Why is Cleveland Not a Tribe Town?

Today continues DTTWLN’s three week examination of the Indians’ 2014 season and where it fell short of the playoff expectations established last winter. The staff will examine where the season went wrong and the challenges the front office faces to make the Indians contenders in 2015.

It’s a concept that fans and media alike have discussed to no end. It’s been beaten into the ground and brought up more often than most people would probably like. Yes, that’s right, it’s the great attendance discussion and it’s related argument: Why isn’t Cleveland a Tribe Town?

We covered attendance for a week last year, examining the ways in which the Indians work to appeal to specific fan bases, what the ballpark has to offer fans, as well as why fans may not be coming in droves the same way they did in the ‘90’s.

Attendance did not improve this year, despite the effort to make the ballpark more appealing to a wide variety of fans. The Indians organization implemented Bro-hio to add a section of fandom and excitement into the stands, they continued their $4 beers, offered numerous Dollar Dog and fireworks nights, and attempted to appeal to fans in a number of ways. However, the numbers were still low.

Dynamic pricing is the reason, scream the fans. Put a winner on the field and then I’ll watch, they say. The game is too slow. The list goes on and on.

The Indians ranked 29th out of 30 in all of baseball for attendance, totalling 1,437,393 fans throughout the season. They averaged 18,428 fans per game.

There were six games in the start of the season and two games in September in which the total attendance did not even break 10,000.

However, television ratings increased 12% from last season, and the Indians ratings on SportsTime Ohio finished fifth in all of MLB.

Thus, the problem apparently doesn’t so much lie in a disinterest with the sport of baseball or the Indians but, rather, a disinterest with traveling to the ballpark and attending games in person.

A fan cannot be faulted for their inability to afford tickets or their preference to attend a game from their couch rather than the ballpark after a long day at work. However, the fact that there are fans at home, watching games on their televisions rather than in person, highlights the fact that it isn’t as much a problem that fans don’t want to watch games, it’s that they don’t want to fill the stands.

The Indians are doing all that they can to change that. In addition to the recent addition of the Kid’s Clubhouse and the Family Social Suite, the Indians are spending this offseason renovating the stadium in an effort to make it more fan-friendly and a more aesthetically pleasing experience. They are removing 7,000 seats in order to create a new entrance off East Ninth Street, a newly located bullpen that will give fans a better view of players during warm ups, an expanded Kids Clubhouse, and are bringing Cleveland-centric additions to the ballpark with five neighborhood-themed areas with food from Ohio City and Tremont, among others, in an effort to make Progressive Field not just a place to watch baseball, but a place to explore the culture of the city, as well.

However, drastic renovations may not be the answer. Decreasing the number of seats doesn’t mean that the number of remaining seats will be filled each and every game.

Fans argue that they don’t want to pay the ticket prices to watch a team that doesn’t have certifiable stars or big names. They don’t want to pay for parking and food to watch a team they anticipate is going to lose. The Indians are not, at their core, a bad team. They have players who command attention (Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco) and have the ability to compete with teams who made it into the playoffs this season (namely, the Kansas City Royals). Fans, however, argue that the payroll with which the Indians are working means that they will not recruit larger players of star quality and will not put together a roster with as much name recognition as the Cavaliers have with LeBron James or the Browns have with Johnny Manziel. The Indians have been unable to thrust themselves into the nationwide spotlight in that same way. Yes, Kluber’s name has been tossed around with complete sincerity as a very-possible recipient of the AL Cy Young Award, and Brantley was the Indians only 2014 All-Star. Still, fans have not chosen to rally behind these stars the same way they do stars of other Cleveland sports teams.

The argument that Cleveland is just not a Tribe Town bleeds into the fact that, maybe, Cleveland is just not a city made for three sports teams. The Indians had their heyday in the 1990s, when they sold out 455 consecutive games at Jacobs Field. The Indians had players of star quality and the roster was filled with the likes of Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, Omar Vizquel, Sandy Alomar, Charles Nagy, and many more.

The Indians ‘90’s surge also happened to coincide with the Browns removal and relocation to Baltimore.

The Indians thrived when the city essentially dealt with only two sports teams. The Cavaliers and the Indians were fans’ answers to their sporting desires, and the Tribe did not have to worry about competing with a football team. The city was able to support one team in the summer, and, come to end of baseball season, basketball picked up and closed right when it was getting warm enough to return to the ballpark for every game.

The return of the Browns can be argued to be a return of the city’s prodigal son. Cleveland fans were reunited with their team that got yanked out from under them, and they were once again able to return to supporting the game of football that they loved. Then came LeBron James, and, despite his departure in 2010, he is now back and giving Cleveland a reason to turn out for Cavs games in full force to watch what is being to be one of the best teams in the NBA. The Browns had an encouraging start to the season, despite their recent loss to Jacksonville, and worked to make Cleveland one of the most talked-about cities in terms of sports.
Where do the Indians fit into that discussion? Aside from their near playoff push and few notable players, they have not really emerged from the baseball spotlight into the full-fledged world of sports discussions recently.

There is no discernable reason to expect a major change in the coming seasons. Star-quality players are not readily affordable and just because the stadium is renovated does not mean fans will come. The front office and ownership are not contributing to the exciting atmosphere that fans want at a game. The Cavs and Browns are poised to be the focus of Cleveland sports for the foreseeable future. What are the Indians?

Where do they play into that equation? What exactly do the fans need at a game? Even when the team is doing well, they still argue that they’re not doing well enough.

It pains me to say it, as it does for any die-hard Indians fan to think it. Are the Indians nothing but a burden for Major League Baseball? Is it worth it for them to try to compete in a town with two of the most talked about teams in their respective sports?

The Indians organization is trying to build it, but it seems that the fans will just not come. And until there is a definitive reason why, all efforts will likely, and sadly, be in vain.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer

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This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. I think the business of baseball is to blame with our failure to connect to our current stars. We know that no matter what we do, we only have a limited time with our stars before we are forced, because of the large payroll teams, to trade them away. So after we saw Asdrubal, CC, Cliff, and the most painful, Victor leave, in what are probably good decisions, we choose to stay at an arm’s length. At least that is my opinion.

  2. We love the team. Coaches and players. It’s your marketing dept. and their screw the customer attitude. that is the major turnoff. Stop trying to take your fans hostage. Your policies are driving your fan base away.

    1. Screechwolf, when you say, “your marketing dept.,” keep in mind that no one that writes for DTTWLN works for the Indians. However, I’m curious as to what policies you feel take fans hostage?

  3. I’m a Tribe fan who lives in DC (with Nationals season tickets). Over the last four years, I’ve made four different trips out to Indians events — a series with the A’s in 2010, a trip for the last iteration of Snow Days, one for the Nationals-Indians series in 2013 where Kluber flashed his Cy Young stuff, and then for the ill-fated playoff matchup with Alex Cobb last year.

    I will acknowledge that the flex pricing is obnoxious for people who can’t plan in advance (certainly true for me), and counter-intuitive to an ordinary fan to charge more for tickets when you know the day before that there are 25,000 of them waiting to be bought, but I think the biggest thing for me was that the low-end prices were still higher than what I was seeing in a city with a lot more people to draw on and a lot more wealth.

    For the most part, the Nationals have every game starting at $10 for the worst of the worst seats — my seats are on the 100 level in the outfield and I’m paying $20 as a plan holder — they were $25 for everyone else). But when I was looking in Cleveland, I was finding equivalent seats for $35 or $45, I think (it’s been a year, so I’m not sure). The high-end seats are way cheaper — at Nationals Park, they’re up to $350 — I sat in the second row behind home plate in Cleveland for I think $80, because the ordinary decent seats were so expensive. I think there’s more room for the ultra-high-end customers to get gouged with luxuries like in-seat service and all-you-can-drink-type promotions and then let the ordinary fans to benefit from it. They did this with the bleachers one season — everything for $10, but I think in the short-term, they need to make that kind of pricing available to bigger chunks of the stadium. I’d guess they make a lot more money from concessions than they do from tickets anyway.

    I don’t think it’s a permanent solution, and I’m increasingly concerned at the attendance numbers, but I’ve been a regular at two stadiums with more successful teams in Philadelphia and Washington (whose attendance is still pretty shoddy considering the area it can draw from, the team’s record over the last few years, and their payroll), but in both places I was paying considerably less for tickets that were in far greater demand. That just doesn’t seem right to me.

    1. Excellent point Tim. I made that point to a friend of mine. I was thinking about going to see the White Sox and Indians last year and wondered why the White Sox had so many cheaper seats than the Tribe. The only really cheap ones are the bleachers. Other than that, they are starting often at 20 to 25 bucks, while other places have some cheapos scattered around the park a bit.

  4. (Commented on Facebook, but re-posting here)

    I’m starting to wonder if it has to do with the negative perception of downtown Cleveland. It’s one thing to ask people to come down for a 1pm Browns game and park in the muni lot. Very different to ask people to walk 5-10 blocks at 11pm on a Tuesday.

    I disagree with the idea that downtown is a dangerous place, but it’s obvious this is a perception the city itself has been working to combat in recent years. I wonder if it’s difficult for the Indians to pull people downtown in the same way it’s been impossible to establish any sort of retail businesses downtown.

    1. I think this is a very interesting point. I know that before I started working downtown and spending much of my free time in the city with friends who live there, I had a more negative view of the city than I do now (heck, now you really can’t take me out of downtown!). But it’s easy to see how people who aren’t nearly as familiar with the city could find uneasiness with the idea of trying to find their way around it late on a weeknight after a game. Easier to stay home and watch on TV than risk getting lost on your way back to your car.

  5. I recently examined average attendance for Indians games over the last thirty or so years (1983-2014). In 11 of those years, when the Indians increased their win total by at least five games, their average attendance went up for the year. The two exceptions were 1984 and 2013. In 1984 their win total increased by five games but their attendance decreased by about 300 per game. One reason that can be cited for this was that they went from a 70-win team to a 75-win team, so fans may have stayed at home because they might have been thinking, “So what, the team still stinks. 70 to 75 wins isn’t that big of an improvement.” I think that is a valid explanation.

    The only other time this phenomenon occurred was in 2013. The circumstances were a little different than in 1984 however. In 2013, they had a team that improved by 24 games over the previous season, and yet their attendance went down by an average of 300+ per game. So what is the reason this time? Some can say the fans’ disgust with the Dolan regime finally coming to a head. Many fans may point to the FO doing nearly nothing in the 2007 offseason after going to the ALCS the year before, the Lee, Sabathia, and VMart trades in 2008 and 2009 really ticked off the fan base. Some say a combination of these things, plus they way they dismantled the team after 2001, treatment of Omar, the letting go of Jim Thome to free agency, poor drafting, and no stars, etc…. All of these things may have a role.

    However, a key year in the analysis I did is 2011. Why? Because 2011’s close proximity to 2013 provides us with a great comparison. The two years are similar in that, 1) The Indians won more games than the previous season (81 in 2011 to 69 in 2010; 92 games in 2013 versus 78 games in 2012), the VMart, Lee, and Sabathia trades all occurred before these two seasons, 3) The Dolans still owned the team, 4) The FO was basically the same (I think Shapiro became team president and Antonetti became the GM, but I don’t think anyone thought this was a great new beginning and the actual announcement that this would take place actually happened in early 2010).

    The final result for 2011 was the team won 11 more games than the previous year AND the team’s average attendance INCREASED by 5,000+ per game. Not astounding, but nevertheless, we had an improved team and the fans increased attendance in 2011. So if so many things were the same, what was different?

    A couple things changed that would actually make you think 2013 should have had an increase in attendance per game. 1) They signed Swisher and Bourn in the offseason. These were a fairly big deal at the time. Two players with pretty good histories coming to town for about 15 mil and 12 mil per season respectively, and 2) Terry Francona was hired. This may have been an even bigger splash. The guy who managed the Red Sox to two World Series and several playoff appearances was coming to Cleveland. Wow. Combine that with a increase of 24 wins over the previous season, and if anything, one would think the average attendance would increase. Instead, it decreased by about 300+ per game.

    So what would explain the decrease? We’ve eliminated the Dolans, the FO, bad deals, win increases, etc…. The only thing that’s left? Sorry to say, it’s dynamic pricing. Even though the Indians had instituted dynamic pricing on a limited scale a few years before 2013, for particular games such as the Reds series, 2013 marks the first year you had dynamic pricing fully implemented. I’m not saying dynamic pricing is the ONLY factor in the Tribe’s attendance woes, as they were not coming out in droves before dynamic pricing. But perhaps dynamic pricing put the proverbial “final nail in the coffin” leading to an actual decrease in average attendance after an offseason that brought Swish, Bourn, Francona, and 24 more wins than the previous season.

  6. I think for most people it’s a combination of all the things mentioned. One thing that never gets mentioned though is all of the stuff that is not the game itself. I love them but even I think it’s a stale atmosphere inside. I watch the same Key Bank Deal or No Deal thing every year- when was that show even on the air? Crazytrain for every bases loaded situation (decent song but not 10 years in a row). Usually one pump up video a year. What gets a casual fan interested or excited at the park besides the team? Because I don’t think that’s the problem; they’re good. New stuff could be introduced… Whiffle ball HR derby in between innings, Price is Right style game with out of town prices, quick music clip after we strike someone out, etc… Just my two cents.

  7. I think one of the biggest issues is, like Zach mentioned, the stale atmosphere. I live in Rochester, NY and make the trek over to see roughly 4-5 weekend games. The crowd is never into the game like a Browns game. I was told my security to sit down because I was standing up cheering and yelling during the bottom of the 9th during the Omar Vizquel HoF night. Why am I being told to sit down when I’m cheering for my team in THEIR home park? I think it would also help to have players, not just the rookies, stick around even if it’s for 2 or 3 mins and sign autographs after games. This helps grow that connection with the players. For example: Zach Walters walked all the way up the 3rd base line signing autographs and taking pictures with fans during the Fan Appreciation night. From what I gathered from other fans around me they all appreciated that a lot. But what do I know, I’m just a fan lol.

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