Orbiting Cleveland: Attendance woes linger

How about we start this week’s column with a little scene setting, eh?

The date is April 8, 2013. The place is downtown Cleveland. The time is 3 p.m., and all throughout the city, a “Tribe Vibe” has engulfed residents.

Over 40,000 Cleveland Indians fans are in the downtown vicinity in some capacity, and the excitement over the Tribe’s home opener is visible at just about every corner. Anxious fans are already filing into Progressive Field while others are enjoying the team’s Rally Alley outside the stadium.

A few blocks down, an enormous party is permeating through the city. People are crammed together so tight that there’s hardly any breathing room inside local watering holes like Panini’s, Thirsty Parrot, Harry Buffalo, The Winking Lizard and City Tap.

Sure, it’s a tight squeeze, even somewhat uncomfortable at times, but the atmosphere is just something special. Junk food is being eaten, beers are being drunk, and, most importantly, memories are being made.

Baseball is finally back, and the celebration that goes hand-in-hand with it seems to almost resemble a national holiday. Of course, that should be expected when you get 41,567 fans in the same place at once.

Now, let’s fast forward approximately 27 hours later.

The time is 6 p.m. on April 9, 2013. There’s just over an hour left before the first pitch of the Indians’ second home game, yet the buzz from the day before seems to be a distant memory.

The standing room only crowds at the bars from a day earlier are now replaced with open seats that are available for fans wanting to stop for a drink before the game.

The lines to enter the stadium have seemingly evaporated to small pockets of four or five people. Yes, there is a vibe on this night, but it’s certainly not a “Tribe Vibe.” Of course, that should be expected when your attendance is less than a third of what it was the day before.

For the Home Opener, a total of 41,567 fans walked through the entrance gates at Progressive Field. For the second game of the season, that number was down all the way to 12,663. I ask you, how is that even possible?

A sizeable decrease was to be expected, but a crowd of 20,000 would still have qualified as a sizeable decrease. The crowd of just over 12,000 is more than a sizeable decrease — it’s an immense one.

The Indians’ attendance woes are not something new. In 2012, the Tribe’s average attendance of 19,797 ranked 29thout of 30 teams and trailed only the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2010, the Indians were dead last with an average of 17,435 fans.

Discussions about the team’s inability to consistently draw fans have been long drawn out, but something stuck out about Tuesday’s game. I’m not implying that I expected the team to draw 40,000 again, but wouldn’t 20,000 have been nice?

Selling out the Home Opener has never been a problem for the Indians. Rather, the problem is what seems to happen after that point.

As the graphic above indicates, the Indians always seem to pack the gates come Opening Day. The one outlier is from 2007 when the Indians initially opened the home portion of their season at Miller Park in Milwaukee. Since fans had technically purchased tickets to the game that ended up getting moved, the attendance for the home opener becomes a moot point.

However, take a look at the attendance in all the surrounding years. It’s pretty much consistent from season to season. Yet as we all know, the attendance for the Indians really has not been exceptional since the streak of 455 straight sellouts ended.

Regardless, fans still seem to get excited every year for Opening Day. Sure, it can be argued that the prospect of boozing all day adds to that and the institution that is Opening Day is also a major selling point, but there is still one thing that cannot be argued. Every year, for at least one day, every Cleveland Indians fan is legitimately excited for the upcoming season.

But what about the day that follows?

Clearly, the statistics depicted above are somewhat sobering. As we can see, excitement quickly is replaced with apathy.

Some may look at Tuesday’s attendance and at least see some positives. After all, it is at least up from the horrid crowds in 2010 and 2011. That has to be worth something, right?

Wrong.

Rather, it can be argued that the attendance on the second day of the season has been no more disappointing in any year than it was on Tuesday. Here’s why.

The most common complaint that fans present in regard to attendance is that they’ll begin to show up once Indians owner Larry Dolan begins to open up his checkbook. Isn’t that what happened this past offseason?

The Tribe began its free-agent binge in early December when they inked slugger Mark Reynolds to a one-year deal worth $6 million. That move alone was hardly enough to convince any non-believers, but some eyebrows were raised two days before Christmas when the Tribe locked up Nick Swisher to a four-year, $56 million deal.

Then, just a week later, the Indians signed right-handed starter Brett Myers to a one-year deal worth $7 million. That enough was more than enough to make up for years of offseason incompetence. But then February 11 happened.

On that day, the Indians signed speedy outfielder Michael Bourn to a four-year, $48 million deal. The team had been heralded for its new approach all offseason, and there was no bigger piece of evidence than the Bourn signing.

This, of course, does not even take into account the Shin-Soo Choo trade that netted the Indians top pitching prospectTrevor Bauer.

For years, free agency had just come and gone for the Indians. A slew of minor-league free agents were often signed, and impact free agents were believed to be just a myth. However, that all changed this past offseason, and a few developments seemed to at least indicate that fans were responsive:

  • Opening Day tickets sold out in less than six minutes upon going on sale on February 25.
  • Also, as of February 28, single-game tickets were reportedly up more than 40 percent when compared to the previous season.

But if that is the case, then what is the explanation for Tuesday? Maybe none of the increased single-game tickets were purchased for that game, but since it was against the New York Yankees, that just seems hard to believe.

As the figure above indicated, there were times when the Indians did see slight bumps in attendance during their second home game of the season. In 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 (all seasons in which it was believed the Indians could contend), the team averaged 20,432 fans in the game that followed its home opener.

Attendance was also up in the second game of the 2012 season as 18,842 fans came to the ballpark. That could be because some fans were cautiously optimistic that the Indians were for real, or it could simply be because the game was on a Saturday, which could have brought more fans to the ballpark.

This then brings us back to this past Tuesday. Only 12,663 fans came to the ballpark. For me, number represents the most discouraging attendance number depicted on the graphic above.

The Indians were playing the New York Yankees. There’s a reason as to why Forbes ranked them as the most valuable American sports team. Also, this week marked the only trip that the Yankees would make to Progressive Field all season. It would seem likely that many New York fans would want to come to the ballpark to take advantage of that opportunity.

Yet, when the dust had settled, only a combined 12,663 Indians and Yankees fans came to the ballpark. Now ask yourself this: What would attendance have been in the game had the Indians not played the Yankees?

So, what can we draw from this? There are three points I can make.

After all of the free agent hoopla, I had hope that the Indians might see some significant movement in regard to fan attendance. This team is obviously never going to come close to the numbers it drew in the nineties, but I legitimately felt the team could be capable of drawing perhaps 25,000 fans.

I know it’s only one game, but that hope has since dissolved. If the team is capable of only drawing 12,663 fans against the Yankees, then there is no way they’re going to be able to crack 25,000. It’s obviously incredibly early, but 20,000 seems like a much more realistic goal at this point.

Secondly, I think Tuesday’s attendance shows that fans have been somewhat dishonest. They have said for years that they will show up in flocks once the Dolans open their checkbook, and that’s what happened. So where are the fans?

It is obviously still cold out, and more fans will begin to file in once the weather heats up, but it’s hard to get past the point that the Indians could not draw 15,000 fans when the Yankees were in town.

Finally, if Tuesday was not an outlier, and this is indeed the start of a trend, you have to wonder what Larry Dolan will be thinking. It’s been said that a person has to spend money to make money, but the 2013 season could very well prove that notion wrong.

The 2013 season is only eight games old for the Indians, but doesn’t it even feel as if all the offseason hoopla has begun to dissipate? There’s plenty of time for it to return, but I can only remain cautiously optimistic at this point.

If nothing else, Tuesday’s game combined with the sudden negative response to the Indians serves as a reminder of one crucial point: It’s the Browns’ town, and we all just live in it.

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