Why we shouldn’t be surprised by the Indians attendance

No matter what, it’s disappointing.

That’s a fair statement for any diehard fan of a competing team like the 2013 Cleveland Indians.

You see, these Indians aren’t like the contending teams of the ‘90s for one obvious, over-reported and obnoxious fact: Attendance. This season, through Thursday’s games, Cleveland ranked 28th in the sport with an average number of 19,037 paid fans per opening.

Obviously, this is a deep and exciting baseball team peaking at the right moment and in the thick in the American League playoff race. Heck, they just swept an entire weeklong home stand.

Yet in digging through historical Cleveland Indians attendance and using it side-by-side with existing research on Major League Baseball attendance, this season’s disappointing fan support really shouldn’t be all that shocking.

Cleveland’s baseball history

Cleveland Municipal Stadium was a dump. According to my family, I went to a few games there as a youngster. I was hardly old enough to recall. But from all indications from fellow WFNY writers and fans, it was just a terrible stadium for baseball. The stories go on and on.

Heck, even though the stadium opened in 1931, the Indians didn’t actually use it for its entire schedule – reserving the 75,000-plus seat capacity monstrosity only for special occasions – until 1947.

In the early days, the stadium had its attendance peaks and troughs as influenced heavily by the on-field success of the team. As is common now, the 1948 championship squad, 1954 pennant winner and other brief spurts of success sparked intermittent top-four MLB attendance rankings.

The most significant changes to the stadium took place in 1968 and 1974. In those years, the old wooden seats were replaced with plastic ones, a new scoreboard was put in place and modern suites finally were added.

In 1973, Browns owner Art Modell signed a new 25-year lease to operate the stadium, after it previously was owned by the city. Under Modell’s ownership, the stadium also was beginning to host the World Series of Rock concerts, increasing the use and revenue of the gigantic edifice.

Indians attendance saw a huge boost for the 1974 season. After averaging just 7,594 fans the year before, an 81.1% jump took place with the stadium improvements – all the way up to a 13,756 average – moving the team from last to seventh in the 12-team American League. It was the team’s best attendance figure since the 89-win 1959 season.

indians attendance history2

Overall, the narrative never changed. Cleveland baseball remained a mediocre product, at best, and the stadium remained one of the worst in the sport. Although attendance ticked up moderately toward the end of the ‘80s with the improving team, the franchise still ranked among the AL’s worst.1

‘Honeymoon’ effect for new stadiums

As the narrative continues, Jacobs Field opened in 1994 as a shining new beacon for Indians baseball fans. Designed by the same architectural firm (HOK) that created the downtown success story of 1992’s small-yet-practical Camden Yards in Baltimore, The Jake changed the framework of Cleveland baseball.2

indians attendance history1

That should have been expected, too. For decades, economists, statisticians and all kinds of researchers have documented the “honeymoon” effect for new stadiums. A new park, especially in baseball, can spark a wild attendance swing in the positive direction for a period of about 6-10 years. The research is overwhelming.

But as a typical “honeymoon” is just a fleeting, passing and determinately short period of time, so is this boost in attendance. It’s possible that the new location of a stadium or the overall economy could lead to long-lasting effects. Generally speaking though, the research shows that the historical baseline eventually returns as the attendance average.

In The Diff in late February, I shared my undergraduate honors thesis project – titled “Minor League Baseball: Tradition, Success and the Recession” – on attendance trends in the minors. My 70-plus page thesis shared the narrative of nine different franchises along with a regression analysis of 12 years of minor league attendance data.

Stadium age – whether related to an entirely new building or major renovations – was one of my project’s many significant variables. On the major league scale, the difference can be even more drastic. A few articles that were included in my references detail the potentially extreme nature of this “honeymoon” effect.

Why baseball stadiums; how long of a ‘honeymoon’

Overall, attendance in baseball has surged over the last few decades. The reasons for this explosion are varied. On the outside, the geography of MLB teams has become more efficient over time thanks to relocation (sorry, Montreal), expansion and more attractive stadiums. These all were purposeful with an eye on attendance and revenue.

Even after the colossal 1994 strike, the game recovered with a bounce to new heights. The now-controversial big bashers of the mid-to-late ‘90s helped revive the national appeal of the game. One 2010 study, a senior capstone project from Bryant University’s Mark McDonnell, referred to MLB as “America’s recession-proof pastime.”

But why exactly is baseball attendance so susceptible to this “honeymoon” effect of new stadiums? Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys of UMBC’s economics department did a cross-sport analysis of new stadium attendance boosts in a 2003 study called “Novelty effects of new facilities on attendance at professional sporting events.”

Their key theory and discovery was that the number of games in a professional sports league can affect the intensity of demand. While there are only eight NFL home games each season, with most being played on Sunday afternoons, there are 81 home MLB games spread all throughout the week. That creates much more variability in day-to-day attendance.

This study confirmed previous analyses of MLB attendance boosts. Significantly, new stadium “honeymoon” effects last for about eight seasons while steadily declining after a big first season. In the NBA and NFL, such an effect is hardly significant, with no clear year-by-year differences.

In all of my research, one of my favorite articles was by Christopher Clapp and Jahn Hakes from Clemson University in 2005. Their article in the Journal of Sports Economics, titled “How long a honeymoon? The effect of new stadiums on attendance in Major League Baseball”, cut into the heart of all MLB attendance analysis.

The goal of this article was to determine the magnitude and duration of these new baseball stadiums’ attendance boosts. They looked into the difference between newer stadiums (think Camden Yards) and older ones (think Three Rivers Stadium). Another factor for exploration was team quality, to see if winning teams combined with a new stadium could have any additional effect. While revenue also was a key topic, it doesn’t necessarily relate here.3

Their results: Smaller, modern stadiums, built after 1975, are having much larger effects. They should expect a 44.1% increase for year one of a new stadium compared to the baseline. Attendance remains 26.9% greater than the baseline in year two, then 20.2% in year three. By years nine and 10, the effect is only 2.6%, which is not statistically significant. This proves the 6-10 year range that was introduced earlier.

Highlighting the new-stadium success stories of Cleveland and San Francisco, the authors also looked to see if there was significance in winning percentage-attendance boosts for new stadiums. Due to a lack of evidence, they concluded the results were merely aberrations, but at least left open the door for that theory in unique situations.

Cleveland’s new (old) reality

Cleveland’s baseball attendance story is sensational. Just as the beautiful Jacobs Field opened in the mid-‘90s, the Indians became a powerhouse, the economy was surging, downtown was booming and the Browns were leaving town. It was a prefect confluence of several unique factors.

Now, the baseline has returned. The Indians are consistently ranking in the bottom seven in MLB attendance, just like before in old Municipal Stadium. The perfect storm is over.

An under-reported factor is the fact that four new baseball teams have popped up in Northeast Ohio during this span: the Akron Aeros (moved from Canton in 1997), the Mahoning Valley Scrappers (1999), the Lake County Captains (2003) and the independent Lake Erie Crushers (2009).

Thus, the Indians must work harder than ever to even remain competitive in the constantly surging MLB attendance picture. Just back in March, Baseball Prospectus wrote on the franchise’s analytic-based promotional efforts. Obviously, April and May always will remain a killer for attendance. It’s incredibly difficult for an outdoor team to draw fans in sub-50 degree weather.

Previous research has shown that major external events – such as a playoff appearance – spark lagged attendance changes. That certainly will be the hope for the Indians as they head into 2014. This past offseason’s spending spree, the hiring of Terry Francona and the impressive July 2013 could eventually lead to a moderate rebound.

The Indians also lowered concession prices and added a nostalgia-packed promotional schedule for 2013. Their new ticket pricing system has been labeled as innovative yet controversial. The new online system for managing season tickets – Tribe Rewards – could be described as confusing or unnecessary, which is never a good thing for your bread-and-butter customers. Their handling of major promotions also has come under question.

The main issue affecting the Indians is their complete lack of a season ticket holder base. The franchise’s attendance varies so widely because there is no consistent flow of attendees. According to a late 2012 Crain’s Cleveland article from now-Indians employee Joel Hammond, the team reportedly had just around 6,000 full-season equivalents.

It’s disheartening for a competing major league team, making its case as a legitimate contender, to play in front of sub-20,000 fan crowds on a consistent basis. Now-quiet closer Chris Perez certainly had a point in his very controversial comments last season.

But per the numbers, the decline of Indians attendance over the last decade could be called disappointing and any number of adjectives, but certainly can’t be considered shocking. The existing data on “honeymoon” effects is too overwhelming for us to be too surprised by this development.

Photo: Jacob Rosen/WFNY

Note: A Friday afternoon voicemail seeking comment on this article was left for Curtis Danburg, senior director of communications for the Cleveland Indians. Any on-the-record comments received from Danburg will be edited into a later update.

Disclaimer: The author is a former employee of the Double-A Akron Aeros and has provided consulting on the topic of minor league baseball attendance for the team this season.

  1. Despite a solid run from 1947-1951 surrounding the great Indians teams, there was only one other season at Municipal Stadium with an average attendance better than 20,000 fans: 1993. The soon-to-be-summarized article by Clapp and Hakes (2005) theorized that classic stadiums, built before 1960, usually experienced significant final-season boosts in attendance. That certainly was the case for the improving Tribe that year. But that was far more the outlier in terms of attendance. []
  2. Teams listed in the graphic below with asterisks made the playoffs. Also: In 2007, the Indians “hosted” one home game at Miller Park. Those were some strange circumstances, and it is also noted below with an asterisk. []
  3. I could go on and on about revenue from stadiums and the topic of whether it is worth taxpayers’ money. In essence, my point of view is similar to that of Grantland’s Jonah Keri, who is the leading sage in the ongoing Tampa Bay stadium saga. MLB usually plays the bully in these situations, forcing cities to foot the bill or else. That means the financial loser, usually, is the city and its residents, while owners pocket the money. If it was so unprofitable to own a team, don’t you think more owners would be trying to sell? []