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Let’s talk about Cleveland Indians attendance: While We’re Waiting

Baseball is a difficult sport for Twitter fandom. Baseball is a difficult sport for narratives and snap judgments. I’ve been saying this over and over again over the last few weeks. It’s clearly a really tough sport to follow and to analyze in our fast-paced 2016 society.

The high-level perspective is this: The Cleveland Indians are 72-53 (.576). They’re one game back of the American League’s best record. They have a 5.5-game lead in the AL Central Division with only 38 regular season games left to play.1 They appear to be on their way to their first division crown and full-length playoff series since 2007. And fortunately, every single contributor is under team control for 2017 besides journeymen Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis.

The microscopic (and perhaps more pessimistic) view is this: Michael Brantley, the team’s best offensive player, played only 11 games this season after a bunch of failed stops and starts in his shoulder injury recovery. Something funny seems to be happening with Danny Salazar’s injury (?). Josh Tomlin keeps getting beat up with the long ball. The Indians can’t find a lick of production from the catcher position. They’re relying on outlandishly incredible performances from the unproven youngsters Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin.

And, oh yeah, I guess any conversation about professional baseball in Northeast Ohio should probably go back to the topic of attendance, too. That’s what I’ll focus on intently in this article today.

Baseball, as a sport, has some marketing issues. I enjoyed Susan Jacoby’s Wall Street Journal article earlier this week on baseball’s aging fanbase. More substantially, it just feels like baseball has a national marketing dilemma. Whereas sports like football and basketball have huge national followings and bonafide international superstars, baseball has become more and more of a regionalized institution.

You, as a reader of this here Cleveland sports blog, probably know a thing or two about the Cleveland Indians. But how well do you know MLB as a whole? How many players can you name on the Detroit Tigers? How about on the Arizona Diamondbacks? Or the Milwaukee Brewers? Do you think you could name more players on random non-local teams in the NBA or NFL instead? Would you rather watch a non-local MLB, NBA or NFL game? All of those signs probably point against MLB’s national appeal.

In the mid-to-late 1990s and early aughts, baseball had a number of superstars who were larger than life. Derek Jeter. Ken Griffey Jr. Mark McGwire. Sammy Sosa. Barry Bonds. Manny Ramirez. Mike Piazza. Randy Johnson. Curt Schilling. Maybe it’s the fault of steroids, maybe it’s the fault of the internet and our short attention spans, or maybe it’s just something else. Wendy Thurm, one of my favorite baseball writers, wrote about this topic at The New Yorker last year. The sport has some not-insignificant ongoing national marketing issues that have not yet been resolved.

Because these marketing issues apply across the league, this dilemma doesn’t excuse the poor attendance figures coming out of Progressive Field each subsequent year. Every MLB city has to deal with competitive entertainment alternatives, the after-effects of the Great Recession, a lack of superstardom, etc. What makes Cleveland so special that it will rank in the bottom three in MLB average attendance for a fifth straight season?

To rehash several old posts at this website, here are my seven main thoughts, explanations and reactions to the topic of Indians attendance:

[Why we shouldn’t be surprised by the Indians attendance]

1. Stop acting so surprised every time this topic comes up. From 1973-92, the Cleveland Indians averaged a reported attendance of 12,619 fans per game at Municipal Stadium. In only one of those 20 years (in 1974, following extensive stadium renovations) did the team rank in the top half in season-long average attendance in Major League Baseball. That’s a pretty substantial track record of low attendance.

Sure, average attendance has increased across the board in MLB. And Progressive Field, even on its worst day, is an incredible improvement over the team’s old digs. But we first have to recognize that the Jake’s extended honeymoon effect was just that – a short-term phenomenon that was not indicative of any sustainable long-term impact in comparison to the rest of the league. We’re back in a new (old) reality now.

2. The proliferation of Northeast Ohio baseball options has been a factor. The Canton-Akron Indians moved up I-77 and began play as the Akron Aeros (now RubberDucks) in April 1997. The Mahoning Valley Scrappers began play in Niles in June 1999. The Lake County Captains began play in Eastlake in April 2003. The independent Lake Erie Crushers began play in Avon in June 2009.

In just over 15 years after the opening of Progressive Field, four baseball teams started play within a 70-mile radius at brand new baseball-specific stadiums. While this has been undoubtedly beneficial for the Indians development system and baseball fandom overall, it likely has cannibalized on the Indians baseball market potential. From 1994-96, the Indians were the only baseball show in town. Now, a baseball fan of any kind could easily prefer a more affordable night at a minor league park.

[The Diff: Market saturation and Indians attendance]

3. Progressive Field is mostly fine enough. When discussing the architecture and design of Progressive Field, many supporters will point out its similarities to Baltimore’s beautiful Camden Yards. That stadium, also designed by the firm Populous (previously known as HOK Sport), opened in 1992. But that era of stadium construction in the late 1980s and early-to-mid ’90s was more of a transitional phase than an all-out success. There were quite a few more misses than hits. San Francisco’s AT&T Park (2000) and Pittsburgh’s PNC Park (2001) didn’t open until several years later.

As a sign of the times, the Texas Rangers (Globe Life Park opened in 1994, the same year as Progressive Field) and the Atlanta Braves (Turner Field was built in 1996 for the Summer Olympics and the Braves moved there in 1997) both will soon be moving into new state-of-the-art stadiums. While such an occurrence is extremely unlikely in Cleveland, Progressive Field did just receive over $40 million in upgrades and a new videoboard. It’s not just the stadium’s fault, as Oakland and Tampa Bay certainly have it far worse.

4. People seem to ignore the season-ticket holder base. Crain’s Cleveland’s Kevin Kleps reported last month that the Indians have a current season-ticket holder base of 9,000. This number has consistently increased in recent years. From 2013-15, the season-ticket holder list inched along from 6,000 to 7,500 to 8,000. But still, these numbers are very, very low for a major professional sports team. It’s likely they’re among the lowest of any Big Four team in North America.

A low season-ticket holder base means that Indians are very susceptible to bad attendance nights. This could be due to a number of factors: bad weather, a non-sexy opponent, a losing streak, highway construction, or fan perceptions of any kind. Yes, it’s important to drum up the casual fan interest as much as possible. But the Indians are lacking a large core support base to keep attendance figures up all year long.

5. Cleveland’s geography isn’t too kind, as well. Northeast Ohio is a very spread out metropolitan region. There is a very real East Side vs. West Side divide. The Cuyahoga River, sparking that rivalry, and Lake Erie, blocking population growth to the north, both have led to the degree of urban sprawl that has taken place over the last several decades. Why this matters for baseball attendance: The area’s population is smaller when accounting for accessibility within a 30-minute commute.

Michael Lortz wrote about this topic at FanGraphs in February 2015. Lortz, who writes frequently about the Tampa Bay baseball market, looked at the correlation between weekend/weekday attendance discrepancies and population within a 30-minute radius. This is a huge deal for the Rays, who happen to have a stadium in a less-than-central part of the region. It’s not an issue as much for the Browns or the Cavaliers with their downtown facilities, but that’s where we get into the sheer number of baseball home openings and alternative baseball options in the region.

6. There is no easy fix. Fans sitting at home often think they can manage, coach, draft and evaluate better than the specifically trained individuals who have been doing so for their professional livelihood. Sure, there are instances where teams are missing the boat on entire waves of thinking (hello, football analytics), but all in all, these sports industry people are smarter than the average fan considers. And it is certainly true on the business side of the operation, too.

If there was a genie-in-a-bottle type of magic solution to solving the team’s attendance woes, the smart folks in the Indians business office would have done so by now. Sports teams are often very concerned about ever offering single-game prices lower than season-ticket holder prices. The Indians do need to increase that season-ticket holder base, as stated above, and the more they can do to build up perks for that offering, the better. Do you have some super creative marketing idea to get Northeast Ohio fans to Tuesday games in April against the Minnesota Twins? Or to buy season tickets overall? I’d definitely love to hear it. It’s sorta what I do for my real job, at the intersection of sports strategy and business analytics.

7. There is no short-or medium-term danger in the air at all. Finally, I think people often over-dramatize the reality of the Cleveland Indians attendance situation. Yes, it’s unfortunate. Yes, it’s difficult to fix because of a number of reasons as outlined here and many other places. But it’s also highly improbable that the city of Cleveland would lose its professional baseball team anytime in the next 10-to-20 years, at least. That’s simply just a fanciful idea with no merit whatsoever at this point in time.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred discussed the idea of future league expansion in April. Potential expansion cities could be Mexico City, Montreal, Vancouver, Charlotte, Portland, Austin, etc., as Jay Jaffe analyzed over at Sports Illustrated. All of those cities have some potential drawbacks to them. But most importantly, there has been no hinting at the topic of contraction at all. And it would seem the ongoing stadium debates in Oakland and Tampa Bay are near the top of the league’s priorities.

Last week’s introduction of a new Cleveland Indians minority owner, Kansas City entrepreneur John Sherman, certainly seems encouraging for a potential influx of cash and resources. The Dolan family, as oft-criticized as they might be, don’t seem to be holding the team up for ransom or looking to sell their majority stake anytime soon. Ownership stability is pivotal in this context of team stability. And there’s no reason to think anything will change at all in the potentially foreseeable future.

  1. 7.5 game lead over the Kansas City Royals who are coming on strong. []

  • mgbode

    Quick note: local politics will keep a professional team out of Austin, Texas. While the area could easily support a team (or two really), the Texas Longhorns and BigXII control the state and local offices. There is no desire to add competition to their fiefdom.

    Now, San Antonio, on the other hand, is desperate for a second professional team. While they would greatly prefer it to be a NFL team, they would gladly accept a MLB team if that is what was offered first. There are areas in the Northern part of the city that are open (just outside Selma) that would be able to serve San Antonio, San Marcos, and Southern Austin.

  • RGB
  • WFNYJacob

    That’s certainly a good point about Austin. Unsurprising. As the Jay Jaffe article mentions, there’s also some politics at play with Nolan Ryan and the well-established Triple-A team in Round Rock.

    San Antonio is not without its faults, either. The Double-A team there has struggled with attendance over the years. They’d need a brand new MLB-size park, obviously. It’s what makes Charlotte a bit more logical because of its impressive success with a new Triple-A stadium that could be scaled up, if necessary.

  • mgbode

    Any expansion city would get a new ballpark as part of “the deal.” SA won’t support MiLB due to it being MiLB. Not all that surprising in that region. They do have an issue of not having enough high income jobs, so they’d have to convince MLB that they wouldn’t have the same issue Cleveland does with the season-ticket base.

    North and South Austin are separated worse than East and West Cleveland due to traffic increases in a city that has not kept up with infrastructure (city politicians did not want to become a bigger city – they lost that battle). I only cross Lady Bird Lake when I need to go to IKEA.

    If you put a ballpark West of the city in Dripping Springs, you’d have the richest areas of the city surrounding it (without disrupting them – as they would block) and you’d open up the expanded areas that are also burgeoning such as Spicewood for further development. And, Round Rock would barely be affected.

    Again, it will never happen IMO.

  • Andrew

    I agree about the north and south separation. I rarely cross into south austin and I would prefer if you southerners stayed in the south and stopped messing up traffic around IKEA. Hipsters shouldn’t even like such a large company anyway…

    I have moved the Ravens to Austin in Madden several times and that always works out, so surely it would work in real life.

    To be honest I’m not sure there would be enough interest in sports here to reasonably fill an MLB stadium on a regular basis. Sports just isn’t a priority for a lot of people here, unless you’re talking Longhorns. Maybe that would change if they got a team but I’m skeptical.

  • Chris

    Thank you Jacob. This is a conversation that many of WFNY’s very own readership actively avoid. It’s not pleasant.

    I totally 100% agree on the season ticket holder item.

    On expansion or relocation topic… why isn’t Omaha considered? I’m serious. That town loves baseball and has a sleek new stadium that was designed to expand to MLB capacity. It has the corporate environment to support advertisement

  • WFNYJacob

    Yeah, I only just visited Austin once, but I definitely noted the significant traffic issues. That seems to also be a similar case in Seattle, another fast-growing tech-oriented city that wasn’t really designed to be as big as it is already.

  • WFNYJacob

    Good point on Omaha. It’s just … a lot smaller than the other candidates mentioned. The cities that MLB is linked to are much bigger, sexier and either have pro sports teams in their metro region already, or are Mexico City (i.e. the largest city in North America). With only a 1M-person metro, you’d likely have to have some billionaire buy a team and push a move to Omaha. It just seems like a stretch, to me.

  • Chris

    I certainly like the improvements in food/beer options and open/social atmosphere. It’s not a huge seller for me personally, but my girlfriend loves that stuff (she’s a casual Red Sox fan because she’s a BU grad… had to tell her who Betts Bradley and Bogaerts were… but I digress). Fanbase development has to include a strategy to attract those casual fans, as shallow as that may be. I’m glad the Indians are addressing that.

    My feelings are mixed about the capacity reduction. In theory, introducing some scarcity could create some urgency on buying tickets ahead of time, which might balance out the peaks and valleys (I have no evidence that actually worked or not, but I’m guessing it hasn’t). One on hand, if you can’t sell the seats anyway, try to utilize that space to add some offerings to fill the ones you have left. On the other, they miss out on maybe 5-10 opportunities per year to cash in on another 5,000 to 10,000 people. Is there some sort of cost-per-seat-per-game that I’m not considering?

  • Chris

    Andrew, I can’t decide if I’m mentally assigning “Modell” or “Irsay” to your last name.

  • tigersbrowns2

    the Indians had those 455 consecutive sell-outs from 1995 – 2001 … the time period says it all : yes , these were great Indians teams , but the Browns were gone from 1996-1999 … in cleveland , just like on the WFNY pages , the Browns are far & away #1 … and this is truly amazing when you consider just how bad the Browns have been since their return in 1999.

  • tigersbrowns2

    i did make a trip to Jacobs field once to watch the Tigers & Indians play … i really liked the stadium.. have any of you Tribe fans been to Comerica & what are your thoughts ?

  • WFNYJacob

    Went to Comerica in the mid-2000s once or twice. Thought it was mostly fine, as well? I really don’t think *that* highly of Comerica or Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark. They’re mostly just decent?

    Baseball stadiums are a tough business. In the NBA and NFL, stadiums are more sterile and lack culture. There really isn’t a big contrast between the best and the worst. In baseball, stadium and their respective vibes matter a great deal.

  • WFNYJacob

    Football is just an easier sport to sell, as well. It’s not just a Cleveland thing, to an extent.

    There are only 8 home games. The NFL, as a whole, makes by far the most money of any North American sports league. Fantasy football has led to tons of non-stop national interest in the product.

    A question I remember someone bringing up once: How many cities are there that have an NFL team, but the NFL team isn’t the No. 1 sports topic in town?

  • tigersbrowns2

    good point … not many. Los Angeles for sure … Boston & New York ?? … Detroit … i think the Tigers & Red Wings are more popular than the Lions.

  • Chris

    Adding to stadium vibes, there isn’t even a standard playing field. Some morons reminisce about their flagpoles in center field (ahemm…). Some bullpens are in-play. Some fields allow Johnny Damon to be a modest power hitter.

    Edit – Oh, and that damn hill… ugh! That might actually be the largest hill in Houston, aside from the landfill.

  • tigersbrowns2

    hi CHRIS … i think the statues of former tiger greats greats in the outfield walkway are unique … their retired numbers are on the brick wall in right-centerfield … and if you watch a telecast & have the right angle , you can see the statues & retired numbers align … can’t wait to see Miggy’s statue !!!

    Fenway park is definitely unique … i actually liked the upper-deck overhangs in old tiger stadium … and yes , i sat behind chet lemon many games & loved the flag-pole being in the field of play!

    i heard the astros were going to remove the centerfield hill after this season.

    wait … did CHRIS call me a “moron” ????

  • Chris

    If you’re going to put obstructions in the field of play, why stop at a measly flagpole or hill? Go all out and put a full blown steeplechase course out there.

    Could you imagine the attendance for “kids run the bases” night? Actually… I think we may have just solved the attendance problem

  • mgbode

    Hipsters live downtown. That is a whole third division of Austin as you know 🙂

  • mgbode

    If only there were a local billionaire who lived in Omaha

    http://www.investwithalex.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/warren-buffett-letter.jpg

  • mgbode

    cost per section was addressed in recent years where Indians just didn’t open seats for sale or concession stands in the far reaches of the upper deck

  • mgbode

    I enjoyed the flavor of having a bunch of history spread throughout the ballpark when I visited. Led to me spending quite some time on the concourse after the game to see it all.

    It’s a fine park. It’s not PacBell (or AT&T now), but it’s good.

  • mgbode

    I enjoy the uniqueness but do believe you stop at the point of safety no matter how much I would love if Arizona put a pool within the field of play.

  • Chris

    Ya, but the dude is too cheap to even buy the current-iteration of Cavs jersey. Which begs another question… why did he ever have the old one, and why did he hold on to it?

  • Steve

    And how many other cities see the NFL team preventing people from filling up the stadium for a first place MLB team?

  • jpftribe

    I’d rather see them cut costs there than in the scouting or farm system.

  • Andrew

    Hahaha don’t call me Modell. I’m a Browns fan, so moving the Ravens in Madden is always about revenge

  • John L Bolino

    The Cleveland Fan base is a very loyal and passionate fan base. I have heard the TV ratings for the Indians is one of the best in baseball. Cleveland fans are spread out across the country because of the decline in the economy after the steel industry went under. But if you look the Browns and Cavs now that the cavs are winning pack the Q on a nightly basis. The Indians fan base is tired of the Dolan;s and is waiting for other shoe to drop as has happened many times before. If you look from 95-01 they were there and they sold out on a nightly basis. But it was a perfect storm of new ball park the browns being gone for 3 of those years and the Cavs being mediocre. The Indians fans are starting to come back and the educated fan sees the promise in the team and the window is very wide with the contracts and the talent we have.

  • Bob Lapinski

    I went to the Indians/Angels game with my family in August. Place was maybe half full despite the success of the team on the field. How about this is just not a great baseball city? Period! It’s an exciting team, great young talent, the ballpark is awesome, it’s easy to park, ballpark staff super nice. Yet, my family and I could get any seats we wanted. You cannot do that at Fenway, I can assure you. When the Indians lost to the Red Sox back in 2007-after blowing a 3-1 lead, I still remember the photo showing them greeted at the airport by like 25 people. Boston fans were laughing about that for weeks. Show up and support the team. Enough of the phony excuses.