans.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Ian Ziering on line 2. Tara Reid on line 3 well sorta I think she’s talking into the wrong end of her phone.

  • Garry_Owen

    I agree, to an extent. But we’ve seen this year (and in 2007) that winning isn’t enough. The other factors are huge, and foundational. The foundation is what’s broken. Wins are just the decorative facade. They’ll help, but won’t fix the problem.

  • Jeremy Campbell

    She’s speaking jibberish in to a shoe

  • Jeremy Campbell

    Winning regular season games is not enough. I can’t believe that no one is putting any blame on the Indians themselves. We are just supposed to show up like lambs to the slaughter every year. Win something, then put yourself into a position to win it consistently, then the fans will show up.

  • Natedawg86

    Why spend $50 to go to the movies when you can view from your home more comfortably? Sure, we will go to the movies a few times a year, but I don’t think average fans are going to 3-4 games a year anymore. Just seems like the excitement compared to the length of the mlb exp is worth it to the younger crowd. Plus, with the expansion of popularity of the minor league teams, I think each of these contribute to what you are saying her as well.
    Compared to the 95 indians, Thome, Sorrento, Belle, Ramirez and Murray could all hit a HR at any time, and Lofton and Viz could really run. Crap we had SIX of our 9 everyday players batting over 300!!!! Sigh…

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Just win is an oversimplification I realize that but honestly GO I think even with the foundation problems if the Indians were winning people would still find a way to go. If anything it would be popular to attend again which would only help.

    Personally I don’t think it’s all that outrageous a cost to attend a game then again I don’t have a brewd of children or drink beer so my game costs are low.

  • Natedawg86

    I think winning this year brings more fans next year and so on.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    People who go to movies who pay normal prices are crazy. I haven’t been to a movie in over 15 years. I’ve found cheaper alternatives. Sorta like people who may attend minor league games to use your example. For me though baseball is a much better game when in person then on television. But as to your point about the ’95 team they had exciting players. Until this season the Indians have lacked any kind of real draw as far as players go.

  • Boney

    Porcello is homegrown.

    Scherzer (Granderson), Sanchez (Turner) and Fister (Casper Wells) were acquired via trade not FA signing.

    Only FA moves were Backup C, RF, and platoon LF. Rest of pieces are from trades from a once strong farm system

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You would think but lets see how the rest of the season goes here.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    She ain’t what she used to be but she’d get the $hamWow deluxe package!

  • Steve

    There’s more to it than this though. Why does this apply so much differently for the Indians than other MLB teams or the Browns? If the Indians were middle of the pack in attendance, I don’t think there would be too much of a discussion. The discussion happens because the Indians attendance is so low, 27th in the majors. A lot of other teams still have to “win something” and get more than 20k a night.

  • Jeremy Campbell

    It must have been a perfect storm for attendance in the 90’s. Look at the Flats now compared to what they were in the 90’s.

  • Allen P

    RE: Fix the city.
    Well, yeah. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I think the tide is juuuust starting to turn – an inflection point, perhaps, in an ugly downward curve.
    As for the 2010-2012 CSA numbers, that’s just downright depressing. How accurate are the mid-census figures? What are they based on?

  • Steve

    I’m not following where you’re jumping around to. I wasn’t comparing current attendance to the late 90s. I’m comparing them to other teams currently in MLB who need to “win something” and another franchise in town that needs to “win something”.

    The late 90s were special, but that doesn’t explain why the attendance is currently 27th in MLB.

    And, while not particularly pertinent, the flats my be down, but E 4th and W 6th are picking up the slack.

  • matt underwood

    yeah, kinda makes me pissed (although this is 20/20 thinking) that the Tigers got him the same season we got Ubaldo. would have been nice if we would have guessed right for once.

  • Jeremy Campbell

    I guess I jumped right to the 90’s because for so long, that sort of attendance was the norm. In all of our minds, most of us think of Jacobs Field as a stadium filled to the rafters and we are having a hard time with the fact that it is not like that anymore

  • Petefranklin

    Its easy to reenergize when you siphon tax dollars away from the rest of the state like Columbus and Indy do.

  • DreamBig

    Dig deeper! In MLB, on average, 2/3 of all ticket sales are purchased by corporations. Smart owners offer businesses substantial discounts on season and individual tickets, plus other benefits.

    Revenue from ticket sales pays the mortgage and utilities for a season. The real money is in concessions! ($4 for a .05 hot dog, $8 for a .20 beer…..) Business owners have deeper pockets when it comes to impressing their clients, than the average fan does.

    Dick Jacobs knew this and offered huge discounts on corporate accommodations. As a corporate season ticket holder at the Cleveland Stadium, I purchased season tickets to The Jake for 70% off face value. Also included was free parking, free access to loge seating once or twice a season, $10 voucher per seat, per game for concessions, and early entry, by an hour over regular fan season ticket holders (signed balls, jerseys, talk to players…). Larry Dolan ended this immediately after aquiring the Indians.

    The 455-game-sellout streak had more to do with corporate ticket sales than the quality of the team and a new stadium. There were usually no more than 5, 000 tickets available to the fans for any given game, as 90% of tickets were corporate sold.

    I truly believe, and hope, that Dolan will sell the Indians soon. He is a very smart business man. He starts STO (less people in stands equals higher TV ratings), awards himself $33 million a year to broadcast Indians games (money simply moved from left pocket to right!), sells STO to highest bidder. Cha-ching! $230 million profit, PLUS $400 million built into the Indians value in the form of FOX broadcast rights ( $40 million X 10 years).

  • steve-o

    I can easily see why the attendance figures have dipped since the mid 90’s. But what I don’t understand is why attendance has dropped this year from last two seasons. The team is much better. We are on pace to have a winning record and have been in the playoff discussion all season. The economy is, if anything, better. Our other major sports teams have been terrible recently. I don’t think demographics, population or disposable income have changed much, if at all. So, what has caused fans to stay away this year? That’s another article i’d really like to see.