While I was living in the Pittsburgh area, the Pirates opened their new home, PNC Park, to great fanfare.
It was, put simply, gorgeous. Its predecessor, Three Rivers Stadium, looked like nothing so much as a giant ashtray, completely enclosed to shut off any view of the city’s skyline from your seat – an error rectified by the new park, which was sold, in part, on what had happened in Cleveland in 1994. If you build it, the winner would come – and Pittsburgh was in need of a winner. Since the 1992 season ended for Pittsburgh with Barry Bonds’ inability to throw Sid Bream out at the plate in the deciding game of the National League Championship Series, the Pirates hadn’t even finished with a winning record.
PNC Park opened in 2001, and a club record of more than 2.4 million fans came through the turnstiles. In that beautiful new ballpark, they saw a team that lost 100 games. The following year, the Pirates lost a mere 89 games, but attendance slipped to 1.7 million. Gradually attendance, and more importantly, season ticket sales, dropped. But they reached a new high in 2006 when, not coincidentally, PNC Park hosted its first All-Star Game – just a dozen years after the last one in Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium.
Why do I bring this up? Oh, no reason…
Attendance is a favorite topic when talking about the Indians. Fans love to brag about the 455-game sellout streak, and rightly so. After years where a sellout on Opening Day at Cleveland Stadium would account for as much as 10 percent of the Indians’ season attendance, it was nice to see people turning out to the ballpark. Of course, the difference between the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s and the new era at Jacobs Field in the 1990s was that the team was actually worth watching. (It didn’t hurt that the Browns were on hiatus for a significant part of that streak.)
Of course, now when people want to talk about Indians attendance, it’s to scold fans for not turning out in suitable numbers to support the team. (Please note: I have no plans to do that. I’m also not one of those people who believe it’s the end of the world that Cubs fans bought tickets to the World Series. If you buy a strip of World Series tickets and can back what you paid selling one game on the secondary market – and that’s the kind of prices tickets drew that year – then don’t you have to?)
Last year, the Indians drew 1.9 million fans, a respectable total, but a slight dip from the year before, when the team drew more than 2 million fans for the first time in nearly a decade. (Admittedly, attendance was down across the board in Major League Baseball.) Last year notwithstanding, the Indians have increased attendance over the past four years – coinciding with the Indians’ recent success with three American League Central Division titles and one World Series appearance.
Postseason appearances usually goose season ticket sales, because season ticket packages are sold as a guarantee for playoff tickets. Same with the All-Star Game. In Pittsburgh, season ticket packages for the 2006 season jumped to a level not seen since, well, the last time the Pirates hosted an All-Star Game.
Such is the case with the Indians. According to a recent story in Crain’s Cleveland Business, the Tribe had 13,800 full-season equivalent season tickets a year ago, also the best in a decade (full-season equivalents, as you might have deduced, are comprised of season tickets and any number of other ticket plans equaling 81 games). They’re slightly under that currently, but should be at a similar level by the time the season rolls around.
The Crain’s story also indicates that MLB will distribute about 40 percent of the tickets for the Midsummer Classic, leaving about 21,000 for sale through the Indians. (And it’s worth noting that those tickets will probably be on a level with World Series pricing, although they will include other All-Star related festivities, including the Futures and celebrity games on Sunday and the Home Run Derby on Monday.)
The other side of the coin is the team on the field. Unsurprisingly, attendance over the past five years peaked in 2017, when the Indians won 102 games the year after advancing to the World Series. The team as its currently constituted can probably still win the American League Central Division. But as it’s currently constituted, it’s not better than last year’s edition, which was quickly swept from the postseason. The Indians have steadily increased payroll, to more than $140 million last year (slightly above the major league average, but only higher than three other playoff teams: the Braves, the Brewers and the Athletics). The moves so far this off-season have dropped payroll to $96 million, well below the league average.
Again, this is all nearly a month before pitchers and catchers report, and with only a few exceptions, payroll is down across the league (this is why the specter of collusion was raised last year, and appears not to have fully abated this year). But all in all, it points to a year where fans might not be as excited about the Indians as they were even two years ago.
All-Star Games sell out. The trick for the Indians is to get butts in the seats in the other 81 games at Progressive Field this year.