GOODYEAR, ARIZ.: We’ve been advised by the Indians that the first home game of the season, against the New York Yankees, is a sellout. As usual.
Since the opening of Progressive Field (nee Jacobs Field) in 1994, selling every ticket for the team’s season debut at Ontario and East Ninth Street is virtually a sure thing.
But the fact that the Cleveland ballpark will be filled with baseball-hungry fans for the opener will tell us nothing about the number of people who will buy tickets the rest of the season. The game is not a reliable barometer for gauging the interest of Tribe partisans.
A better measure of fan enthusiasm — though hardly conclusive — will be the size of the crowd for Game 2 of the Yankees series. How many fans will show up the evening of April 9?
Except for the seasons in which the ballpark was sold out for the entire schedule — in advance, by the way — attendance for the second home game of the year inevitably has been half or less of capacity, particularly the past decade.
So what will the attendance be for that game? It depends. Several factors will bear on the number of folks willing to shell out cash for seats.
On the plus side, the Indians are playing the No. 1 draw in all of baseball. Everyone either loves or hates the Yankees, which generates more spinning of the turnstiles.
If the Tribe trots on the field having won five, six or all seven of its games, fans might feel the adrenaline flowing from their gut (or wherever adrenaline collects) and rush to Progressive Field.
The weather might provide the most telltale clue of the crowd’s size. If there is no forecast of rain, if daytime temperatures are in the 60s or higher, a walk-up of 5,000 fans or more might put a little strain on the ticket sellers.
Obviously, if the club has lost more than half of its games, snow is falling and people realize that the 2012 Yankees — without injured stars Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and possibly Derek Jeter — aren’t the real Yankees at all, empty seats will dominate.
When all of these variables are examined on April 10, the probable attendance for the season — and whether it rises or falls further from last year’s 1.6 million — will still remain largely a mystery.
Fans tend to think that no matter how many games the Tribe has lost the previous one, two or five seasons, customers will come out of the woodwork if they believe it’s the Indians’ year (These folks are called Browns fans).
That kind of thinking might have some validity if it were easy to haul out the crystal ball or shuffle the Tarot cards, and with the certainty of fans who believe in such tools, predict the future.
It’s not that simple. Attendance is based mostly on expectations generated the previous season(s). By that standard, the Indians shouldn’t sell much more than a million tickets. Losing 94 games in 2012 and dropping 90 or more in three of the past four years is hardly the formula for ballooning attendance.
Thankfully for the Tribe, there is more to expectations than last year’s win-loss record. What the team does to improve its roster in the offseason figures into fans’ hopes, as well.
In that regard, after years of striking out in the winter, the Indians, under the guidance of General Manager Chris Antonetti and owner Paul Dolan, hit a home run the past five months.
How do I know that signing name players Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and Michael Bourn had a positive effect on the bottom line? Bob DiBiasio, senior vice president of public affairs, said so.
The biggest challenge that the business side of major-league clubs faces is peddling season tickets. Selling 20,000 or more season tickets provides a solid attendance base immune to the ill effects of bad weather, long losing streaks and injuries to the team’s star players.
The uncertainty of selling hundreds of thousands of individual game seats is something clubs try to avoid. Franchises that depend on single-game ticket purchases almost never rank high in attendance.
In recent years, the Indians’ season-ticket sales have dwindled to the point where fewer than 8,000 were sold last season. Keep in mind that at the height of the Tribe’s popularity in the mid to late 1990s, the team generated a bonanza of 26,000 season tickets or more.
“When we signed Swisher, we got a little spike in season-ticket renewals,” DiBiasio said. “When we signed Bourn, it was even a bigger spike, and renewals are what we really need right now.”
That has allowed club officials to be cautiously optimistic, because they are looking at a renewal rate of 90 percent, substantially above expectations, and that figure surely will rise at least a little before the outset of the regular season.
DiBiasio called the 90 percent renewal rate, “More than our goal.”
But what about season-ticket sales to new customers? DiBiasio said he didn’t know the numbers, but there have been serious inquiries.
“We have people call who say they are interested in buying season tickets,” he said, “but they have to talk to the other members of their group.”
This does not mean the Tribe is on the verge of drawing 3 million fans to Progressive Field. But it probably indicates that disinterest hit bottom in 2012 and is about to go in a positive direction.
But that won’t happen immediately. The Indians likely will experience a modest bump in season-ticket sales. Keep in mind that 1,000 new season tickets add up to 81,000 more fans.
The Tribe will still have to depend on individual game and group sales, which are subject to the vagaries of weather, performance and the injury factor. But if the club gets off to a fast start, fans will buy tickets in April for games in June, July and August, when the weather is kinder and school is out.
More fans in the seats not only concerns the business staff, players care, as well. When Justin Masterson was asked if it would be more difficult to pitch on Opening Day in front of a hostile crowd in Toronto, he said, “I don’t care if they’re for me or against me, I want to pitch in front of a big crowd.”
That probably will not happen routinely at Progressive Field, but Opening Day won’t be the only time the crowd outnumbers Lake Erie’s most ravenous seagulls searching for half-eaten hot dogs.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.