Some Thoughts on the Indians’ Record-Setting Attendance

It’s old news by now, but this past weekend the Cleveland Indians made some history by drawing the smallest crowds in Jagressive Field history.  After the perfunctory sell-out on Opening Day, the attendance on Saturday was below 10,000.  On Sunday, it was below 9,000.

After a season in which the Indians had the lowest attendance in all of baseball, people seemed to be taking some odd and perverse pleasure in the news.  On Twitter, there were more than a few stabs taken at the Dolans of the “This is what you get for trading away my favorite players” ilk.  Shapiro and Antonetti were also castigated for similar reasons.  The blame war had begun.

I don’t know if the impulse was contrarian or honest, but the Cleveland “Leader” decided to chime in on the low attendance.  The article was sorely mistitled (for page hits, I suppose): “Cleveland Baseball Fans Better Start Acting Like a Major League City“.  Was the author actually blaming the fans for not paying to go see a team that’s gotten progressively worse for three straight years?  It seemed to me that the article was trying to react against the notion that the front office is entirely to blame for the terrible attendance—a position I happen to sympathize with—by suggesting that the fans don’t deserve to have a Major League team.  This is obviously nonsense: no one “deserves” a team.  As Bill Munny would say, “‘Deserves’ got nothing to do with it.”  But this piece tried to place blame on those lousy, substandard, ungrateful fans for not supporting their team.

The truth, as often seems to be the case, lies somewhere in the murky middle.

The front office certainly bears its share of blame for the current attendance woes.  You can’t trade your three best players and expect attendance to hold steady.  If the front office were to express public disappointment in the fanbase, I would find it beyond ridiculous.  I understand their need to treat MLB like a business, but they should at least expect their customers to do the same.  I speak only from my own experience, but I wouldn’t take a client to an Indians game unless I knew he was a fan.  It’s become a niche experience—one that I enjoy a great deal, but not one that most people are going to appreciate unless there’s free food and drink.  Winning breeds ticket sales, and if the front office were to whine about attendance falling, I’d be offended, considering their moves in recent years.  This is not the fans’ fault, and I think it’s obscene and exploitative to suggest that it is.

But similarly, it’s hard to suggest that the front office deserves all the blame for the Indians’ generally sub-par attendance figures.  In 2007, Shapiro built (and Dolan financed) a team that won more games than any other in baseball.  That season, the Indians ranked 22nd in attendance out of 30 MLB teams.  That’s a reality the front office has to deal with: even when the team is good, they’ll be lucky to get attendance figures that most teams in baseball would find pathetic.  And that’s why it’s generally unsustainable for the Indians to have an average payroll—average payrolls need to be sustained by average attendance figures, and we don’t have those, even when the team is remarkably successful.*

*I’m not going to talk about the 90’s and the sellout streak.  It’s a red herring that means less than nothing in this discussion. The Browns were gone, the Cavs were terrible. There was a new stadium and a booming economy that funneled money to Dick Jacobs like a waterslide.  Cleveland’s population was significantly larger than it is now.  And the payrolls of those Tribe teams, while relatively large for the era, are miniscule compared to today’s MLB payrolls.  It is not an argument that deserves to be entertained by a rational person.

I’m not saying that Cleveland fans need to “man up” and buy tickets.  I don’t think we suffer from particularly dispassionate fans anyway.*   The fact is that Cleveland is a small city, and shrinking.  There is no Metropolitan Statistical Area in the country with three professional franchises and a smaller population than Cleveland.  According to the latest census, Cleveland’s MSA (including surrounding areas like Mentor, Elyria, etc.) now has fewer people than Portland—a city that has exactly one professional sports team.  Whether we like it or not, the demographics are challenging.  By any reasonable measure, we can probably support about one and a half professional sports teams.  We have three major franchises and four minor league affiliates/independent teams, all competing for the same shrinking pool of entertainment dollars.

*I’m also, for the record, not particularly interested by the argument that Cleveland has the “best sports fans in the world”.  Anytime people claim these sorts of superior qualities, it strikes me as hollow and chest-thumpy and, yes, a little insecure.  “My fandom is better than yours” ranks up there with “My dad could beat up your dad” in the panoply of stupid, hollow phrases.  But that’s just like, my opinion, man.

None of this makes me happy.  It makes me sad that the city is shrinking and that the economy remains a mess.  It makes me sad to know that people are leaving Cleveland and moving to Texas.  I’ve been to Texas—I promise that it sucks.   Shoot, most of the writers on this site don’t live in Cleveland, and I know they all LOVE CLEVELAND.  As someone not born in town, I’ve chosen to make my life here because of the city’s many charms—charms I feel are largely overlooked by those who mock us for “both of our buildings.”  It would be easier for me if I could blame the Dolans or Shapinetti or lazy fans or (as is my wont) the Red Sox for the hard times that have befallen the team and city that I choose to put so much of my heart into.

But I can’t—not if I want to be honest about it.  This is a real problem, and one that won’t fix itself.  The reality is that the Cleveland Indians operate in an excessively challenging environment.  I know that it’s challenging to be a fan; I am one.  I’m sure it’s challenging to be a General Manager or Team President or (yes) a Team Owner too.  Things are rough in Cleveland, but creating boogeymen doesn’t make it any easier for anyone.  To blame one person or one group of people for the terribly difficult situation in which this city finds itself would be, at best, misguided and, at worst, intentionally divisive.

A pretty neat guy once said, “We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds affection.”  When I hear people shouting at each other about being a crummy fan, or a crummy owner, or crummy general manager, I just want to shake them.  I know a lot has happened since then, but don’t you remember 2007?  Don’t you remember how magical that was?  It wasn’t because of baseball.  It was because the entire city was pulling together for the same thing: for our team and for each other and for civic pride and belief in the little guy.  We weren’t fractious or bitter or angry or vainglorious or eager to blame or quick to hate.  We were at our best.

And we averaged fewer than 29,000 fans per game.  Attendance doesn’t always tell the whole story.  Not then, and not now.