The Cleveland Indians host rival Detroit tonight in a late May battle.
Though the Tigers were favorites to repeat as AL Central champs in 2012, it’s Cleveland leading them by three games in the standings this morning.
The temperature should be close to 70 degrees at first pitch, so you’d expect The Jake to be full tonight — but don’t count on it.
Tribe in 1st, but where are the fans?
Despite the Tribe building a solid nucleus through farm development and key free agent signings that has vaulted them to a 23-18 mark at the quarter-point of the season; having a great ballpark, cheap ticket prices and unique giveaways; and good weather now (Cleveland, like most of the Midwest had a mild winter and their summers, unlike most of the region, are rarely hot), the team is LAST in attendance for all of MLB.
Yes, nowhere close to 29th-place Oakland!
As someone living in Nebraska who’s a long three hour drive from any big league team, I would love to live in a city with such an enticing squad and benefits. Heck, I used to drive six hours each way from Indianapolis on a summer weekend to see Indians baseball.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one flummoxed by Cleveland fans’ apathy. Closer Chris Perez rightly castigated fans for this embarrassment earlier in the week. He then followed his rhetoric with action. It was great to see.
So, with every obstacle no other sport faces (length of season, weather, vacation time, “slow pace of play” etc), MLB attendance continues to rise, yet drop in Cleveland?
The cliche answer is the economy. It’s also completely invalid. After all, bad economies like Detroit, Saint Louis, Milwaukee, and elsewhere draw huge crowds even though ticket prices are higher and the teams are underachieving.
Having family and friends in the area, there is a ton of disposable income in Cleveland’s suburbs, and these same people pay ten times the ticket price to watch awful Cleveland Browns football eight Sundays each fall.
Rationale for the decline in Indians fan support
Frankly, I don’t think fans go too deep into not showing up (and I think they will be there, like last season, if the team continues winning), but they are skeptical. Here’s some rationale. It’s somewhat complex–by sports terms.
Cleveland sold out 455 straight games from Jacobs Field’s opening in 1994 through 2001, then people stopped coming when the team was bad from 2002-2004. I recall a 2003 game in late August with about 5,000 folks in the stands. Cleveland fans were spoiled. Imagine that.
But in 2005, the Tribe exceeded expectations and were neck and neck with the eventual World Champion White Sox (cut a 15.5 game lead to one and a half with nine to play) until they lost six of seven in the season’s final week. They still finished 93-69 with an average team.
Thus, Cleveland drew well second half of 2005. I remember attending with a raucous crowd when they won a thriller versus Detroit in late August. Fans also showed up during the first half of 2006; but after the team sputtered to 78-84 in 2006, despite high aspirations, attendance was light in 2007…
…until they finished with 96 wins that year, took out the hated Yankees in round one, and the Indians up 3-1 on eventual champion Boston before blowing the ALCS and a chance for their first World Series title since 1948.
Mediocrity was revisited in 2008 with 81 wins and 2009-2010 were no better; in fact, they were worse. This, along with losing Cy Young winners Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia, and injuries to stars Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, naturally led to minimal expectations in 2010; yet Cleveland was in first place much of the season and in the race until the final few weeks.
Did they draw well? Not really. The team finished near the bottom, averaging 22,000 per contest.
What to make of this?
I understand fans’ lack of willingness to get on board to some degree. A decent recap of Cleveland’s decade of “rebuilding” can be read here. However, in addition to all the benefits of attending games at Jacobs (now Progressive) Field, fans should also realize the team has potential and often exceeds preseason aspirations at any point without warning.
There is a great book by long-time Cleveland sportswriter Terry Pluto called Dealing. It was written after the 2007 season recapping how the Tribe got back on top. Though they’ve sputtered a bit since, the ethos is still valid.
In fact, it should be a lesson for fans avoiding games as to why they should show up and support the Cleveland Indians–now and always.