Time and time again throughout the 2013 season, the attendance at Progressive Field has been a topic of discussion.
After low attendance totals through the cold and windy month of April, it was said that fan participation would increase with warmer weather and the end of the school year for local students. As the season rolled on, the Indians remained in contention, and yet, the number of empty green seats always seemed to outnumber the number of fans who showed.
The excuses from the fan base continued to trickle in all year long.
“They’re not good enough to take down the Tigers.”
“They’ll just blow it just like they do every year.”
“Somebody will get hurt.”
“It’s just a matter of time until Ubaldo turns back into the Ubaldo we know.”
“They won’t do anything at the deadline.”
“They’ll never win as long as the Dolans own the team.”
“Tickets/parking/food/merchandise cost(s) too much.”
“There’s too much construction.”
The problem is that the Indians are an exciting, young team that made the playoffs and deserved the support they never truly got from their local fan base, at least in person. When the season concluded, Cleveland trailed the Detroit Tigers by just one game, the closest race of the six divisions in baseball.
After years of questionable talent, injuries, and journeymen fill-ins on the roster, the Indians opened up the check book after the 2012 season to rebuild not just the product on the field, but the leadership in the clubhouse. Enter Terry Francona and his coaching staff at the helm. Insert veterans Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, neither of whom fit the club’s notable spending habits of the last decade, with intelligent acquisitions of Ryan Raburn, Scott Kazmir and Jason Giambi.
These players plugged in right around a bevy of guys who had begun to make names for themselves in the city. Justin Masterson anchored the rotation. Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera had played at All-Star levels. Carlos Santana was a breakout player waiting to happen. Love him or hate him, fans knew the name “Chris Perez”.
With hopes high under Francona with his new band of merry men, the team averaged just under 15,200 fans per gate in their first homestand, abbreviated by the weather and usual chilly spring air of the region. The figures were highlighted by the 41,567 for the home opener loss against the New York Yankees and the embarrassingly low 9,143 who watched a 7-2 loss to the Boston Red Sox eight days later. Ubaldo Jimenez was the losing pitcher of record in both.
By mid-May, a six-game homestand against Seattle and Detroit drew 20,821 per game, aided by the first fireworks display of the season on May 17th. A month later, a nine-game stretch, including three interleague games with Washington, drew 21,776 per day.
The number climbed to 23,002 for a ten-game set in mid-July, but it was still far off from the expectations of a rebuilt roster with a beloved new manager and a team well within striking distance in second place in the American League Central Division. That series included the only other game after the home opener that the Indians drew more than 35,000 people in a home ball game (July 5th vs. Detroit; 40,167).
They eclipsed the 30,000 mark in a game for just the fifth of seven times during the regular season on August 10th against the Angels. In that seven-game set, they averaged 25,607 bodies in the seats.
The number present at home games struggled mightily in September as the team began to fade a bit in the divisional race. A loaded AL East and a hot battle between Oakland and Texas in the AL West made the AL Wild Card a near impossibility, and fans showed their concerns by not attending. Twice on their second-to-last homestand of the season they failed to draw even 10,000.
They wrapped up the home season with 30,942 to see the Indians win their sixth straight game when they knocked off the White Sox, 7-2, for their 17th win over the Pale Hose on the season.
The Indians clinched the Wild Card on the road at Target Field a few days later. Thankfully, fans got the memo to support their team in the first meaningful October baseball game in one half-dozen years.
They came out in droves on Wednesday, October 2nd, eliminating at least one potentially embarrassing black eye for the city of Cleveland by filling up the park in sellout capacity to the tune of 43,579. The fans were loud, but the results of the Indians’ offense were quiet as they lost their first playoff game since 2007 by a 4-0 final.
The Indians drew 1,572,926 fans in 2013, the second-lowest attendance total in all of baseball and better only than their AL Wild Card opponent. Cleveland’s average of 19,661 people per game was the third worst effort by fans in baseball, better than just Tampa Bay and the Miami Marlins.
So where were the fans this season?
Once upon a time, the stadium at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario was the destination in Cleveland.
The Indians were a juggernaut on the field and around the country with the fans, boasting one of the most feared and potent lineups the game had ever seen.
The problem is that the benchmark of 455 straight sellout crowds at Jacobs Field, established between June 12th, 1995 and April 4th, 2001, was set under almost impossible and very undesirable circumstances for the city of Cleveland to recreate. The streak, permanently adorned with the other retired numbers of the organization, was the longest in Major League Baseball history until the Boston Red Sox shattered the mark in 2008 at Fenway Park and ended the new standard for all major professional sports at 820 games (including playoffs) earlier this year.
The streak of sellouts occurred during the proverbial “perfect storm” for the Indians.
They moved into a beautiful new state-of-the-art ballpark in downtown Cleveland after spending more than 60 years in Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The park at the lakefront had long since seen its best days and was a cavernous affair compared to some of the newer parks springing up around the league.
Gone during the Indians’ attendance dominance were the Cleveland Browns, the Indians’ running mates at Cleveland Municipal Stadium for the bulk of its existence. Art Modell and his band of cronies robbed the city of football in 1995, running off to Baltimore and leaving a void in Cleveland sports fans’ attention spans. After five straight playoff seasons to end the 1980s, the Browns had stumbled to mediocrity, reaching the playoffs in 1994 and just once (2002) since returning to the league in 1999. They have posted winning records in just two years since their expansion season.
Present was a successful Cleveland Cavaliers franchise that too had moved into a new home at Gund Arena adjacent to the ball park at the Gateway Complex, 30 minutes north of their old home at the Coliseum at Richfield. The Cavs were at the backend of a period of ten winning seasons in an eleven year span under the coaching of Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens and Mike Fratello. They made the playoffs in nine of those eleven years, but just twice made it out of the first round. But by the end of the 1990s, future names in the rafters Larry Nance, Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, and Wilkens were gone, replaced by new jerseys and the likes of Shawn Kemp, Brevin Knight, Derek Anderson, Danny Ferry, and a young Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Six consecutive losing seasons were on the agenda for the Cavs before all of the ping pong balls in the hopper bounced the way for Cleveland to draft a new “hometown” hero.
With so much postseason action and such meager results, Cleveland fans were hungry for a winner.
Meanwhile, the Flats downtown were bustling. The population decline of the city of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County improved as the region decreased its pace of lost residents, as that rate slowed during the 1990s. Median household income was on a rise, but still left Cleveland near the bottom of the largest cities in the United States. The suburbs around the city showed slight population growth.
A whole new generation of fans was being ushered in to competitive baseball in October on the shores of Lake Erie. Including the ballpark’s inaugural season in 1994, the team was competitive and among the top teams in their division until 2001. They strung together eight straight winning seasons in a row, including six division titles in a seven year span. The winning ways represented 14% of the total number of winning seasons in franchise history. Prior to their playoff birth in 1995, the Indians had not seen postseason play since 1954 and had done so just three times in franchise history (1920; 1948).
The team was built the right way. Home grown stars like Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Charles Nagy, Jaret Wright, Bartolo Colon, and CC Sabathia were supplemented with young prospects via trades (Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, and Omar Vizquel) and surrounded with solid veteran presences (Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser, Eddie Murray, Matt Williams, Travis Fryman, and Roberto Alomar, to name a few).
Fans of the Indians from the mid-1990’s can still recite manager Mike Hargrove’s lineups like poetry. The names are forever cemented in our memories while the new era of ball players are still forced to live up to the expectations set forth by those of yesteryear. Lofton and Vizquel. Baerga, Belle, Murray. Thome. Manny. Paul Sorrento. Sandy.
The names would occasionally change. The results on the field did not. Between 1995 and 2001, the Indians won no fewer than 86 games per season and only once failed to clinch the division title.
Playoffs became the expected, the norm. Two World Series appearances rejuvenated the city, with three additional losses in the ALDS and one ALCS defeat in 1998.
The Indians drew 3,175,523 fans in 2001, their third consecutive season of three million fans or more. Their attendance total was third of the 14 American League teams and fourth overall in all of baseball. They averaged 39,694 per home contest.
That offseason, Cleveland traded Roberto Alomar on December 11, 2001, for Matt Lawton and four prospects. The Indians fell to 74-88 in 2002 and the team fired longtime Indians coach Charlie Manuel. They traded Colon, Russell Branyan, Paul Shuey, and Chuck Finley, and netted Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Ben Broussard, Coco Crisp, and several other prospects. They added several journeyman and fleeced Travis Hafner from the Texas Rangers in a lopsided trade heading into 2003. Thome and Nagy left via free agency, as Ramirez and Belle had in previous years.
The Indians tried to retool and restructure in one season, but the efforts did not show. They finished six games worse under first-year manager Eric Wedge. They dropped to 12th in attendance with 2.6 million through the turnstiles. They averaged 32,307 per home game and saw more than a half of a million fewer fans.
The next year, the team dropped to fourth place in the AL Central standings and to 12th in the American League attendance figures with an average of 21,358 fans per game in 2003.
Since the rebuilding season of 2002, the Indians have exceeded two million fans just three times.
Bad luck was involved. Prospects never reached their potential. The team drafted poorly. Key players always seemed to succumb to injury. The pieces never fit together all at the same time.
Gradually, the Indians’ postseason chances became less and less likely, the Browns reclaimed their death grip on the city, and the Cavs got better. Attendance dropped at the Indians’ home downtown, as did their payroll and their place in the AL rankings.
Attendance this past season was the second-lowest total the Indians have seen in the last 21 years.
Things have certainly changed over that time.
Population, job market, and culture changes have quietly made viewing a game in person less likely. Prices of tickets, ballpark fare, parking, and a lack of understanding about the various dynamic pricing options and secondary market ticket options all cloud getting fans into seats at Progressive Field.
If this past season’s #TribeTown public relations campaign taught us anything, even though the Indians have been in town since 1901, Cleveland has been a Browns town circa 1946. Just make sure to ignore that win-loss column though for maximum viewing pleasure, and please don’t let it prohibit you from supporting that losing team blindly, year in and year out, like lemmings off of a cliff.
There are those fans who have yet to forgive the Dolan ownership group, team president Mark Shapiro, and general manager Chris Antonetti for not only trading consecutive Cy Young winning pitchers in Sabathia and Lee, but for not acquiring any future star players in the salary-related moves years ago.
Historically, Indians’ attendance has never been all that great though. Looking back over the first 93 years of the franchise, the team drew more than a million and a half fans six times (1947-1951; 1993). In 20 years at Jacobs Field/Progressive Field, the Indians have failed to exceed that figure just one time (1,391,644 in 2010) and eleven times have drawn more than two million fans. Unsuccessful teams and low attendance totals dance in an endless cycle with one another, leaving all involved dissatisfied.
With such a noticeable disadvantage in the seats of Progressive Field, is it so inconceivable to think that Cleveland cannot continue to support three professional sports franchises? Could the Indians, continuing to draw well below that of other “small market” teams around the country, find more prosperity and revenue by relocating to another city?
Some Indians fans may have faced that nightmare and overcome it once, thanks to manager Lou Brown and his ragtag bunch of losers ruining the Miami relocation dreams of showgirl-turned-owner Rachel Phelps in the movie Major League. Clevelanders as a whole, however, had to endure the Browns leaving; that should serve notice enough that relocation could happen again.
The attendance woes for the Cleveland Indians make it difficult for them to contend with the more affluent teams around the league. Stuck in a small market city with few people attending games in person, the extra revenue to pump into the team, like Dick Jacobs was able to do for the successful Indians’ teams of the 1990s, is not there.
Will 2014 be the season that the fans begin to return to Progressive Field? Will fans remain scared away and refuse to support an exciting and relatable team that turned a 24-game improvement in the win column in 2013 and reached the playoffs? Or are the days of the larger capacity crowds at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario a relic of yesteryear, a product of a perfect storm of events occurring in the city simultaneously?
Photo: USA Today