Why is Cleveland a Browns Town?
Bob Toth | On 05, Dec 2013
This week the DTTWLN staff is doing an in-depth look at the Cleveland Indians attendance. While everyone knows the Indians have an attendance problem, how they necessarily got to this point appears to be an explanation with many answers including play on the field, population and economic changes and improvements in technology. Regardless of the reasons, one thing is certain, the Indians have an attendance problem. This morning, we examine why Clevelanders seem to have a different kind of passion for the Browns versus the Indians.
Previous Stories This Week:
From the Perfect Storm to the Indians Attendance Disaster by Bob Toth
Times Have Changed While Indians Attendance Issues Have Worsened by Mike Brandyberry
Indians Attendance Issues Have Spanned Over 65 Years by Vince Guerrieri
The Tipping Point in this Generation’s Attendance Decline by Vince Guerrieri
The Dyamics of Dynamic Pricing by Mike Brandyberry
There’s a double standard in Cleveland regarding several of its professional sports franchises.
The Cleveland Indians, who were competitive and involved in the playoffs in 2013 after an expensive retooling process, aggressively engaged the northeast Ohio market with an ad campaign prior to the season involving several key figures in the organization in an attempt to get fans down to Progressive Field.
Despite the efforts of the fairly well-received commercials, the Indians drew the third-worst average home attendance in all of baseball. Drawing just under 1.6 million fans in 2013, they had the second-fewest number of people in the seats at a baseball game on the season, proving once again that Cleveland remains a “Browns Town”.
The Indians organization used “Tribe Town” commercial spots on television and radio and incorporated its message on its website and in its use of social media. New manager and former Indians player and front office employee Terry Francona, veteran and contagiously energetic Nick Swisher, and radio voice Tom Hamilton all lent their likenesses to support the cause, looking to drive excitement around what the team hoped would be a successful collection of established ball players and young talent on the diamond.
The notable number of vacant seats at the yard still affectionately known as Jacobs Field to the Tribe faithful indicated that the fans were just not ready to support the product.
Meanwhile, just down the street, the Cleveland Browns engaged in a rebuild of their own, and certainly not the first in the new era of the franchise. With new owner Jimmy Haslem III in control of the club for his first full season as an National Football League owner and with a new front office, the Browns were looking to make the push out of the cellar of the AFC North division after 14 seasons of dashed hopes. Question marks remained about the offense of the club, but the defense appeared to be one that could compete with any team in the league.
After rocking portions of the fan base with a slow start and the trade of their 2012 first round draft pick Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts at the beginning of the season for a first round pick next year, the Browns held on to the attention of the fans, despite needing to replace opening day starting quarterback and former minor league baseball player Brandon Weeden with local journeyman Brian Hoyer.
The team was competitive and kept most of their games close, generating some additional excitement behind the second-youngest team (25.25 years) in the NFL at the start of the year. They spent some time hanging around the top of the standings in the division and were even being mentioned as a possible playoff team in a Wild Card spot, even after losing Hoyer to a torn knee ligament in the team’s lone nationally televised broadcast of the season and replacing him with the third quarterback on the depth chart, the well-travelled Jason Campbell.
Then, in typical Cleveland fashion, the wheels fell completely off. However, unlike the experiences of the Major League Baseball franchise sharing the city with them, the Browns fan base remains loyal and largely in attendance.
Why? What drives Clevelanders to support one club blindly, as if they can do no wrong while rarely appearing to do what is right, while another team is shunned despite competing fairly well in a sport without a salary cap to even the playing field a bit?
Nobody likes losing, but if there is one thing that Cleveland sports franchises have done well over the course of the last 113 years or so, it is lose.
When the Indians lose, the fans are gone. They may be supporting the team from a distance, watching the action still on TV or listening to the radio call, but they are not in the seats, generating revenue and engaging in the customary acts of consumerism to assist both the team and the local economy.
But as this past season showed us, wins do not necessarily equate with increased attendance figures.
It is not as though a few hundred opted to not take in a ball game because the team was struggling. In 50 of the Indians’ games last season, Progressive Field was filled below half of its capacity. Six times it fell below one-quarter of the capacity crowd. In five different games (one in April, two in May, two in September), the stadium did not crack the five digit mark.
In the end, the Indians were once again at the bottom of their sport in attendance, averaging less than 20,000 per game for the season.
And that was for a good team, one who fought all season long, finished one game in back of the powerhouse, free-spending Detroit Tigers in the American League Central, and hosted the AL Wild Card game in Cleveland.
While the Indians reached the playoffs for the first time since 2007, the Browns have taken the once-respected name of the franchise and tarnished it with losing seasons in 12 of their first 14 years back in the league after Art Modell ripped the team from the city’s clutches. A 13th losing season since their return and sixth in a row is all but a certainty. They have reached the playoffs just once (Wild Card loss in 2002) and maxed out with a high of ten wins in 2007.
Ignoring the Indians’ success of the mid-1990s and focusing in solely on the time frame that the Browns have been back on the shores of Lake Erie, the Indians have had seven seasons with final records at or above the .500 mark since 1999. In two other seasons in that span, they finished 80-82. They have claimed three division crowns and reached the playoffs four times in those 15 years. The Indians have not finished last in their respective division since being a part of the seven-team AL East in 1991.
The Browns have finished last in the AFC North in four of the last five years. The fans have continued to show up, even with the team sitting in last place again. They are on pace to see more than 570,000 fans this season in eight games at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Indians will have earned more than a million more fans than the Browns for the same calendar year, but will have needed 73 more games to do it.
The sub-.500 Browns have averaged over 71,000 fans through the home portion of their schedule in 2013. The 5-11 team of 2012 averaged over 66,000 per game, or roughly 91% of the stadium’s capacity. They exceeded 90%, in fact, in every season since 2006. They had the fourth-largest average home attendance in the AFC and seventh overall in the NFL from 2006 to 2008.
They were 4-12 in 2006, 10-6 in 2007, and 4-12 in 2008.
A big part of the split allegiances in the city may come from the overexposure the Browns are given to Clevelanders on an every day basis by the media.
At almost any point during the year, turning on local sports talk radio will result in some sort of discussion on the state of the Browns. That has become increasingly more common with the primary AM and FM sports talk stations of northeast Ohio both becoming affiliated as radio homes of the Browns beginning in 2013.
The most common topic of conversation may be the revolving door of quarterbacks who have suited up in a starting role under center on the field, but after the team gets several ugly losses into its season, the forum quickly turns to talking about the next season’s collegiate draft.
The NFL draft has grown to become Cleveland’s Super Bowl. However, mediocre selections have left the organization losing that big game as well. For one night though, it is a party of hope and curiosity in Ohio.
At times, it seemed like the only instances the Indians were breached as a topic by radio hosts in the city was when the hot button attendance card was played. While it was a necessary evil to address, especially with the negative light it put on the city on game highlights across the country, it felt like a small and meaningless hat tip to the team without acknowledging much of substance regarding actual on-the-field activities. Their percentage of airtime improved over the final weeks of the season, but could not make up for six-plus months of general neglect and avoidance.
For the Indians, poor attendance is hardly a new thing. The city was spoiled by the perfect storm in the 1990s, when large sellout crowds and winning teams were the norm in town. But for a team who has played winning baseball in nearly half of the last 15 seasons, without the massive payrolls of New York, Boston, Los Angeles, or Chicago, the attendance is beyond paltry and borders on putrid.
In 2012, the Indians were, like this past season, at the bottom of the pack in baseball with the 29th-worst attendance in the game. Since 2003, the Indians have finished the season no higher than 21st in average home attendance (2007 – 28,448). They finished dead last in 2010 with an average of 17,435 and less than 1.4 million tickets sold.
The Indians have occupied a home in Cleveland in the American League since 1901 as one of its eight charter members. While they have a storied history and have seen some of the greats of the game represent the city in uniform, they do not have a track record for success, especially when it comes to playoffs.
This season’s Wild Card birth marked the eleventh time in 113 years that the Indians played in the postseason. Eight of those eleven seasons have come since the inclusion of expanded playoffs, beginning with their World Series season of 1995.
They have won their division on ten different occasions, and again, the majority has come in the Jacobs Field/Progressive Field era. The three exceptions are the three previous World Series visits for the club – 1920, 1948, and 1954.
Sixty-one different times the Indians have finished a season with a record of .500 or better. It is hardly a threshold for success, but does show that the Indians have been able to be on the winning side of ball games more often than in the loss column. Forty-one different times the Indians have finished the year in the top half of the AL in attendance.
After the team’s World Series sweep at the hands of the New York Giants in 1954, the team finished in second place in the division in the next two years. They were third in the AL in attendance in 1955 and fell to seventh of eight teams in 1956. Over the remaining 37 years that the team played at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the team finished higher than fourth place in the division just twice. Not surprisingly, the team finished in the top half of AL attendance just three times – 1959’s second place 89-65 team, 1965’s fifth place 87-75 team that marked the return of Rocky Colavito, and the final season at the Stadium in 1993.
Some of their best attended years have been linked to winning teams. Attendance exceeded 1.5 million fans during a successful stretch of the late 1940s, the final season at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in 1993, and in all but one year since opening Jacobs Field.
While the extended history would lead one to believe that the Indians would have a much more loyal and rooted fan base, the Browns have taken full advantage of the attention given by the football fans of the city.
The Browns have reached the playoffs 28 times in their history. If this season’s squad fails to reach the postseason as it appears will be the case, it will be the 37th such occurrence for the organization.
If you eliminate the new Browns from the equation, the original incarnation of the franchise played in the postseason in 27 of their first 50 seasons (54%).
Browns fans, especially those old enough to have been around for the more successful version of the team, grew up on winning right from the beginning of the franchise in 1946.
The Browns won the league championship in each of their first four years of existence in the All-American Football Conference and their first season in the NFL. They finished the 1948 regular season with a perfect 14-0 record and defeated the Buffalo Bills in the AAFC championship, 49-7, for a 15th win for the season. In the four years of the AAFC before it ceased operations and three of its teams moved into the rival NFL, the Browns were the only league champions.
After losing in three consecutive conference championships to follow from 1951 through 1953, they won back-to-back NFL Championships in 1954 and 1955. They claimed the city’s final championship in 1964 in a game that pre-dated the Super Bowl. The Browns remain one of four teams to never play in a Super Bowl.
Prior to the move to Baltimore following the completion of the 1995 season, the Browns had never played more than seven years without a playoff game (1973 through 1979). Failure to reach the postseason in 2013 will give the new Browns their eleventh season since their last playoff game in 2002.
While the Browns may have had the more successful and decorated pasts between the two clubs, the Indians have been the better of the two over the last two decades. The Browns fans may be holding out for that long absent taste of yesteryear, when the team had to have been much more enjoyable to watch.
Why do fans in Cleveland continue to support the current losing Browns team and its seemingly ever-changing combinations of front office representatives, head coaches, and quarterbacks in charge, but cannot seem to get behind and support an Indians team that has seen its greatest period of consistency on the field in the last two decades of its century-plus run in the city?
The Browns may have capitalized on securing the Cleveland fan base with their runs in the 1950s and 1960s and again in the 1980s. When the Indians were enduring some of their longest stretches of failure on the field, the Browns were oftentimes playing at their best and giving the city something to be proud of, even if the end results failed to bring Cleveland a championship. Coincidentally enough, when the Browns were at their worst in the 1970s, the Indians were stuck in the AL East basement.
Do sports fans in Cleveland just not have the attention span of a 162-game baseball season?
With 81 home game options over the course of the spring and summer, fans have a wide range of games to attend. With plenty of complaints about ticket prices for Indians games, ball park fares, downtown parking, and construction, the same obstacles do not seem to deter Browns fans, despite the elevated prices of tickets and parking for NFL games and the same maze of construction barrels that are not up in support of the orange and brown.
The Browns may benefit a bit from a shorter schedule and the basic principals behind supply and demand. The NFL sports a short 16 game schedule in a 17 week season spread over four months. With just eight home games each season, there is one-tenth the number of options for fans to catch a Browns game than those looking to watch an Indians game in Cleveland.
Couple that with the absence of the NFL in Cleveland from 1996-1998, Browns fans remain in attendance, despite the consistently lackluster product on the field and the uncertainties year in and year out of the decision makers at the helm of the ship.
As the weather matchups get unfavorable later in the season and if the visiting teams are unappealing matchups, the vacant seats will increase, but never to the levels that the Indians have endured. Baseball, more of a summer type of sport, loses some fans in the early rainy season and cooler fall weeks at the backend of its schedule. Football, especially that which is played on the Great Lakes, will play on through the rougher and colder weather of the fall and winter and fans seem that much more willing to bundle up, gather for some pregame tailgating, and tolerate the winds, the rains, and the snow, much more so than baseball fans bear weather below 50 degrees.
It seems as though once football training camp begins, a sizeable segment of sports fans in the city abandon hope and attention from the Indians and divert it all to football, despite the teams only having a once-a-week scheduling conflict for a month or so.
While there is steady banter about Cleveland being a Browns town or a Tribe town, the third and youngest child in the Cleveland sports family, the National Basketball Association’s 44-year-old Cavaliers, does not seem to equate in the mix at all, despite sharing two full months of its schedule with the Browns and a couple of weeks of its regular season with the Indians.
As the Browns eye another high first round draft pick and pursue the “quarterback of the future”, again, the Indians have constructed one of the better teams of players in recent years with an established, qualified, and revered manager in the dugout.
What will it take for you to support the Indians and the Browns simultaneously? How much more do the Indians need to do to have their fair share of support in this “Browns Town”? Will there come a point, if the Browns continue to miss opportunities in an aging AFC North, that the blind, undying allegiance and acceptance of mediocre football in this city will start to mirror the lack of support that has been given the Indians franchise throughout their history?
What will it take to end Cleveland’s double standard?
Photo: Tracy Boulian/Cleveland Plain Dealer