On the Cleveland Indians and TV numbers: While We’re Waiting

On Wednesday, Forbes’ Maury Brown released his annual rankings of MLB TV metrics from Nielsen, the industry’s leader of media analytics. Brown himself is one of the most influential writers on the topic of baseball business. He clearly put in a ton of work to grab all of this data, as he does every year.

The results might be a bit stunning at first to the uninformed follower. The Cleveland Indians, who rank No. 28 in average home attendance during the 2016 MLB season, rank No. 6 among the 29 U.S. MLB teams in terms of primetime cable TV ratings. Of those 29 clubs, 24 were the No. 1 rated programming in their local markets during the course of the season. This mainly goes to show how baseball continues to thrive as a regional-focused interest, while struggling on a national marketing stage. But the Indians numbers sure are impressive individually.

Cleveland’s 7.10 rating average was a 71 percent increase from last season’s 4.10 average. That was the largest year-over-year increase in baseball, trouncing the second-largest increase of only 39 percent by the lovable Chicago Cubs. Other notable TV numbers include a fourth-place finish for the Baltimore Orioles (despite a disappointing No. 19 rank in attendance) and fifth-place finish for the disappointing Pittsburgh Pirates (No. 18 in attendance).

Why do the Indians thrive on TV while languishing in the box office? It’s complicated, as I wrote in detail in While We’re Waiting on Aug. 25. Last week, The Guardian’s Daniel McGraw even wrote about the topic too, citing demographic data and quoting sports business professionals (including yours truly). But the headline at The Guardian was misleading. It stated: “The Cleveland Indians have been hot all year. So why is nobody watching?” Clearly, the TV numbers prove that is not accurate.

So specifically, why is this happening? Some continued theories, building on what I’ve written and shared on this topic: 1) Sprawl hurts here for sure. The size of the ever-expansive Northeast Ohio metropolitan area dwarfs the size of the population that lives within, say, 15 minutes of Progressive Field. So yes, McGraw’s theory about Cleveland’s size maybe not being able to fully support three professional sports teams in 2016 could be fair. Specifically, it’s the size of Cleveland proper that’s peculiar in this instance.

2) The ‘90s honeymoon effect was so grandiose that over time, casual fans got used to not attending major league games in Cleveland. The Indians were so good, tickets were so hard to come by and the stadium was so shiny all at once. We got spoiled. None of those three things could possibly all last forever all together. But the after-effects still might live on. Of course, this 2016 team just won the franchise’s first division title since 2007. That will hopefully lead to increased season-ticket sales into the future, as Crain’s Cleveland’s Kevin Kleps already has reported.

3) I’m still stumped as to what teams like Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland could do to transition TV watchers into ticket purchasers. Sure, it looks on paper like a missed opportunity. But these are smart business franchises. They’re mindful of pricing. They’re mindful of trying to grow the season-ticket base. They know that there has to be a mix of diehard fans and casual fans to make attendance look good year-round. It’s not easy to sell 81 baseball home games year after year.

4) Maybe, after all, attendance just doesn’t matter as much anymore and we’re just making it out to be a bigger deal than it really is? The Indians receive $40 million in annual rights fees from FOX Sports Ohio for their broadcasts, per this FanGraphs analysis. The Indians brought in just shy of 1.6 million fans to Progressive Field this regular season. My first instinct is to think of an average ticket price of, say, $25-30. But when you also add in corporate sponsorships, premium seats and suites, the Indians likely made more than $40 million off those attendees. So attendance obviously does matter and it directly translates into necessary franchise revenue. But when you then think of MLB’s national TV deal ($1.55 billion per year) and other league-wide revenue sharing, attendance-impacted revenue likely makes up a relative small chunk of a team’s entire revenue portfolio than it ever did in the past.

On MLB playoff TV scheduling

My brother is a bit upset about how the first-pitch game time scheduling works for the MLB division series. To give some context, here’s a quick overview of how it’ll work in 2016, and how it worked at least last year too:

The American League has a Tuesday Wild Card game. Then, the ALDS schedule is Thursday/Friday, Sunday/Monday and Wednesday.

The National League has a Wednesday Wild Card game. Then, the NLDS schedule is Friday/Saturday, Monday/Tuesday and Thursday.

So this year, there will be four playoff games on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, and between two-to-four playoff games on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016 (depending on the number of ALDS sweeps). MLB has a traditional scheduling priority of never having overlapping playoff games. And there only have been evening playoff games in recent history at all, so MLB has shown a willingness to schedule weekday afternoon playoff games.

I looked at last year’s ALDS/NLDS schedules to see how the first-pitch schedules played out. On Friday, Oct. 9, 2015, these were the game times:

12:45pm ET: Rangers @ Blue Jays (Game 2)

3:45pm ET: Astros @ Royals (Game 2)

6:45pm ET: Cubs @ Cardinals (Game 1)

9:45pm ET: Mets @ Dodgers (Game 1)

Neither 2015 ALDS matchup features a sweep. So there were also four baseball playoff games on Monday, Oct. 12, 2015. The game times:

1:07pm ET: Royals @ Astros (Game 4)

4:07pm ET: Blue Jays @ Rangers (Game 4)

6:07pm ET: Cardinals @ Cubs (Game 3)

8:37pm ET: Dodgers @ Mets (Game 3)

For my brother, who lives in Chicago and purchased standing-room tickets to the first two Indians playoff home games, this is a bummer. His comment was the following: “It would be so easy to just space it out another day and have night games. Anything is better than a weekday day game for the most important game of your team’s season.”

The NBA, of course, has uneven playoff series spacing to better schedule games for TV purposes. This can lead to teams having inconsistent days of rest. (For diehard Twitter users, you may recall some Twitter angst in late April and early May when the Cavs and Warriors had uneven playoff rest.) But the NBA’s decision likely also maximizes TV eyeballs in weekday primetime or weekends only.

After sharing this context with WFNY’s Michael Bode, he pointed out how parents with younger children probably greatly prefer the earlier start times. That can finally break the tide of sports games keeping kids, especially on the East Coast, up until the wee hours of the night watching their favorite teams and developing their sports fandom.

So which setup do you prefer? It certainly would appear, based on last year’s precedent, that the Cleveland Indians will play an afternoon game on either Friday or Monday of the ALDS (assuming the series advances to a fourth game). Does that annoy you? Are you able to play hooky from work? Would you prefer the NBA’s setup instead? I’d love to hear more insight on this topic.

And for some sports links around the internet that I enjoyed recently:

  • mgbode

    Always entertaining read when Jacob has WWW and I even got a hat-tip. I will say that enjoying the earlier start times with my kids is for the later afternoon games. Most kids are still in school at first pitch for the early afternoon games Jacob noted above.

  • RGB

    Mr. Bailey…DUI, possession of weed…what will the HBT do with you?

  • mgbode

    Hue Jackson…

    On OL Alvin Bailey’s status with the Browns:
    “We will see. Obviously, this is a league matter. Those kind of things that happen, I’m not very excited about it at all. There will be consequences for it, but we have to follow league protocol as far as that is concerned. We will do what we feel is right.”

    On if Bailey will start Sunday at Washington:
    “You will find that out on Sunday.”

  • RGB

    At least it wasn’t Gordon.

  • maxfnmloans

    Much rather the afternoon baseball, even if it is on a weekday. Havent people been complaining for quite a while that one of the big problems with MLB is having so many late starts to WS games, and that is something that contributed to MLB being less popular overall with the youngs?

    I remember reading some saccharine sweet wistful stories of yesteryear and kids sneaking a transistor radio into class to sneak a listen to their teams’ playoff games, then the teacher relenting and letting the whole class join in…poor baseball…damned if you do…

  • Hopwin

    4) a. -> $4M per year in stadium naming rights from Progressive. Plus other corporate sponsorships adds at least another $2M.

  • NankirPhelge

    I love daytime baseball, especially in the playoffs. Sure, I don’t get to see all the games, but when I do it’s special (I can’t explain why).

    I wish MLB would at least play weekend playoff games in the afternoon, especially the World Series. I know they’re afraid of going up against football, but since football is on all day and night anyway, it shouldn’t matter what time baseball plays. I would much much rather watch a World Series game at 1 o’clock Sunday than some regular season NFL game, even if it’s the home team playing football. And with DVRs and picture-in-picture and streaming and whatnot, you can arrange it so that you’re not missing much of either anyway. Or you could watch baseball and listen to football on the radio.

    I know, never happen. Sigh.

  • JM85

    I feel like this article should be sent to both sports stations so they can quit complaining about attendance.

  • tigersbrowns2

    hi MG … Bailey told police he was drinking at a bar & also on the team flight , which is a no-no with the NFL.

    they shouldn’t let him play sunday … maybe Austin Reiter is ready to play C & they can move Greco back to RG.

  • mgbode

    Poor Kessler

  • mgbode

    $250m/year though for broadcasting rights for LA Angels makes anything the Indians obtain a mere drop in the bucket.

  • RGB

    I got yer starting center right here…


  • NankirPhelge

    BTW, when it comes to Indians attendance, let’s just accept that this is the way it’s going to be and stop making an issue of it. They’re not going to draw early in the season or on weeknights. A crowd of 13,000 on a Monday night is pretty good. Hitting 30,000 on a weekend is excellent, and 25,000 is pretty good

    I think the Indians FO has done a great job with all the food/drink and other amenities in trying to get fans to show up, but this is just the way it is.

    Cleveland has never been a good, let alone great, baseball town, going back decades. I think Tris Speaker said as much about a hundred years ago. Yes, there have been the obvious exceptions, but right now it is what it is like it was what it was and will be what it will be, que sera sera.

  • JNeids

    If they cut him, the Jets will swoop him right up. (google Austin Sefarian-Jenkins if you don’t know what I’m referring to)

  • Garry_Owen

    Can this just be the last thing said about attendance? Ever? I think it covers the ground perfectly.

  • Steve

    “let’s just accept that this is the way it’s going to be and stop making an issue of it”

    The reason it is an issue is that, especially in a shrinking, ever-poorer market, a serious problem creating revenue, whatever the reason, is not a good sign for the long-term viability of the franchise. No not anytime soon, but at what point does a team owner go “you know what, I can get the same TV deal, and a million more fans to the park in Charlotte”. Not to mention that another $20M or so for the franchise to work with would help do things like keep Lindor in a Tribe jersey for a long, long time.

    Yes, everything that can be said about attendance probably has, but the discussion can’t go away because it is such a problem for the franchise.

  • matt underwood

    i think with regards to the cleveland indians attendance issues, one thing that gets overlooked is the proximity of all of the minor league teams in the area. they offer a cheaper product and a more intimate setting for those with families just wanting to go see some baseball.

    thinking back to the 90s, if memory serves AAA was in buffalo, AA was still in akron, and class A was in (NY, GA & NC depending on the level). now all the minor league teams are within a drive of a few hours to a few minutes. i think this hurts the attendance for those looking to get their tribe fix and will settle on the more family friendly atmosphere of a minor league game.

  • tolbuck

    I think using last season’s LDS schedule is a bit misleading. Notice the AL teams and the NL teams involved. None of the AL teams have that big of a following in the US. 3 of the NL teams have huge followings, and the fourth was located in the largest market. So MLB made it a priority to show the NL teams in the later time slots. That dynamic will change this season simply with the addition of the Red Sox.

    Say the Giants and Mets win the Wild Cards. It becomes very easy for MLB to schedule the Cubs for the late afternoon slot and give the Red Sox in the early evening slot. So if the Tribe plays the Red Sox they could very easily play the evening games on Friday and Monday.

  • WFNYJacob

    Yup, I’ve stated this ad nauseam in my posts on the topic. Totally agree. Just didn’t want to repeat myself yet again and again in this post today specifically on TV revenues 🙂