Indians Winning, But Nobody’s Watching
The Cleveland Indians are in first place in the American League Central by 2 games over the Detroit Tigers and have been one of the more exciting teams in all of baseball to watch this season, but in Cleveland nobody seems to care. The Indians enter the weekend dead last in attendance, averaging just 14,665 fans per game over the first month of the season. That equates to Progressive Field being just a little over 1/3 of the way full for each of the Indians’ first 18 home games in 2012. Last weekend, the Indians managed to take 2 out of 3 against the best team in the American League over the past two seasons, the Texas Rangers, but not even those games saw crowds much larger than 25,000.
This problem is not unique to this season as the Indians have seen a decrease in attendance almost every season for the past 10 years, but the numbers this year are certainly coming in lower than in recent history. One exception to this trend was in 2007, the Indians were within 1 game of the World Series for the first time in 10 years, they led the Central Division almost the entire season, and they drew an average of over 28,000 fans, good enough for 21 st overall, but that still left Progressive Field about 33% empty on most nights. In 2005, the Indians were in the mix up until the final games of the season but only drew an average of about 25,000 fans, good enough for 24 th overall and barely beating out the Cincinnati Reds, a team that won just 73 games that season. Last year, the Indians got off to a red hot start, led the Central Division through the All-Star break and still finished the season 24 th overall in attendance with just 22,726 fans, approximately ½ of the capacity of the stadium, coming to the games each night.
The alarming issue for the Indians right now, is that they currently have a payroll that cannot be sustained if the club does not start drawing fans soon. Their ownership listened to the fans and went out this winter and increased their payroll from just a little over $49 million in 2011 to almost $80 million for 2012. This included the re-signing of injured center fielder Grady Sizemore, veteran pitcher Derek Lowe, veteran outfielder Johnny Damon and free-agents Casey Kotchman and Aaron Cunningham. With the exception of Sizemore, all of their offseason acquisitions are either actively starting on their roster or on their Triple-A Columbus roster. Their pitching staff, with the exception of Ubaldo Jimenez, has gotten off to a pretty good start and their offense is starting to come around, but nothing the current team does seems to be attracting any additional fans to the ball park.
So the real question here is, why? Why can’t the Indians draw fans to a stadium that once held the Major League record with 455 consecutive sell-outs? One could blame the economic downturn that has hit Northeastern Ohio and particularly the Cleveland area very hard over the past 10 years. Most Indians fans, be they of the fair-weather nature or the die-hard, are hard-working blue collar folks who might find it increasingly difficult to shell out $250 to take their family of four downtown for a ball game. Why $250, you ask? Well, even if you buy modestly priced seats in the $10-25 range, you are still looking at parking fees that range anywhere from $7 to $25 depending on the garage and the importance of the game, and then you have the less-than-modestly priced food and drinks, not to mention souvenirs and other expenses. It is simply money that most Clevelanders do not have right now, and it is starting to become glaringly obvious that more people are staying home and either watching the games on TV or the internet. It is hard to leave the comforts of your own house, where you can cook a $20 dinner and turn the tube on to catch all but a handful of games throughout the season given the alternative.
It’s not to say that the Indians aren’t trying to entice their fans to come check out the ballpark though. They have lowered some of their ticket prices; they have made upgrades to the kids’ area of the ballpark adding more games and other activities to keep them interested while still allowing their parents to watch the game. They have increased the number of promotions that they are offering as well, adding more fireworks games, and other giveaways like replica jerseys, ball caps, bobble heads and other fun items. The Tribe has also scheduled three post-game concerts this summer in hopes that more fans will come out to be entertained not just for 3 hours by the ball-game, but then for an additional 2 hours afterwards by the musicians. The Indians are also far-and-away the most competitive of Cleveland’s three professional franchises right now, but the Browns and Cavs continue to draw more fans than the Tribe despite the fact that the Browns have been lousy since their return in 1999 and the Cavs losing LeBron James and having to start from scratch.
There is no simple solution to the Tribe’s attendance woes, but as a life-long Indians fan I find it alarming that the team is struggling to average above the mid-20,000 range and has done so for nearly a decade. A decline in your fan base that is that strong (losing roughly ½ since the team’s glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s) doesn’t send a good message to the owners, or the players. Indians fans are constantly complaining when the team has to trade away stars such as CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, the list is endless over the past 10 seasons, but it is hard to keep big name players like that if your fan base is not supporting the team by going to the games to help pay their salaries. The Tribe was briefly in the mix this offseason for Prince Fielder and Carlos Beltran, but why would either of them want to come play in a city when the stadium is 1/3 full or less for most of their games? The bottom line here is that Indians fans need to start coming out to the ball park or they may risk something that most would think unthinkable. In 2023, the Indians lease with the city expires, and if the ball club is in financial peril when that happens, it is not beyond the realm of comprehension that the team could up and leave for greener pastures. Granted, that is 10 years in the future, but look at what has happened between 2002 and today, they have lost 50% of their average attendance in that time frame, if they lose even 25% of what remains, it seems like a no-brainer that this ball club will be playing elsewhere by the time the next generation of kids are old enough to enjoy a ball game with their fathers on a sunny summer afternoon.
By Robert Gonzalez