The Cleveland Indians: Fairweather Fans or Cuyahoga Faithful? The Lowest MLB Home Attendance
Monday August 13th, 2012
Robert Whitmer: “Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steam rollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”
That quote is from my second favorite baseball movie (if you want to know my favorite, ask me on twitter) of all-time “Field of Dreams.” James Earl Jones’ character is telling Kevin Costner why he shouldn’t and won’t need to sell his farm in order to pay the mortgage on the property. The whole movie, Ray (Kevin Costner) is being told that “If you build it, he will come.” Ray plows down half of his corn crop in order to build a baseball field because I voice tells him to. In the end, it ends up being his father that he ended up building the field for. Ray always yearned to have one last catch with his deceased father and this field gave him the ability to do that. Baseball is a connecting sport. It somehow has the power to connect one generation to another.
We talked last week about the connection that words carry, but what about an event. I can still smell the stench of the artificial turf from Veterans stadium when I went to my first baseball game when I was a kid. I remember vividly how soft the field of Fenway looked when I had the honor to visit there. My dad would tell me how he remembered going to Phoenix Firebirds games when he was growing up. The game gives us a connection to our memories. There is a verse of scripture in the Old Testament that talks about “turning the hearts of the children to their fathers…” and I would attribute that to baseball as well. We have a problem though because the year is 2012 and not the 1960’s.
The owners around major league baseball have heard the call from the voice in their heads just like Ray did in the movie. They are building gigantic cathedrals to the game of baseball and fans marvel at them. The one thing that comes along with these monstrosities is the huge price tag. The buildings carry a price tag in the billions to build. The new Yankee Stadium cost roughly $1.3 billion to construct. Yeah that’s billion with a “b”. Who pays the price for these stadiums to be built? It is the owners? Maybe in the beginning, but they are going to get their money back. Let’s look at the prices for tickets for the Yankees and see how much they cost. If you want to go to a Yankee game and sit down the third base line halfway into the outfield against the Boston Red Sox, you better be ready to shell out a cool $592.25 after taxes and fees. Making it a date will cost you over $1100 bucks. That’s not including parking in New York City, food and drink, and a foam finger. If that isn’t close enough for you, you can always sit in the first row behind the visitors dug out and pay a cool $1637.25 PER TICKET!
Let’s look at comparable seats at a mid-market team like the Arizona Diamondbacks. The same seat down the third base line after taxes and fees are $151.25 and behind the visitors dug out are $106.25. Who do you think is drawing more fans so far this year? The Yankees draw an average per game attendance of 43,300 where the D-backs are getting 27,850. Is it the quality of product that is being put on the field, or the wealth of the market that surrounds the team? New York is a rich town, where you will pay thousands of dollars a month to rent a studio apartment that is the total size of my living room; whereas in Arizona, you can get a 3,000 square foot house for $150,000. It’s simple economics: supply and demand.
Now let’s look at Cleveland, Ohio and the beloved Indians. You will pay $83.50 for seats down the line into the outfield and $118.50 for amazing tickets behind the dugout. With as low as these prices are comparatively, why do the Indians rank dead last in attendance with an average of 20,559 per game? (Note: the Indians have been in last place in home attendance for most of the year, “battling” it out with the A’s and Rays for this undesirable title).
When you think of the Cleveland Indians, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? It’s probably not the two World Series titles that they have won, or the high number of players that have gone into the Hall of Fame as Indians. I’m sure that the first thing you think of is losing. The team had a thirty (30) year losing streak at one point. Now that’s not to say that they didn’t win any games, but they spent the majority of 30 years looking up at their division instead of looking down on it. They spent so long losing that two very successful movies were made about how bad the Indians lose.
The bad luck started and was fueled by “The Curse of Colavito.” Then manager Frank Lane was famous for this particular trade. Before he was hired by the Indians, he had made over 100 trades as GM involving over 400 players. Immediately after being hired by the Indians, he traded away a young player named Roger Maris who, of course, went on to break the single season home run record. The real downturn started when Lane traded the 1959 home run champ Rocky Colavito to the Tigers for 1959 batting champ Harvey Kuenn. Colavito went on to hit 30 homers four more times and Kuenn played one year and was traded to San Francisco. Bad times, bad trades, and losing records followed. They had a pitcher toss a no-no, and got traded. Another tossed a perfect game, and got traded. Some genius even came up with a .10 cent beer night that ended up in a riot and the Indians forfeiting the game. Trade after trade, flop after flop, and the fans were getting restless.
1989 saw the Indians in last place again and fans losing hope. It also saw one of the funniest baseball movies get made about the hapless team. It is such a classic that we continue to compare players to the ones portrayed in the movie (see Billy Hamilton to Willie Mays Hayes comparisons). The movie portrayed a down on their luck Indians team in last place that pulls themselves together and gets into first place tied with the hated Yankees for the wild card spot. In a dramatic one game playoff with the Yankees, they pull some trickery and end up winning their way from worst to first and a playoff berth.
The actual turnaround of the franchise came in the exact opposite way, yet most ironic way possible. It came via a trade with the San Diego Padres. In a trade was looked down upon by fans, the Indians traded slugger Joe Carter to the Padres for Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar Jr., which would create the team foundation along with Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, and a mix of veteran and young pitching for the 1995 World Series team that ended up losing to the Braves. The rebuild was complete and the Indians were relevant again. Isn’t it amazing what a movie will do for your franchise? The following years held more of the same successes. Consecutive sell-outs and playoff appearances have paved the way for the younger version of the Indians led by Asdrubal Cabrera and Ubaldo Jimenez to take the torch and run.
So we go back to the issue at hand with the 2012 Indians attendance because to me, they shouldn’t have any problems filling the stands. If you look at the roster that the Indians are carrying right now, they have some perennial all-stars on it and others that are a whisper away from being one. In a loaded A.L. Central and other excellent teams throughout the American League that would come to town, why are they having issues putting butts in seats? If we are looking at this realistically we have to look at the factors in the surrounding community. Yeah, that means money. Are people in the area making enough to send the average family of 3 (average people per household in Cleveland) to an Indians baseball game?
The average yearly household income in Cleveland is $30,283. That breaks down to about $2500 a month over the year. The cost to go to a baseball game for that family of three with an average ticket price of $26 would be about $80 for tickets. Add in $10 per person for a hot dog and chips and $6 for a soda and you’re up to $130. You have to park somewhere and it’s not free unless you want to walk 500 miles and then 500 more just to be the fan that walked 1000 miles to fall down at the gates of the stadium. If you don’t want to start the game exhausted from the walking, you fork over another $15 dollars for a safe parking area. All that added up and you’re looking at roughly $150 for your average night at Progressive Field. You are asking the average fan to pay about 25% of their weekly income for one night of baseball. If you have a larger family you are looking at higher cost, and if you have little kids… forget about it. I understand that the team has to pay the bills, but if they can’t make the experience affordable and can’t get people to come to the park, they won’t be able to pay the bills either. It’s a catch-22 really.
Let’s go back to the quote from the movie about building it and they will come; is it true? Will the fan be willing to pay any price to come to watch a game? The dedication of the fan is what really determines this decision. Could it be possible that it isn’t the economy that is failing the Indians, but rather the fans?
Let me toss this final idea for you to chew on. Pittsburgh is only two hours away from Cleveland. From Akron it is less than that. Pittsburgh obviously has a better product on the field this year and they are in the thick of the National League playoff hunt. Just like the way any other business should be run, baseball is judged by quality not quantity. So what is the fix for baseball in the city of Cleveland? I would suggest modeling your franchise after the Royals or A’s. They have built their teams from within. They have the faith in their farm systems enough to send young players down to get proper instruction and grow from within. It is very similar to how the Red Sox got a lot of their key pieces for their 2004 and 2007 World Series runs. Grow from within by identifying the players that you feel are the future difference makers. Once you do that, you lock them up for 7 years when they are in their early 20′s at a little bit higher salary than your normal minor league player would receive and negotiate another contract later down the road.
The words from the voice in the movie apply not only to stadiums, but to quality rosters as well. “If you build it, they will come.” Build a quality team that will play at a quality level for a long time, and watch the people fill the stadium.
(*The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of mlbreports.com*)
***Today’s feature was prepared by Robert Whitmer, MLB reports Baseball Writer. We highly encourage you to leave your comments and feedback at the bottom of the page and share in the discussion with our readers. You can also follow Robert on Twitter (@rwhitmer)***
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Posted on August 13, 2012, in MLB Teams: Articles and Analysis and tagged albert belle, asdrubal cabrera, attendance, baseball, BIlly Hamilton, carlos baerga, charlie sheen, cleveland indians, curse of colavito, fenway park, Field Of Dreams, james earl jones, Joe Carter, kevin costner, Major League, manny ramirez, mlb, progressive field, sandy alomar jr, ubaldo jimenez, wild thing, willie mays hayes, yankee stadium. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.