We had a really good discussion in last week’s Wroundtable about the Indians’ attendance. This has always been sort of an obsession with me because I have been around long enough where I remember the plans to move the team because the team was only drawing 700,000 fans a year. In any case, the reasons given for the poor attendance were as follows:
- Clevelanders have had their hearts broken so often that they simply can’t bring themselves to believe
- The Dolans have produced so many mediocre efforts that fans don’t believe the hype about this year
- It’s too early to pass judgment. Wait until school is out and the weather warms up
- Clevelanders just aren’t real baseball fans
- The Economy
Let’s look at these one by one.
If reason 1 is valid it would apply to the Browns and the Cavs, who if anything have been worse than the Indians recently, and that is not the case.
There’s nothing we can do about reason 2 unless everyone who reads this blog wants to chip in about fifty grand so we can offer to buy the team.
We should have solid empirical evidence this week on whether reason 3 is valid. A good opponent, the losing streak is over, great weather is predicted, and everyone should be looking to do something nice for their dad. If the Indians don’t get 30,000 per game this weekend, we can shoot that premise down.
The economic concern is real. From 2000 to 2010, the population of Cuyahoga County dropped from 1.39 million to 1.27 million people. This is the population base that lives close enough to Cleveland to drive to a game without a lot of effort or planning, so these people are critical to the welfare of the team. At the same time, the poverty rate of the county went from 13% to 18%. Bluntly speaking, the affluent people are leaving and the poor people are staying. Poverty statistics don’t tell the real story, though, because people just above the poverty line can’t afford tickets either.
If you look at the population of people making more than 200% of the poverty line (about $45,000 for a family of 4) you have a good indication of the number of people who are likely to consider buying tickets to a baseball game. In Cuyahoga County this number has dropped from 960,000 to 830,000, a decrease of almost 14%.
We can debate whether this situation is temporary or permanent, but it seems clear that it will not get better over the next several years. However there are other cities that are in similar shape that have thriving baseball teams, most notably Detroit. Even Pittsburgh, with a smaller population base and a team with a much longer record of lousy play, outdrew the Indians last year and is on pace to do so again this year.
There is one issue I have seen that bears watching. When I was young (need to stop doing that), the Indians normally drew fewer than ten thousand on weeknights but routinely drew thirty thousand on weekends – forty or fifty if the Yankees were in town. The overall attendance still sucked, but it was enough to keep the team afloat. Since the team stopped selling out at the turn of the century, weeknight attendance has usually been at least 15,000 except for April and September, but the weekend attendance seldom gets much above 25,000, regardless of promotions, the opponent, or how the Tribe is doing. This is where the team is failing, in my mind, and figuring it out is key to fixing the problem.
I see two issues.
First, to be honest, there are at least ten thousand seats in Progressive Field from which the game is simply unwatchable. The Indians designed the stadium around those damn luxury boxes, raising the 400 and 500 level seats to elevations that are really diminish your enjoyment of the game. I like the 400 level seats, but there aren’t that many of them, and I will sit in the 500 level seats between the dugouts, but anything outside first or third base is not worth the effort. I live in Columbus, so perhaps I am choosier than people who aren’t driving two hours to see a game would be, but these seats are virtually never occupied. This means the upper limit for attendance, with rare exceptions is 35,000. If you never exceed 35,000, it is difficult to average 25,000, which is what it takes to draw two million, baseball’s version of the poverty line.
The other issue is more of a theory. It stands to reason that a significant part of the difference between weeknight and weekend attendance comes from outside the metropolitan area of Cleveland. If the Indians are not able to draw large crowds on the weekends, it is likely that they are not drawing from Columbus, Toledo, and other large population centers. I can attest that Columbus has gone back to being a Reds town, and the last time I drove through Toledo there were more Tigers fans than Indians fans. Those teams have been more successful than the Indians, so there is probably not much the Indians can do to get those fans back short of a long run of playoff appearances.
It’s a Catch-22. You can’t draw if you don’t win and you can’t win if you don’t draw. You have to give the Dolans credit for sticking their necks out this year; if the attendance stays low all year it is hard to imagine they will continue to do so.