The Indians Would Never Move…Would They?

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 examine if the Indians could one day move from Cleveland.

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
Why is Cleveland a Browns Town? by Bob Toth
A Youthful Approach to Getting Your Money’s Worth at an Indians Game by Laurel Wilder
Indians Baseball is Affordable for the Entire Family by Laurel Wilder


For decades, the Cleveland Indians have had a well-documented attendance problem that inevitably results in the R-word that Clevelanders have first-hand experience in hating.


For about a decade starting in the late 1950’s, relocation talk was a hot topic around the shores of Lake Erie.  The cities of Oakland, Seattle, Houston and New Orleans all tried to poach our baseball team away from us, and before Vernon Stouffer (yes, the bread guy) bought the franchise, it seemed as if the team was probably headed to the Pacific Northwest. 

Stouffer became an investor in the team in 1964 and bought 80% of the franchise in 1966 for only $8 million.  Doing his best to keep the Indians in Cleveland despite losing money, he arranged a $2.5 million deal with some New Orleans investors to have the team play 30 games each season in the New Orleans Superdome starting in 1974.  Because of this more profitable agreement, Stouffer rejected an offer from future Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for a proposed $10 million.  Thankfully for Clevelanders, the American League balked at the agreement and rejected the idea of splitting the Indians between two fan bases.

The reason for all of the relocation talk and the idea of creating the Cleveland/New Orleans Indians was simple; attendance was down and the team was losing money.  Stouffer ended up selling the Tribe in 1972 to local Clevelander, Bowling Green State University alumni and then-Cavaliers owner Nick Mileti which assured the franchise’s place on the lakefront for as long as he owned the team.

History seemed to be repeating itself three decades later after the Indians great run in the 1990’s when current owner and Cleveland Heights native Larry Dolan purchased the team from Richard “Dick” Jacobs in 2000.  It seemed that the Indians place in Cleveland was safe for the foreseeable future, as a native Clevelander would never move a franchise like Art Modell did when he took the Browns to Baltimore just six years earlier.

Few things are as they seem, however.

The current Indians are safe for the time being, but the recent attendance issues must be taking their toll on the current regime as well.  Despite the Indians signing big name free agents Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers, completing the franchise’s biggest turnaround in over a quarter of a century and making the postseason for the first time since 2007, the Indians finished 28th out of a total of 30 teams in nightly average attendance figures.

Progressive Field drew an average of just 19,661 fans per game through its turnstiles in 2013, ahead of only the Miami Marlins who drew 19,584 and the Tampa Bay Rays who drew 18,645.  The 45.3% of Progressive Field tickets sold was the lowest percentage in Major League baseball, “besting” the 29th ranked, 91-loss Seattle Mariners who sold 45.4% of their tickets this season.

Down the stretch, as the Indians were successfully fighting for their Wild Card dreams, the attendance numbers continued to dwindle.  Over the final, undefeated home stand, the Indians drew 134,721 fans over six games for an average of 22,453 fans per game.  The 22,453 fans fill just over 51.5% of Progressive Field’s capacity.  Prior to the “good” attendance numbers of the final stretch run, the Indians packed the corner of Ontario and Carnegie a pathetic 31% of the way full, averaging 13,525 fans per game.  Included in this stretch was a ballpark record-low for any of the 20 Septembers played there, as only 9,794 fans showed for a Monday night game against Wild Card rival Kansas City on September 9.  To make matters worse, the contest featured a fantastic pitching matchup between the Indians Ubaldo Jimenez and the Royals Ervin Santana.  The Indians took notice of the sparse crowds, but the team did not let it affect its play.

“We would like to be supported a little bit more if we could,” Bourn said in a Plain Dealer article on September 11.  “The extra man (fans) is a good thing to have.  It gets your blood flowing a little bit.”

The fact that the Indians are not drawing even during the middle of an exciting pennant race does not exactly bode well for the team’s future in Northeastern Ohio.  The Indians signed a lease extension in 2008 to keep the team at Progressive Field through at least the 2023 season.   Beyond that, the team’s future in Cleveland is anything but certain.

“Professional sports in general, you don’t want to budget like normal businesses where every year you have to make money or break even,” Team President Mark Shapiro said after the 2012 season. “You expect at certain points in competitive cycles you are probably going to outspend your projected revenue.”

If the Indians outspend that revenue enough over the next decade, don’t be surprised if they leave for greener pastures (pun intended).

It’s not to say that the Indians are not making any money…they could just probably make more money elsewhere.  Cleveland may or may not be the ideal spot to host three major sports teams, and history is not in the city’s favor involving teams that lose money. Major League Baseball teams have successfully relocated themselves a handful of times over the past half century, the most recent time occurring in 2004 when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington to become the Nationals.  Prior to that, it had been since the Senators moved out of DC to become the Texas Rangers in 1972 that a team had moved.  The last five franchises to relocate include the Nats, Rangers, Athletics, Braves and the Twins from way back in 1961 all remain in their relocated cities to this day.

The idea of the Indians leaving Cleveland seems like it may be far-fetched, but that’s the exact mindset that Browns fans had back in 1994.  The city shouldn’t feel blindsided like they did nearly two decades ago, because the writing is on the wall if it would happen again.  Destination cities have been speculated over the years as to where the Indians could go, from sources both local and national.

The most ideal spot for a new baseball team may be Northern New Jersey, as the Newark/New York area sports nearly 3.5 million people according to the 2010 Census.  The problem with moving to New Jersey, however, comes from the flack that they would receive from the other two franchises within 25 miles of Newark (Mets and Yankees) and the other that is less than 90 miles away (Phillies).

Other possible destinations mentioned by The Bleacher Report in 2011 include El Paso, Omaha, Louisville, Charlotte, Albuquerque, Sacramento, Boise, Portland, Memphis, San Antonio, Salt Lake City, Nashville, Indianapolis, Las Vegas and, of course, New Orleans.  In 2012, Baseball Prospectus lists the top ten locations that could support a baseball team as Norfolk, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Montreal (Canada), Monterrey (Mexico), San Antonio, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Portland, Sacramento and Newark.  Any of these locations could be a more hospitable location for the Indians than Cleveland—a city that’s population is decreasing and hit a 100-year low of 396,815 at the 2010 Census.  Perhaps a somewhat-less painful move to the middle of the state of Ohio to Columbus would make some sense as well.

If there is a disconnect between the Indians and their fans—as many think that there has been since they dealt back-to-back Cy Young Award winners in 2008 and 2009—the people of Cleveland need to bury the hatchet quickly or else they could have a horrible case of déjà vu about three decades after they lost the Browns.  The Indians have put a winning team on the field—a playoff team—and yet the ballpark seats remain empty.

“I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t believe in us,” Bourn said.  “This is a totally different team, totally different atmosphere in the clubhouse.  I think we deserve it.”

Not only do the current players deserve the support, fans in the stands can pull a better performance out a player as well.

“It’s very surprising after coming to the stadium every day (in the late 90’s),” former pitcher Dave Burba said of Cleveland’s attendance issues.  “I want the fans to realize that it does make the players play a little better.  When you come to the field and you know that the stadium is sold out.  Hell, it was fun for me even when I wasn’t playing, knowing that I’m going to a field that is sold out.  Just the electricity that it brings to the field and excitement that it brings to the players—they do play at a different level because they know the fans are backing them.  The more that they can do that, the better product you’re going to have on the baseball field.”

It’s a product that the Indians have proved to be the most recently-productive of any of the three teams in the city.

It’s a product that has a history of having a wavering commitment to the city.

It’s a product that we could lose if we don’t take better care of it.

Of course, relocation is all speculation and just a far-fetched, extreme example of something that would never really happen.  At least, it would never happen again…lightning could never strike the same place twice.


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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Cleveland is tired of losers ,, and cost ,,a
    lot of people cant afford to take there families after the economy crunch, and prices are ridiculous at the stadium

  2. Honestly i think people are just making excuses why not to go to the games i went to four games this year and i am a college student its really not that expensive. some food items are more expensive than others and ticket prices are not terrible but could be better.

    I have been a lifetime Indians fan been following the every years since 95 if the indians moved i don’t know what i would do

  3. I think this has been a thoughtfully-written series, but I do hope the implication isn’t that the entire onus is on the fans here.

    Few fan bases would be vibrant, even today, for a team that went from 1960 through 1993 without coming anywhere near contention — the first 15 or so coming before the advent of free agency, when all a team had to do was scout reasonably well and be assured that a strong team could stay together year after year. Remember, baseball is generational. Habits learned during this period were passed down to two generations of fans, and when the 1994-2001 run ended, it was all too easy for many to assume that the team was simply returning to its prolonged slumber. It’s clear to fans who pay attention that the Indians organization is much better than it was during the 35-year nightmare, but for the casual fan, the distinction may not be so obvious.

    Yes, the teams of 2005 and 2007 were very good, but fans had every right to expect a run of contention that should have lasted at least into the following seasons, in both cases. Personally, I loved the 2013 Indians, and went to see them whenever I could, but I can understand why it took a while for most fans to warm up to a club that had been dismal over the last five seasons — especially when a very strong start in 2011 and a pretty good first half in ’12 gave way to collapses after the All-Star break.

    I guess what I’m saying is, sure — fans should be more supportive of the Indians. But the Indians must keep up their end of the bargain, regardless of what happens with the Browns or Cavs.

    As far as I’m concerned, the Browns and Cavs should be held to the same standard; the fact that some people choose to love the Browns unconditionally is irritating, but has nothing to do with the Indians’ draft choices, trades, in-game strategies or anything else. The bar cannot be “they’ve been been better than the other teams in town.”

    1. Dave, I don’t think our intention is/was ever to say that the onus is solely on the fan to attend more games. I think it is more an exploration of why the Indians have an attendance problem. I don’t think there is much question that they have an issue. Personally, I thought it was better to look at it from several issues, hopefully some new ones, than just write a column in the middle of the season like many sites and media outlets do. I think there are many reasons why attendance is poor and I hope we outlined many of them last week. Your points are very valid too. I think this season will be very telling as to how fans react and attend. If the Indians put another quality team on the field, hopefully they can convince more of the common fan of a change in attitude and approach versus the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

  4. I appreciate the clarification, Mike, and as I said, I do think this has been a thoughtful series. And I certainly hope the team can keep up some of the momentum it has built up, despite the free agent losses that have again already been sustained.

    I think I was reacting primarily to this sentence:

    “It’s a product that we could lose if we don’t take better care of it.”

    This is essentially the point of view taken by most of the Cleveland media, and implied in items about the attendance problem that appear in the national press, and it always sounds to me like a unilateral indictment of the fan base because it can’t live in the moment — even though no fan base lives in the moment. Attendance is always dependent on what has happened in the previous season, and probably the last two or three.

    My perspective is that most markets, regardless of size, would be experiencing this kind of reaction if the team hadn’t been winning lately, even if there hadn’t been a three-decade-and-a-half period of irrelevance. The exceptions are places like Wrigley Field (where attendance is down, if not drastically), Angels Stadium, and a handful of others. In most markets, the team has to be reasonably competitive to draw well.

    It should be underscored that the one team that was relocated in the last 40 years was moved because MLB could point to an inadequate stadium as a major factor in its decision. Every time teams have made credible threats to move and didn’t — the Giants nearly moving to Toronto, the White Sox almost moving to St. Petersburg, etc., it was because there was the promise of a better playing facility for the club. With that in mind, the situations in Tampa Bay and Oakland are much bigger concerns at this point for Bud Selig and his associates. Those teams have won more consistently and still have attendance problems. I imagine many who read this will agree that if the Indians were winning like the A’s or Rays do, year in and year out, nobody would be having this discussion because they would be no worse than the middle of the pack in terms of attendance, even with the loss in population.

    (The Braves’ move to Cobb County is quite different, since they will remain the Atlanta Braves, and no one in MLB was putting pressure on them to replace Turner Field.)

    I realize that this article pointed to relocation as a concern once the Progressive Field lease runs out in 2023, but my goodness — who knows what dynamics will be in play, on any number of levels, by that point? Before 2023 arrives, baseball is going to have to figure out how it can possibly sustain the insane growth of television rights contracts, as sport’s TV audience skews older and more cable subscribers push back against rising subscription fees. It’s going to have to resolve the steroid thing. It’s going to have to address several broad issues that are going to take precedence over a “let’s relocate the Indians” effort.

    In any case, thank you for offering a cogent look at all of this. I love the Indians. I actually wish they got more credit, generally, for being a good franchise. It was one of the best in all of baseball for the first 60 years or so of its existence, with a .528 winning percentage through 1963, third behind only the Yankees (.583) and Giants (.555).**

    If they’d won just a couple of more pennants, or one championship during the ’90s run, I think it would have made a lot of difference. I mean, nobody seems to White Sox (last season aside) as a sad sack organization, and they have just one more pennant than the Indians (six), and one more World Series championship.

    Maybe they can figure out a way to make another run, and as you said, change some minds.

    **Baseball Prospectus, “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book,” pg. 132.

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