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. []