Sellout Streaks A Thing Of The Past In Cleveland
By Vince Guerrieri
In 1994, I was at Wahoo Winterfest, the annual preseason activity to gin up excitement for the Indians. Not that they needed to that year. The new home for the Tribe was under construction as part of the Gateway Project.
We went up to the top of what was then called the Society Tower for a presentation on the new ballpark, and a question-and-answer with Bob DiBiasio. Someone asked if the Indians would go back to Municipal Stadium if crowds were big enough.
He said no, and then said something that I’ve never forgotten just to tell us how everyone would be able to see the new ballpark.
“For the Indians to sell out every game for an entire season, they’d have to sell about 3.4 million tickets,” he said. “Not only have the Indians never done that, no team in major league history has ever done that.”
Two years later, the Indians had done just that.
Cleveland Municipal Stadium, because of its size, held no shortage of attendance records (indeed, three of the top four All-Star Games, by attendance, were at Municipal Stadium). But starting June 12, 1995, the Indians established a record of 455 consecutive sellouts at Jacobs Field.
It’s easy now to talk about the attendance or lack thereof, particularly compared with the sellout streak in the 1990s, but nobody seems to remember that there was a confluence of factors that made that happen.
Let’s get this out of the way now: Municipal Stadium was a dump. The stadium fell into serious disrepair. Paint peeled, the field looked like a cow pasture and the troughs in the men’s room overflowed (I had to burn a pair of shoes after a Browns game once). Everyone was excited to see the new ballpark in Cleveland.
And it just happened to coincide with the greatest run of success in Indians history: Two trips to the World Series and a total of six American League Central division titles in seven years. With talent like Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez, the Indians were a fun team to watch.
It also coincided with the hiatus of the Cleveland Browns (or as I like to call it, the three years the Browns went undefeated). The economics of sports and recreation activities come down to opportunity costs. There’s a finite amount of time and money, and you can spend it on a variety of activities. The Browns became one less option.
Let’s not forget the economy of the 1990s, compared to today. In 1995, a total of 17 Fortune 500 companies were headquartered in Cleveland. Today, there are five in the city and a total of 11 in the Cleveland-Akron area. Corporate sales drive attendance, not just in terms of luxury boxes (which the Indians have overbuilt, with 125), but also in terms of the all important season-ticket base.
The Indians’ best season at Municipal Stadium for attendance was 1948, when they won the World Series. In all, the turnstiles turned more than 2.6 million times that season. The only stadium with higher attendance for a World Series game than Municipal Stadium was the Los Angeles Coliseum. Municipal Stadium holds three of the top four spots in All-Star Game attendance.
The Indians, on pace to win the wild card in 1994, had attendance of nearly 2 million in a season that ended in August because of a strike.
The following year, the Tribe made their first trip to the postseason in 41 years, getting to the World Series. A new attendance record was set, with more than 2.8 million fans. The Indians drew more than 3 million fans each year for six years, from 1996-2001. There are currently eight major league teams that have NEVER drawn 3 million in a season.
During that time, the Tribe won five division titles, advanced to the American League Championship Series twice and the World Series once more.
Now, the record for sellouts belongs to the Red Sox, with more than 700. They’ve done it with the smallest ballpark in the majors and, if recent news accounts are to be believed, creative accounting.
But in the 1990s, the Indians caught lightning in a bottle. And here’s one more thing to ponder: Last year’s attendance was 1.8 million. That’s still 500,000 more than the Indians drew in a much bigger stadium when they won a pennant in 1954.