If You Build It, They Still Won’t Come
Jonathan Knight | On 08, May 2015
Let’s pause our panicky discussions about the dumpster fire the Tribe is making out of the season to talk about another flaming hot mess.
While America shook its collective head in wonder a week ago when the Baltimore Orioles played a game in an empty ballpark, we in Cleveland saw the haunting photos of barren Camden Yards and shuddered at the similarities to a typical night at Progressive Field.
This is meant not as a snarky jab, but rather to point out a rather gargantuan disappointment. For all the work the Indians did and the millions of dollars they spent improving their ballpark in the offseason, they still can’t get butts in the seats.
Over their first 12 home games, the Indians have averaged 15,822 fans – dead last in Major League Baseball and nearly 2,000 under their overall season average for last year. It’s also nearly 4,000 under their clip for both 2013 and 2012, and a whopping 7,000 less fans per game than what they averaged in 2011.
It would appear Cleveland is going to make a run at repeating as the least-supportive home fans in baseball – at least in terms of, you know, physically being there. Plus, this would be the third time in six years the Tribe would take home that little trophy, making the Indians the New York Yankees of fan apathy.
If this keeps up, the season attendance total wouldn’t quite be low enough to allow Rachel Phelps to move the team to Miami, but it would be the smallest of the Jacobs/Progressive Field era.
But – just like the apologists have been saying about the Tribe on the field for the last three weeks – it’s early. It’s been relatively cold, school’s still going, blah-blah-blah.
Still, you’d figure there’d be at least some novelty factor kicking in over these first few weeks. With all the attention paid to the ballpark renovations, shouldn’t there be a little bit of a bump from people curious to see what’s new? It would appear that isn’t happening. The Indians just put a multi-million dollar patio in their backyard and everybody’s still hanging out down the basement.
On the other hand, if you factor in past history, maybe Progressive Field 2.0 has indeed made a difference – albeit one that’s only visible if you squint. If there’s a silver lining, the 15,822 is actually the best the Indians have drawn over their first 12 home dates of a season since 2009. A year ago, for example, they averaged 1,700 less per home game in the first 12 games.
While vaguely encouraging, you’ve got to ask yourself: is 1,700 more fans per game worth what the Indians poured into Progressive Field in the last six months?
To be fair, there’s still time for that number to swell. Even in anemic attendance years, things don’t pick up until May, and really, not until after Memorial Day. Maybe then the new whistles will start blowing and the Indians themselves will stop.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the Indians’ on-field performance doesn’t make a difference one way or the other. Unless things turn around dramatically at the ticket office, all the money and effort the Indians put into these renovations (none of which were publicly funded, bee-tee-dubs) will be for naught.
And if that’s the case, since the last two seasons pretty much eliminated the “you-can’t-put-a-competitive-team-on-the-field” justification for absence, you’ve gotta think the Indians have just about fished their lake dry, at least in terms of luring fans through the turnstiles.
We can complain about the Dolans all we want, but here’s the reality: they could re-assemble another version of the 1995 Indians, but they’d still have a tough time getting 20,000 people out to see them. Distressing and hard to accept, but probably true.
You could write a term paper on the myriad reasons why, but the upshot is this: like a mouth-breathing mobster with gravy stains all over his polyester suit, the Browns own this town.
The Browns haven’t been (and won’t be) entertaining or competitive, and everything they’ve done (and will do) seems to reenact everything we hated about the 2008 financial crisis: continually act like a donkey and then get handsomely rewarded for it.
Only in this case, the bailout isn’t coming from the government, but from Cleveland fans themselves, who essentially have gleefully allowed the Browns to take automatic withdrawals out of their checking accounts each month. And it seems like the worse the Browns get, the more Cleveland adores them.
Meanwhile, the Indians sit and stew. Or should, anyway. For in the land of people with perfect vision, the blind man is king.
So for those who point bony fingers at the Dolans as being too cheap to put a good team together as the reason for the Indians’ attendance woes, the Browns have blown your argument out of the water. People in this town will happily pay to watch garbage. As long as it’s wearing an orange helmet. And now, Bozo the Clown brown pajamas, as well.
The Indians haven’t always done the right thing, and their mistakes are sometimes glaringly obvious. But – without the benefit of having a LeBron-shaped meteor landing in their lap twice – they’ve been the best-run organization in Cleveland over the past decade.
It’s just that nobody wants to watch them. And, short of asking the Browns to move again, there’s nothing that can be done about it.
Photo: AP Photo