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. Today, we look at changes in society and Cleveland since the end of the Perfect Storm.
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From the Perfect Storm to the Indians Attendance Disaster by Bob Toth
In 2013, the Cleveland Indians were 92-70, good for a tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the seventh best record in Major League Baseball.
The Indians drew 1,572,926 fans in 2013, good 29th out of 30 Major League Baseball in front of just the Tampa Bay Rays.
Those two statistics don’t add up. Especially not in Cleveland, a town that prides itself on its undying passion for their sports teams.
After years of fan frustration, the Indians opened their purse strings and spent $117 million last winter to improve the roster for new manager Terry Francona. For years fans resented Larry and Paul Dolan for not spending money on the free agents.
“It’s not the right time to spend. No question about that,” said Paul Dolan at the general managers/owners meetings in 2010, after back-to-back 90+ loss seasons. “It’s not the right time to spend in the cycle of this franchise.”
The Indians attendance problem isn’t new news, but this past season is one of the first times the Indians put a competitive, contending team on the field, yet fans did not show up. The old adage, “if you build it, they will come,” did not hold true for the 2013 Cleveland Indians. The Dolans spent money and the team competed. They and general manager Chris Antonetti built a team, but the fans did not come.
The reasons may or may not be valid, but they are plentiful. Many of the reasons why fans don’t show up from the Perfect Storm (1995-2001) years have been documented, but let’s break down some of the old explanations (hopefully with a new look) and maybe uncover a couple new reasons to why the Indians drew just less than half of what they drew did in 2001—when they went 91-71, a game worse than this season.
Change in Population
It’s one of the deceiving statistics in the attendance discussion. It seems a common belief that people are leaving Ohio and northeast Ohio due to the economic crunch and the loss of jobs in the area. While jobs have left Ohio, the people have not. Approximately the same amount of people live in Ohio and northeast Ohio as they did during the 2000 and 2010 census. Unemployment has risen, thus creating less expendable income for fans to use on entertainment like baseball games, but all the people are here.
The only thing that has changed in terms of population is that people are moving out of the city of Cleveland. Less people live in Cleveland (390,928) than at any other point in the last 100 years.
But while Cleveland has managed to keep its citizens at least in the outlying areas, other cities have continued to grow. Currently, Cleveland is the smallest city in the United States to have a baseball, basketball and football team. Only Pittsburgh is smaller and has three of the four major sports franchises.
Worse yet, many cities—substantially bigger than Cleveland—don’t have three major sports teams. Portland (603,106), Baltimore (621,342) only have two teams each and even Indianapolis (834,852) and Columbus (809,798) are more than double Cleveland’s size, but have only two major league sports franchises. Give Columbus credit for Ohio State. They’re treated, funded and supported like a big league franchise.
So, while the business of sports has continued to get more expensive in the modern era, Cleveland has lost jobs and expendable income to support teams. All the people are still here, but when Cleveland got the Cavaliers the city was the 10th largest in the United States. Now, it’s 48th overall.
The price of professional sports is rising and there are bigger cities, with more money and better climates to play and watch them in. The cost of sports is more, while we don’t have any more people available to share in the cost of a game day experience, yet we have more game days than any city our size.
The Cavaliers drew an average of 16,192 fans for the 2012-2013 season that saw them finish with the fourth worst record in the NBA. In 2013, the Indians drew just an average of 19,661 per game. If Cleveland can no longer support three major sports franchises, the race may be on to survive as the city’s second team behind the Browns. The Cavs may be winning the race and a more sizeable fit for a now small city than trying to fill a stadium for 81 home baseball games.
Kids are Different
Believe me, kids are different. I’m not talking about from the days of when your grandfather walked up hill to school, both ways and televisions were in black and white. I’ve been a high school teacher for 13 years and coach for 12 of them. Kids are drastically different in just that time.
I’m 34-years old. As a kid growing up on the west side, I’ve loved baseball since I started playing when I was seven years old and my dad took me to my first game at Municipal Stadium in June 1986. I played baseball growing up, played high school team and was a two-year starter. It was my dream to be good enough to be on the varsity team and start. I played every summer to get better so that I could keep my spot or improve my role on the team.
As a teacher and coach, I can tell you that’s not the case with this generation.
Not just do kids not go play pick up games on a sandlot, most don’t even play Little League any more. We now live in a world where summers are reserved for travelling teams and the hopes of catching the eye of a college coach or professional scout at a big, national tournament. Kids take private lessons with their hitting coach and another lesson with their pitching coach. Teenagers work out at baseball academies with coaches who make promises of a college scholarship if their parents keep spending thousands of dollars a year for instruction, travel and uniforms each summer. I’ve coached too many kids to count any more who play 50-80 games in a summer all over the country. That’s in addition to football activities and 7-on-7 scrimmages before official football practice begins in early August. Many high school sports like baseball and basketball, are just the “warm-ups” for what players and parents perceive as a serious summer schedule of exposure.
The specialization and emphasis of sports has never been greater. That’s not just a baseball thing, it applies for all youth sports. But it also takes those kids who had a free Tuesday night to go down to the stadium with their dad in my generation away from Progressive Field. Teenagers don’t have time to go to an Indians game if they are going to get their 50 games in before football practice begins.
Even worse yet, it isn’t just a high school thing. I know competitive, travel teams that play that many games for kids as young as nine or 10 years old.
So kids don’t have time to go to Indians games, because they are too busy going from one tournament to the next and parents are spending all their extra income to give their child a chance at a scholarship instead of going to a ball game. For some parents, they probably feel like they don’t have a choice. How will they fund their child’s college tuition, if not with a scholarship?
I don’t remember the last time I saw a Little League team at Progressive Field watching an Indians game.
20-Somethings are Different Too
Once teenagers realize their professional or college sports dreams will not come true, they take out loans like the rest of us non-athletes for college. Unfortunately, when they finish college with a degree in hand, jobs are not as plentiful as they used to be.
More and more 20-somethings are struggling to find jobs in a tough economy, just like the rest of us. No longer is a college education the guarantee of a good paying job. Therefore, more and more 20-somethings are still living with their parents, not working in their desired field. Many aren’t moving out from under mom and dad’s roof because they don’t have a stable income to pay for groceries, rent or a mortgage. Those that do move out, often have roommates to split living expenses. Even though they don’t have a full-time job, they already have those school loans to pay for (for that degree to the job they can’t find).
Many Clevelanders remember how much better their life was 10 years ago, economically. The young generation hasn’t ever had anything to lose.
So, after not attending Indians games as a teenager because you were too busy it suddenly becomes easy to trim the fat on their budget by continuing to not go to Indians games.
Not to mention, the speed of a baseball game is not the pace of the young generation. Teenagers and 20-somethings live in an immediate, internet based world. They like video games where they can communicate with others via a headset and texting instead of phone calls. Well-educated, employed 20-somethings read websites, not newspapers, for their information. It’s a high-speed world and baseball is not really a high speed game.
Young people don’t go to a baseball game and enjoy the sunshine and conversation with their friends. They text each other, sometimes from across the room. Four hours to talk is a nightmare for most people under the age 30.
Not to mention your cellphone battery evaporates at a ballpark by the fourth inning.
The Evolution of Television and Technology
Going along with the economic changes and the social changes in people since 2000, our technology has evolved immensely. When I was a child and my dad took me to my first baseball game in 1986, I remember how green the grass was and how bright the colors were in the ballpark. We hear stories of children entering baseball cathedrals in previous generations all the time.
Now, we have high-definition television sets. The grass is green and beautiful every night. That excitement of entering the ballpark for the first time is lost because we see the same image at home.
And while Indians attendance was embarrassing, their television ratings were higher than they’ve been in recent seasons. Lack of attendance doesn’t appear to be a lack of interest. Fans are just choosing to watch the games at home on their larger than ever, flat screen televisions.
In the new technological world, you can have more social interaction from your couch than ever. You still aren’t restricted to a conversation with just friends, you have the world available via Twitter and social media. Now, you can easily converse, instantly, as game action happens with hundreds of people at the same time.
Again, cellphones and internet don’t work so well at Progressive Field. For some, going to the game actually limits interaction.
It appears Major League Baseball understands this as they have an initiative to their teams to improve internet in their ballparks. At the end of last season the Indians installed cellphone charging stations and are believed to be increasing connectivity for the 2014 season.
MLB also understands the importance of television better than most of us. Both national and local television deals. MLB completed its most lucrative national television deal after the 2012 season, valued at $12.4 billion. Locally SportsTime Ohio was sold to Fox Sports last winter for $230 million. They’ll pay $40 million per season for the next ten years for the rights to broadcast Indians baseball.
That’s a lot of money dedicated to television broadcasts and advertising. It’s likely television revenues for most teams now are more important than ticket sales.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland.com