I took my wife and daughter to a game against the Twins a couple of Saturdays back. It was as close to a perfect day at the ballpark as you can get. It was 67 degrees, warm enough to take your jacket off but not enough to make you sweat. Kazmir was solid, the bats were banging. Kipnis and Swisher homered in the first inning, so there was never a whole bunch of tension, but the Twins stayed close enough that it stayed interesting. Even the national anthem was good.
The down side was that only 17,000 fans showed up. For the weekend, barely fifty thousand came to Progressive Field. We could spend hours analyzing why, but the bottom line is that this sucks. Fans have been saying for the past three years that they were holding back until the Dolans spent money, that the Indians were not exciting enough, that there was no point in committing to this team because the best players had one step out of town.
Well, Nick Swisher is here, Michael Bourn is here, and Mark Reynolds is here. The lineup from one through nine has guys who can go deep and guys who can run the bases. The defense is better, and even the rotation looks like it could come together.
So why are the fans staying home?
This has implications far beyond just curiosity. The Indians are on pace right now to draw fewer than 1.3 million this year. When 23 of 30 major league franchises draw more than two million a year, one can think of that as the Mendoza line for attendance, and the Indians have no chance of getting close to it. Obviously, the gate will pick up once school is out and the weather gets better, but the fact remains that they seem destined to finish at or near the bottom of MLB in attendance.
They couldn’t even draw twenty thousand for either game against the Tigers, even with a sizeable contingent from Detroit in the crowd. That leads to a question that none of us wants to face: Is this still a viable baseball market?
Let’s face facts – the 90’s are not coming back. First, we are not drafting Belle, Thome, and Ramirez in back to back years. Second, we are not getting a new ballpark, and even if we did, could it surpass Progressive Field in as many ways as then-Jacobs Field surpassed that monstrosity on the lake? Third, the Browns are (probably) not leaving again, and the Cavs are (hopefully) not going to be completely unwatchable again. Moreover, and sadly, the economic condition of the city of Cleveland has taken an enormous hit over the past decade, and there are scant prospects for revival in the foreseeable future.
There appears to be more to it than that, though. We all know that the Browns continue to come close to selling out despite being god awful for more than a decade. However, it seems easier to get sixty thousand people to show up eight times than to get twenty or thirty thousand to show up 81 times. Even the Cavs have maintained decent attendance in the years since LeBron left town, drawing over sixteen thousand per game this past year. That is a similar model to the Indians, because the Cavs need to entice fans to show up on weeknights, in bad weather, and regardless of the opponent. Despite three consecutive years of winning less than a third of their games, the Cavs still draw more than eighty percent of capacity and sell more season tickets than the Indians.
A better illustration is to compare the Indians to the other baseball teams in similar markets. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Detroit are all within a few hours’ drive of Cleveland, have similar economic troubles, similar weather issues, and similar population bases, although Detroit is somewhat larger. The Pirates and Tigers are contending with hockey teams playing deep into the playoffs, while the Indians have the Cleveland market all to themselves (sorry, Gladiator fans). The Tigers are on an impressive run of success fueled by Owner Mike Ilitch funneling the profits from the Red Wings to his baseball team because the NHL salary cap prohibits him from spending them where they are earned. Still, they are drawing more than 36,000 per game. The Pirates are drawing 21,000 per game, although some of that may be due to the novelty of a suddenly competitive team after twenty straight losing seasons.
Perhaps the most instructive comparison, though, is with Cincinnati. The Reds, like the Indians, have been hovering near first place all season. Cincinnati has a metropolitan population base of 2.2 million, compared to 2.9 million in Cleveland. The two cities are basically equidistant from the largest market in Ohio, Columbus. But the Reds are drawing 29,000 per game, while the Indians are drawing barely 16,000. In the recent home-and-home interleague series, the Reds drew 66,000 for their two games, while the Indians drew just 36,000.
This has serious implications for the long-term future of the Indians. It is easy to imagine the Dolans saying “Hey, we stepped up and put a good team on the field, but the fans just aren’t interested.” The new TV deal and the sale of STO may keep the team profitable for a while without an increase in gate receipts, but eventually a team that draws 1.3 million will not have money to spend on players. We have been there before: the payroll goes down, the team gets worse, the attendance goes down even more, and it just keeps spiraling downward.
The next few weeks will be crucial. School is out, you can go to a night game without your parka, and the team has given every indication that it will be competitive throughout the year. If the Indians can start consistently drawing twenty thousand on weeknights and thirty thousand on weekends (those are minimums, not averages), they can end up with attendance of around 1.8 million, which would get them out of the bottom five, where teams like the Marlins and Astros, who aren’t even making an effort, reside.
If not, it may be reasonable to question whether this is really a baseball town.