Home Alone

This is not intended to beat John Adams’ drum high atop the left field bleachers at Progressive Field, but the Cleveland Indians have an attendance problem.

In a city desperate for a winner, the Indians have provided Cleveland with a team victorious more often than the loser in each of the last three seasons, but still, the fans do not come. The NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers have not given the city such a winning streak since LeBron James’ first tour in wine and gold from 2004 to 2010. The NFL’s now perennial laughingstock, the Cleveland Browns, have not posted at least three consecutive winning seasons since a four year span above .500 from 1986 to 1989.

Neither of those teams has to talk about attendance.

It is sad that the most tenured of the sports franchises in Cleveland is still suffering from a 41-year playoff dry spell and only saw an attendance recovery on the lakefront courtesy of the “perfect storm” of circumstances falling into place at exactly the right time. A new ball park, a revival of the downtown scene, the theft of the Browns, and an exciting and likeable young team that peaked at just the right time, catching fire as the Cavs had cooled to repeat Eastern Conference First Round exits every year and the Browns were playing a six-hour drive away in Maryland as the Ravens.

The surge in the mid-90’s did well to bring back the fans, notably 455 consecutive times to a packed house. But as the time has passed since the sellout streak ended after the season opener in 2002, the park is far removed from packing three million bodies into the seats. Just three times in the last 13 years the team has drawn two million fans or more and last season, just 1,388,905 came through the turnstiles.

While the team lost three home gates due to rain outs and traditional doubleheaders in 2015, it was the club’s worst single season attendance figure since 1992, when the 76-86 Indians finished fourth in the American League East and drew 1,224,094 fans. It marked the third time in Progressive Field history that the park hosted less than 18,000 fans per game in a season, all of which have occurred in the last six years. They averaged 17,806 in 2015, one of just two teams (Tampa Bay; 15,403) to fail to average at least 21,000 fans for the home season.

Tampa, understandably so, has been frequently mentioned in relocation rumors over the last half dozen years.

So far, the Indians offseason moves will do little to attract additional bodies into the seats in 2016, and with rumor that the biggest of the offseason shopping may be completed, that does not bode well for the future. Rajai Davis, Mike Napoli, and a slew of players acquired in minor cash swaps or on minor league deals with camp invites will do little to entice an apathetic fan base to share their money with the Tribe.

Yes, Opening Day will sell out. That has become a consistent and almost a tradition for the Cleveland community to come out and to be seen on the city’s local holiday of sorts. But the next game, will the team even draw 20,000? 15,000? Or even 10,000, despite it being the lone series at Progressive Field for the year of the Boston Red Sox, the first stop on the retirement tour of their franchise face, David Ortiz.

Are the figures low enough to have to worry about eventual relocation talks again? Such has plagued the franchise throughout its existence, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, but attendance has always been an issue in Cleveland.

We often hear the same old stories about why fans don’t come. The weather is questionable in April and May. The kids are still in school the first two months of the season as well as the final month. But the same could be said for any of the northern cities in the league, and attendance discussions aren’t a focal point year in and year out for those organizations.

“If you build it…”, fans may attend once again. Fans clearly came out in droves during the glory years of the 1990’s and the numbers perked up again late in the next decade when a recognizable group headed by Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, Shin-Soo Choo, and CC Sabathia guided the Indians close to the playoffs in 2005 and took them within a game of the World Series in 2007. After the letdown of the 2008 season, however, fans have drifted away.

Compounding the problem is the improved television product, even for fans who may not be the biggest fans of Rick Manning and Matt Underwood on the Fox Sports SportsTime Ohio telecasts. Radio calls are still popular with Tom Hamilton and Jim Rosenhaus as well.

It may not be much surprise that as the longer the Browns have been back in town, the Indians attendance numbers have drifted south. Financially-limited fans making a decision to choose between eight different Browns dates or 81 Indians dates may go with the prior, even considering the generally poor weather the final month or two of the season can provide within the NFL (this season, surprisingly, being an exception).

And then there’s the Cavs. If anything hurt the Indians more than falling quickly out of the playoff race in April last season after a 7-14 start dumped them into the cellar of the AL Central, seven and a half games out, it was the return of the city’s savior. The rebuilt basketball team, with multiple players well represented commercially across the country and several stars in house, extended the NBA season from its regular season end date in mid-April all the way through a sixth game of the NBA Finals on June 16th after finishing the season with a 53-29 record and finishing second in the Eastern Conference.

For fans riding the hopes that LBJ and his new “Big Three” were going to win the city its first championship since the Browns in 1964, fans may have chose to watch the playoffs rather than tune in to the Indians or watch the game at Progressive Field in person.

With the Cavs off to a stronger start to their 2015-16 season, it is safe to say another deep run into May and, hopefully, June is in order for the little kid brother of sports franchises in town.

The Indians have been proactive to an extent, keeping fans engaged with giveaways and events to draw in the fringe fans. Bobbleheads, jerseys, cheap hot dogs, and fireworks do the trick every year to get some people to the game. But the novelty of the novelties could eventually wear off.

Last offseason’s renovations and those following now are a sign of the club’s interest in keeping Progressive Field a fan destination for baseball aficionados around the country. The park, just now old enough to drink, added a fancy drinking hole to the previously sparsely-filled right field corner and injected new life into the stadium with quality food upgrades, signage, and improvements to the bullpen situation, to name just a few of the changes. This offseason, more gathering spots, an upgraded scoreboard and sound system, and additional food options will continue to extend their efforts.

But will the fans come?

Working in their favor, they do have a roster with players worthy of name recognition. Corey Kluber was a Cy Young winner in 2014. Michael Brantley finished third that season in the AL MVP vote and has a marketable nickname, Dr. Smooth. While the “Dirtbag” moniker hasn’t withstood the similar test of time for Jason Kipnis, he remains a fan favorite along with catcher Yan Gomes, providing the Indians with a quality core to build around. Add in Francisco Lindor, one of the game’s more exciting young ball players, and the Indians have a little something special brewing.

Is it enough? Probably not.

This fickle city fan base, blindly tossing green at the orange and brown year after disgustingly nauseating year, has not forgiven the Dolan ownership for expelling Sabathia and Cliff Lee for prospects instead of breaking the bank for the two Cy southpaws. Keep in mind attendance was already waning from the glory days, with the club finishing ninth in the AL in 2008 and 13th in 2009, the years of each trade. Locking up either or both pitcher was a substantial risk and one that could have spelled roster doom for the lineup had either pitcher failed to pitch as he had leading up to the trades.

Something short of a Dan Gilbert style of free spending owner will fail to entice those stuck fans from returning. They will continue to use their social medium of choice to tweet, comment, and hashtag their disdain for the Dolan group while lamenting the day that Richard Jacobs cashed out his initial $35 million investment in the club for $323 million in 2000.

Other fans never returned after the mid-1990’s strike, while further left or were denied interest in the fledgling franchise from the late 1950’s through the early 1990’s, when some very bad baseball teams played some very bad baseball games.

There is no magical elixir or solution to the problem. But there is a way that the Indians can improve the number of ticket holders downtown, and it doesn’t involve colorful explosions, wacky wobbling giant heads, fancy remodels, discounted hot dogs, or even overly priced free agent acquisitions.

Just win.

Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer

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