CLEVELAND: While the Indians took the field for the start of the series finale against the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday night, I picked up the binoculars and began to count the fans sitting in the bleachers for a September game with playoff implications. It didn’t take long.
There were exactly 278 fans scattered across the six sections of bleachers. The announced crowd of 11,522 was actually an improvement over the embarrassing mark of 9,962 on Tuesday, which MLB.com reported was the lowest figure for any September game in the 20-year history of Progressive Field. It’s clear a competitive product has done nothing to boost interest in a team that once sold out every home game for more than five consecutive seasons.
The New York Mets come to town today for the start of a weekend series and the Indians remain 3½ games out of a wild-card spot, yet the team is averaging 19,896 fans to rank 27th in the league. It’s almost the same figure they averaged per game last year (19,797) despite spending $125 million last winter on six new players.
The Indians seem just as confused as anyone. Their extensive research led them to believe fans wanted an improved product on the field and a reduction in concession prices. The team delivered on both, but the fans haven’t budged.
“Coming into the year, we thought we removed a lot of the barriers, which were spending money and concessions,” Indians Senior Director of Communications Curtis Danburg said. “But as we continue to research, you’re still uncovering reasons why they aren’t coming.”
Some of the “reasons” fans were giving me on Twitter on Wednesday night for not showing up this year were nonsensical. Actual tweets sent to me included how the Indians had a pathetic offense, they were out of the playoff race, their team lacks star power, the public transportation to downtown is lousy and so is the parking around the stadium.
Aside from those ridiculous excuses (last I checked, winning games and playing meaningful baseball in September are far more important than a sexy offense), what all of this really means is that this fan base still hasn’t forgiven the Dolan family for years of not spending and perhaps never will.
The Browns don’t apply to this conversation because it’s the NFL. Fans despised Randy Lerner, yet have blindly supported a franchise that has vomited on them for 15 years now with no consequences.
But the past 20 years have shown that the popularity of Cleveland’s other two sports teams is directly tied to the faith in ownership. The Jacobs family will always be praised for saving baseball in Cleveland, when in reality Dick Jacobs was a staunch businessman who only spent what the team made.
But the Browns didn’t exist, the Cavaliers were mediocre and Jacobs was the beneficiary of a beautiful new stadium, so fans adored him and sold out 455 consecutive games. Larry Dolan bought the team and stopped spending, so the fans (rightfully) turned against him. They didn’t return following a near World Series run in 2007, and they haven’t returned to watch a playoff contender this year.
Similarly, fans adore Dan Gilbert even more than they once did Jacobs. He is passionate, engages fans on Twitter, spends money on the roster and, perhaps most importantly, he verbally punched LeBron James in the nose on his way out the door. So the fans stuck with Gilbert and the Cavs through the past three miserable years — the team averaged more than 16,000 fans at home games last season (and outdrew three of the East’s eight playoff teams) despite having one of the league’s worst records.
As for the Indians, this season has made it clear to the organization’s deep thinkers that protecting and increasing the season-ticket base has become the real priority for this offseason. The Indians say they offer the lowest season-ticket prices of any team in baseball, yet season-ticket sales have plunged to less than 8,000 after soaring to 26,000 in the Jacobs glory days. That equates to a difference between 650,000 and 2.1 million tickets purchased before one single-game ticket is sold.
There is no guarantee they can do it. When the Indians fell one game short of the World Series in 2007, the front office expected a boost in ticket sales the following season, but it never transpired. They actually slipped slightly in attendance in 2008, although it remains the last time they drew at least 2 million fans. This year, they’re on pace to again draw about 1.6 million.
Fans are tired of hearing about the Indians’ poor attendance, but the Indians expected, and deserved, better figures this season.
The Indians say television and radio ratings for the all-important 18-34 demographic are between 50 and 75 percent higher, making this ticket-sales conundrum even more perplexing.
One fan tweeted me late Wednesday night saying attendance at sporting events is optional, it isn’t required. I suppose that’s true. But you know what happens to teams that field a competitive product and can’t draw fans? Eventually, they leave.
Stadium leases ultimately expire, and there’s always another city anxiously waiting to lure a new team with promises of new stadiums and sold-out luxury suites. Most of Progressive Field’s suites sit vacant these days.
The Indians’ stadium lease doesn’t expire for another 10 years, and to be fair, there hasn’t even been a whisper about the team looking elsewhere. But a franchise that once held the record for the longest consecutive sellout streak in professional sports is now one of four that can’t average 20,000 a game. Two of the other three, the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins, have the two worst records in the game.
“At the end of the day, we can only control what we can control,” Danburg said. “I thought we’ve had an exciting product on the field and we’ve provided great value and entertainment off the field. That’s all we can focus on.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.