Indians have built it, but will the fans come?
By Steve Eby
The old saying goes; ask and ye shall receive. It appears that the Cleveland Indians understand this saying perfectly.
It is no secret that the Indians have struggled at the box office in recent years—even at times when they were not struggling on the field.
In 2005, the Indians won 93 games, contended for the division until the final weekend and for the Wild Card until the last day. They drew just over two million fans to the ballpark that year and placed 24th out of 30 teams in attendance. In 2007, the team won 96 games, won the Central Division title and was one win away from the World Series. That season, they finished 21st out of 30.
Since the 2002 season ended, the Indians have not cracked the top 20 in attendance figures and hit rock bottom in 2010 when they drew 1,394,812 fans for the season and finished in last place in the attendance rankings. Both the players and the front office took notice, but little was done to correct the problem.
The Indians lost their best players year after year, losing loads of talent like Jim Thome, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez simply because the Indians could not pay them. Some players pointed fingers at the fans, blaming their lack of support as the main reason for the seemingly endless fire sale.
After being traded in 2009, Lee was particularly vocal, lashing out at the Cleveland fans in an interview from August 26. “Uh, it would help if the fans showed up and came to the games. That’s why the team didn’t make money, because the fans weren’t there, supporting the team. That’s what happens when the fans don’t support.”
Last season, closer Chris Perez also addressed the issue, as he raged after a game against the Miami Marlins on May 19. “Guys don’t want to come over here and people wonder why. Why doesn’t Carlos Beltran want to come over here? Nobody wants to play in front of 5,000 fans.”
For years, Cleveland fans have complained and made excuse after excuse for reasons not to come to the ballpark and support their team. The top two complaints are typically about the franchises refusal to spend money on top notch talent and the expensive prices that fans have to pay once they get to the ballpark. This offseason, the Indians addressed both issues.
The player payroll hiked up dramatically this winter, as the Indians signed marquee free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to hefty contracts. Smaller deals were given to other well-known names, as Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers inked with the Tribe as well. Other former All-Stars brought to camp include Jason Giambi, Matt Capps and Scott Kazmir.
Logical thinking says that when the Indians are one of only four teams to add over $100 million during this offseason, the prices at the ballpark would increase or at least stay the same. The Tribe took the opposite approach, announcing last week that prices of concessions would drop for the 2013 season.
“We’ve asked them what they want from their ballpark experience and more affordable concessions is consistently one of the things we hear,” Indians President Mark Shapiro said in a press release. “We are trying to break down all the barriers to keep fans from coming to Indians games.”
Price reduced items include 12-ounce beers, bratwursts, waffle cones, nachos, pretzels, popcorn and pizza. The biggest price drop came from what is probably the most popular item in the ballpark as hot dogs will now cost $3 as opposed to last season’s $4.50. The price of beer at Progressive Field is now 34% below the Major League average and hot dogs are 27% below.
“This ties back to the organization’s commitment that fans are the focus of our every act,” Shapiro added.
The lower cost of hot dogs may make Dollar Dog Nights seem like less of a deal, but considering that the Indians upped those fan favorites to 15 games this season, all should be forgiven. In fact, if freebies are your thing, there should be comfort in knowing that 53 out of the 81 home dates offer some sort of promotion including multiple jersey and bobblehead giveaways as well as 16 of the popular fireworks nights—two of which are of the spectacular Rock-n-Blast variety. For those who are still stuck in the 90’s, there are promotions that center around former Tribe greats Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Omar Vizquel and John Hart as well.
Even though fans will walk away with a baseball game and some other goodie on over 65% of the home games, some still have a common complaint that involves the outrageous price of parking downtown. The Indians have countered that punch as well.
Last July, the Indians started a fan-focused transportation initiative that included a shuttle that would take patrons from Ohio City to the ballpark and back for one dollar. The Great Lakes Brewing Company’s “Fatty Wagon” shuttle is scheduled to be back in 2013 for at least Friday and Saturday home games.
It seems that the Indians have answered at least three of the fans main concerns. The biggest concern in the minds of everyone, however, is always winning. The Indians lost 94 games last season which included a woeful five-win month of August.
“Make no mistake, we know the largest lever fans pull is the one that corresponds to on-field performance of the team,” Shapiro said.
In 2005 and 2007, winning did not cure-all, but it certainly should in 2013. If the Indians find a way to contend this summer, the fans are left with few excuses to not attend games. When compared with the other competition in town—the Browns and the Cavaliers—the Indians are at least as competitive and are much more affordable. Cedar Point, another local summertime attraction, will cost one person at least 4.5 times more on admission than one bleacher ticket.
The Indians have certainly done their homework, improved their team, reduced their prices and answered their critics. Opening Day sold out in six minutes…will their strategy work for the remaining 80 games?
Come to the ballpark this summer and find out.
Photo: Scott Shaw/The Plain Dealer