Some Thoughts on the Indians’ Record-Setting Attendance

It’s old news by now, but this past weekend the Cleveland Indians made some history by drawing the smallest crowds in Jagressive Field history.  After the perfunctory sell-out on Opening Day, the attendance on Saturday was below 10,000.  On Sunday, it was below 9,000.

After a season in which the Indians had the lowest attendance in all of baseball, people seemed to be taking some odd and perverse pleasure in the news.  On Twitter, there were more than a few stabs taken at the Dolans of the “This is what you get for trading away my favorite players” ilk.  Shapiro and Antonetti were also castigated for similar reasons.  The blame war had begun.

I don’t know if the impulse was contrarian or honest, but the Cleveland “Leader” decided to chime in on the low attendance.  The article was sorely mistitled (for page hits, I suppose): “Cleveland Baseball Fans Better Start Acting Like a Major League City“.  Was the author actually blaming the fans for not paying to go see a team that’s gotten progressively worse for three straight years?  It seemed to me that the article was trying to react against the notion that the front office is entirely to blame for the terrible attendance—a position I happen to sympathize with—by suggesting that the fans don’t deserve to have a Major League team.  This is obviously nonsense: no one “deserves” a team.  As Bill Munny would say, “‘Deserves’ got nothing to do with it.”  But this piece tried to place blame on those lousy, substandard, ungrateful fans for not supporting their team.

The truth, as often seems to be the case, lies somewhere in the murky middle.

The front office certainly bears its share of blame for the current attendance woes.  You can’t trade your three best players and expect attendance to hold steady.  If the front office were to express public disappointment in the fanbase, I would find it beyond ridiculous.  I understand their need to treat MLB like a business, but they should at least expect their customers to do the same.  I speak only from my own experience, but I wouldn’t take a client to an Indians game unless I knew he was a fan.  It’s become a niche experience—one that I enjoy a great deal, but not one that most people are going to appreciate unless there’s free food and drink.  Winning breeds ticket sales, and if the front office were to whine about attendance falling, I’d be offended, considering their moves in recent years.  This is not the fans’ fault, and I think it’s obscene and exploitative to suggest that it is.

But similarly, it’s hard to suggest that the front office deserves all the blame for the Indians’ generally sub-par attendance figures.  In 2007, Shapiro built (and Dolan financed) a team that won more games than any other in baseball.  That season, the Indians ranked 22nd in attendance out of 30 MLB teams.  That’s a reality the front office has to deal with: even when the team is good, they’ll be lucky to get attendance figures that most teams in baseball would find pathetic.  And that’s why it’s generally unsustainable for the Indians to have an average payroll—average payrolls need to be sustained by average attendance figures, and we don’t have those, even when the team is remarkably successful.*

*I’m not going to talk about the 90’s and the sellout streak.  It’s a red herring that means less than nothing in this discussion. The Browns were gone, the Cavs were terrible. There was a new stadium and a booming economy that funneled money to Dick Jacobs like a waterslide.  Cleveland’s population was significantly larger than it is now.  And the payrolls of those Tribe teams, while relatively large for the era, are miniscule compared to today’s MLB payrolls.  It is not an argument that deserves to be entertained by a rational person.

I’m not saying that Cleveland fans need to “man up” and buy tickets.  I don’t think we suffer from particularly dispassionate fans anyway.*   The fact is that Cleveland is a small city, and shrinking.  There is no Metropolitan Statistical Area in the country with three professional franchises and a smaller population than Cleveland.  According to the latest census, Cleveland’s MSA (including surrounding areas like Mentor, Elyria, etc.) now has fewer people than Portland—a city that has exactly one professional sports team.  Whether we like it or not, the demographics are challenging.  By any reasonable measure, we can probably support about one and a half professional sports teams.  We have three major franchises and four minor league affiliates/independent teams, all competing for the same shrinking pool of entertainment dollars.

*I’m also, for the record, not particularly interested by the argument that Cleveland has the “best sports fans in the world”.  Anytime people claim these sorts of superior qualities, it strikes me as hollow and chest-thumpy and, yes, a little insecure.  “My fandom is better than yours” ranks up there with “My dad could beat up your dad” in the panoply of stupid, hollow phrases.  But that’s just like, my opinion, man.

None of this makes me happy.  It makes me sad that the city is shrinking and that the economy remains a mess.  It makes me sad to know that people are leaving Cleveland and moving to Texas.  I’ve been to Texas—I promise that it sucks.   Shoot, most of the writers on this site don’t live in Cleveland, and I know they all LOVE CLEVELAND.  As someone not born in town, I’ve chosen to make my life here because of the city’s many charms—charms I feel are largely overlooked by those who mock us for “both of our buildings.”  It would be easier for me if I could blame the Dolans or Shapinetti or lazy fans or (as is my wont) the Red Sox for the hard times that have befallen the team and city that I choose to put so much of my heart into.

But I can’t—not if I want to be honest about it.  This is a real problem, and one that won’t fix itself.  The reality is that the Cleveland Indians operate in an excessively challenging environment.  I know that it’s challenging to be a fan; I am one.  I’m sure it’s challenging to be a General Manager or Team President or (yes) a Team Owner too.  Things are rough in Cleveland, but creating boogeymen doesn’t make it any easier for anyone.  To blame one person or one group of people for the terribly difficult situation in which this city finds itself would be, at best, misguided and, at worst, intentionally divisive.

A pretty neat guy once said, “We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds affection.”  When I hear people shouting at each other about being a crummy fan, or a crummy owner, or crummy general manager, I just want to shake them.  I know a lot has happened since then, but don’t you remember 2007?  Don’t you remember how magical that was?  It wasn’t because of baseball.  It was because the entire city was pulling together for the same thing: for our team and for each other and for civic pride and belief in the little guy.  We weren’t fractious or bitter or angry or vainglorious or eager to blame or quick to hate.  We were at our best.

And we averaged fewer than 29,000 fans per game.  Attendance doesn’t always tell the whole story.  Not then, and not now.

  • ClevelandFan14

    I wonder why Cleveland believes Gilbert is more committed to winning than the Dolans. Just because he threw a tantrum and bashed Lebron in a letter? How well did things work out for the Cavs this year without Lebron? Why should we believe that he will magically turn this franchise around and challenge for a NBA title that has only been won by 7 teams in the last 28 years?

    We need to face the fact that resigning Cliff and C.C. would have actually handicapped this team. We would have been spending $50 million dollars on 2 players. That is more than the current payroll. What would we have left to spend on position players? $35 million max? That money would have been taken up by Victor, Grady and Travis’ contracts alone. So we would have spent all our money on 5 players. Dolan saw that the team wasn’t going to keep C.C. Cliff and Martinez so he traded them for prospects so we weren’t left with nothing like when Belle, Thome and Ramirez left. He shouldn’t run out and spend money just to spend money. We should rebuild and spend money responsibly to hopefully contend from 2012 to 2016.

  • ClevelandFan14

    @49 and 50
    I want a salary cap, salary floor and franchise tag in baseball. I hated seeing my favorite players leave. I don’t like the current system either, but to say that it is impossible for small market teams to win in baseball is simply wrong.

  • GhostToMost


    Why hasnt the goodwill for Randy Lerner dissipated as well? The most frequent argument I hear in Lerners favor is that he “cares about winning” because he spends money on the team. Its easy to spend money when you pack 70,000 people into your stadium for every home game. Randy Lerner also has the luxury of NFL revenue sharing, which Larry Dolan does not. Lerner doesnt spend money because he cares, he spends money because he can. Dolan, for a variety of reasons that have been touched on in this article, cannot.

    81 games or 10, what difference does that make? The Browns in spite of their INEPTITUDE are profitable and thriving while the Indians are dying a slow and painful death. Thats the point Im making here. Apathy for the Tribe is at an all time high, yet the Browns just hired the offensive coordinator of a 7-9 team to be their head coach, and somehow I dont think it will effect ticket sales. Call me crazy.

    Even if the Tribe starts winning and gets back to a point where they can draw 2 million fans, it wont be enough for Dolan to shell out 160 million dollars for players like Sabathia and Cliff Lee. Until that happens, people will just write off Larry Dolan as a guy who is unwilling to spend and uninterested in winning. And theres so much more to it than that.

    Clevelanders shell out thousands of dollars every year to watch their pitiful football team. They grow weary of the losing, but every year they keep forking over the cash and pinning their hopes on Josh Cribbs, or Colt McCoy or whoever to save the franchise.

    People will always back the Browns, no matter what. In regards to the Indians, people say its simply an issue of Cleveland refusing to support a losing team. Well, the Browns completely blow that theory out of the water. Theres no understating how bad that team has been since coming back in 99, theyve been awful. The Tribe, yeah they had some rough years but theyve had a helluva lot more bright spots in the past 12 years than our beloved Brownies.

    If Richard Jacobs were still alive and still owned the team, the Tribe would have the same problems. Its too simplistic to put it all on Dolan. Like I said, its not any one thing but a combination of everything.

  • jimkanicki

    @52 Well I want a toilet made out of solid gold, but it’s just not in the cards now is it?

    wake me up when you get what you want. i want it too. wanting it hasnt been an effective strategy for change. the owners actually tried to put it the in place in 90s; fail. once we get those things you/i want, then we’ll have a competitive league. until then we do not.

    if mlb wants to go without a cap, the least they could do is to create a relegation system. there’s really no sense in having kc, pitt, fla, and now us banging our heads against a wall. at least if all the AAAA teams were grouped together there would be some better competition and something to play for at the end of the season. also provides an incentive in lieu of a salary floor — hit pitt, you want a 30M payroll, fine. here’s your ticket to division 2.

  • Narm

    Another question is how long can MLB sustain this model? It seems we are reaching a point where small-market teams are ONLY profitbale due to revenue sharing. The Rays can’t even sell out their park when they are making the playoffs.

    At some point the small market teams will all look like the Indians (attendance wise) and the revenue from the large-market teams won’t be enough.

    The question is how close we are to reaching that point.

  • GhostToMost


    More good points. Along with everyone else, I like Dan Gilbert. But the goodwill towards Dan will expire if the Cavs have a couple more 60 loss seasons. Gilbert is another guy, like Lerner, who spends money because he is able to. Lets see how much money Gilbert is willing to spend in free angency if the Cavs are drawing 10,000 a game in a couple years.

    Another comment I see is “Why can Gilbert buy the Indians?” Its a nice thought, but I think Dan is way too smart to invest in that money pit.

    The whole situation with the Tribe is just sad to me. I dont blame the fans for not wanting to spend their money on the team, especially when you can see a minor league game in Eastlake or Akron for a fraction of the price. But at the same time I can also understand why Dolan chose to cut payroll a couple years ago when the team was losing games and money.

    Even if we were sold out every night and drawing 3.4 million fans a year like the 90’s, we’d still have a hard time competing with the Yanks and the Sox for high priced talent. At 2.2 million fans, the attendance figure from 2007, how were they supposed to turn around and invest 260 million dollars in Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia? They couldnt.

    It SUCKS, but what else is the Tribe supposed to do besides play the “money ball” card at this point? Until Major League Baseball implements a salary cap and revenue sharing like the NFL, teams like the Indians will have to nickel and dime and struggle to stay afloat, while the Yankees and Red Sox buy a ticket to the postseason every year.

  • mgbode

    @ClevelandFan14 – I asked the same question about Gilbert until we completed the Baron Davis deal and nearly completed the Rip Hamilton deal. We have added to our payroll despite Gilbert knowing full well that our attendance is going to dip next year.

    Sure, he’s betting that if he can get our team competitive quickly (not contending, competitive) that fans will return just as quickly. But, that is the type of commitment that I wasn’t sure he was going to make sans-LeBron.

  • AZDave

    There can be no denying the fact that Indians fan have not attended Indians game 40 years, except for the “perfect storm” scenario of the opening of Jacobs Field. Bottom line Cleveland likes to think of itself as a good sports town, but it isn’t. They always want to blams someone or something for it, be it the owners, the weather, the coach, the stadium, the drive to Richfield, nothing to do downtown, ticket prices, the economy,etc. etc. the one thing Cleveland fans are good at it making excuses. I left Cleveland after 40 years and moved to another poor sports town in Phoenix. The one thing Cleveland does have for its teams is passion, however most of it is angry, feel sorry for me passion. I have no doubt in my mind that part of the reason Cleveland has not won a championship since 1964 is the negativity that comes out of that place on a daily basis. I read it on the comment section of websites like this and Cleveland . com as well as the talks hows I listen too on my computer to keep up. I’m not sure it will ever change, and not exonerating the owners or anyone else. But to watch the second game of the year be played in an empty stadium makes me wish my favorite baseball team called somewhere else home.

  • chuck r.

    @ post #3, you nailed it!

  • ClevelandFan14

    I am with you on Gilbert. I like him despite how my last post may have come across. I just wonder how many losing seasons it will take for fans to spew serious hatred at him like they do Dolan and Lerner.

    I agreed with you on everything until you said you wish the Indians played somewhere else. Please don’t take my team away.

  • Ezzie

    AZDave’s comment is a sobering one. I don’t know that it’s true for football (the Browns have consistently great attendance despite absolutely horrid teams), but is he right about Cleveland fans when it comes to baseball and basketball? When we had a WS contender in a new stadium we filled the place for 5 years, and that string of sellouts helped itself a bit since getting a ticket was not as easy. Otherwise? We haven’t had much support in a few decades. The Cavs aren’t much better in this regard, filling up the place for a championship contender but otherwise having pretty weak attendance.

    I do think that the fans that do come are a lot better than in most ballparks, but if nobody is willing to even sit through a few games, it says something about us as fans.

  • Vengeful Pat

    @58 Have you been to Boston, Philadelphia, or NYC? Their fans are much worse to their own teams than Clevelanders… I’m not sure that is a valid point.

  • NJ

    @55 – I believe we’ll be stuck with the current MLB model for a long, long time.

    I think the issue is that all the stakeholders and decision makers are happy with the status quo. The league, small teams, large teams, and the players all make money. Sure, you hear some sqwuaking from one or the other every now and then, but not enough to effect any change that might ruin the whole system.(Don’t forget that MLB likes it’s antitrust exemption and won’t risk losing it if it doesn’t have to.)

    And as a side note, I think MLB does a much better job of creating competitive balance than any other sport. The last decade has produced playoffs/Series with a diverse set of teams. Yes, it’s difficult for most teams to compete consistently over a decade, but I personally think that’s a good thing.

  • Anthony

    Do you realize that if the NFL was set up the same way as the MLB we’d all be talking about possible trade destinations for Peyton Hillis? We surely wouldn’t be able to resign him after next season so let’s dump him off to the Patriots or Giants for prospects and draft picks.

  • NJ

    @58 – That is eerie. I moved out of the area a few years back and have started feeling the same way.

    I feel bad beacuse I love the city and know most Clevelanders are good people, but I can’t handle amount of negativity that seems to surround Cleveland teams (and, honestly, most things Cleveland).

  • mgbode

    “I think MLB does a much better job of creating competitive balance than any other sport.”

    I think baseball just lends itself to a bigger streakiness-factor than any other sport. In basketball, you have players get hot/cold, but usually for one or maybe two games of a 7-game set. In baseball, you often have 2 starting pitchers get hot and the team rides them through the playoffs. Or in the case of the Rockies in ’07, the whole team gets hot and goes on a ridiculous ride (remember they had a 21 game winning streak just to get into the playoffs that year…or maybe a few of those games were in the playoffs, but still the same point).

  • DocZeus

    The NUMBER ONE problem I have with the Dolans and their mismanagement of the team wasn’t that they traded CC, Lee and Martinez away. In all intents and purposes, CC was out the door at the end of 2008 and the Indians, Lee was out in 2010 and Santana made Martinez redundant. These moves needed to be made.

    It was that we traded Martinez and Lee a YEAR before they were scheduled to become free agents and got massively LESS than equal value for their services. The Indians because they were transparently hellbent on shedding salary for the 2010 campaign had suddenly put themselves in the position of BUYERS in a sellers market despite the fact they were the ones SELLING. The Phillies and the Red Sox knew this and essentially abused the Indians in negotiations. It lead us to taking way less than market value for our stars. Flash forward to a year later and the Phillies and the Mariners are getting the King’s Ransom for the SAME player we traded for peanuts the year before. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?

    The Indians strategy should have been patience. They had Lee and Martinez under contract for another year and unless the Phillies and Red Sox were willing to trade us Drabek, Happ, or Bucholz than we’d simply wait to the off-season or the trade deadline the following season to try and move them again. At worst, we receve the same pu pu platter of so so prospects.

  • mgbode

    @DocZeus – you may want to see what Cliff Lee yielded in future trades.

  • Reggie Ruckus

    As much as it pains me to say, Paul Dolan was on STO with Bruce Drennan Opening Day and made some really good points regarding MLB & the unions. As adversarial as the relationship was, there has been some reconciliation from the two sides. For instance the players didn’t put up much of a fight against the PED testing that was implemented over the past few years. Dolan admitted that what changes that will take place in the next CBA will be very small. The Dolans and the ownership groups in Pittsburgh, KC, TB, and in other small markets know they are getting screwed but they know that they have a lot of work to do on their own end before waging a labor battle with the players. The agreement with the players ends this year and I’ve yet to read anyone who doesn’t think a deal will be reached quickly and painlessly.

    My hope is that guys like Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley and LaPorta emerge as faces of the team because right now this team has no one fans can really get behind. Grady and Hafner should be the Cribbs & Hillis of this team but injuries have robbed them of that. Once the Indians give us those kind of players and the kind of excitement we had with Belle, Baerga, Alomar, Thome and Manny the fans will come back.

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  • Foghorn Leghorn

    @58. I dont live in Cleveland right now either, but I dont feel the same way. I think Cleveland (due to population and economy) is just better suited to support 2 teams at a time. We are never giving up on the Browns, so the Indians and the Cavs fight for our remaining dollars. Case in point, as bad as the Cavs are now, they still have some buzz and finished in the top 5 in attendance this season. True, a lot of those tickets were bought before the season started, but we still showed up. The Tribe isnt giving us anything to get behind.

    Also, as @62 pointed out, other cities, even bigger cities forget their second fiddle teams when they’re not winning. The Sixers were a joke for years, the Celtics had some down years, the Pitt Pirates are in complete shambles. The Astros are forgotten. Nobody gave a damn about the Clippers until this year, etc etc. I mean, heck, you live in AZ. What happened to the Phoenix Coyotes??

    Cleveland fans try to sustain their franchises, its just a simple matter of money to spend, and which 2 of the 3 we’ll spend that money on at the time.

  • Emily

    “It makes me sad that the city is shrinking and that the economy remains a mess. It makes me sad to know that people are leaving Cleveland and moving to Texas.”

    You aren’t the only one. I’ve been away from Cleveland for almost six years and I still miss it. I love visiting. People probably don’t understand how/why I could miss it, but I don’t care.

  • LMK

    In Texas, missing Cleveland… and agree CLE>TX any day… there’s no GLBC down here

  • @indianstweets95

    I think if I was Dolan I’d be pissed at MLB schedule makers for this. Look @ the schedule, its totally bass ackwards. Open in C’town, then go out west. Stupid. Half the teams in the AL play in warm/domed locations & half play in cold locations, not exactly rocket science to make early season games more comfortable for the fans. Tribe has great tix packages available but it was in the mid 30’s to mid 40’s all through this home stand. Can’t believe I haven’t heard this point brought up more. Go Tribe!

  • Charles

    I’m not going to say this team has provided fans with something worth buying tickets for the last two years, but the previous five years, they topped out at 9th in attendance despite playing about .500 ball at worst. Indians fans will show up only if they are guaranteed a playoff spot. And people like Kram promote the ignorance. Yes you are the only one who remembers that team as pathetic. They were in 1st place on June 1 and were second in runs scored at the ASB. They played damn good ball from day one and people refused to pay attention. The big issue is what the fans do in those .500 years. Yes, we were all disappointed, but 12th in the AL for a 2004 team that played pretty well and sent a few guys to the All-star game is just as disheartening as the 2007 attendance.

  • MattyFos

    Let’s sell the team to Dan Gilbert and Mark Cuban.

  • whipjacka

    Im not sure if this has already been brought up, but the Cleveland Area has the fifteenth biggest market in the country. I cant speak to whether it is bigger than Portland, but we have the biggest metropolitan area in the state and have more than enough people to support three teams.
    From a personal note, I became disillusioned by the recent trades. Two Cy young pitchers and an All-Star catcher were just given away for virtually nothing. An argument is that we couldn’t resign them, but Lee and Victor still had another year on their contracts. It was a sign that they were not willing to be competitive.
    Hafner got big bucks, but that contract should never have been signed to begin with. why would you sign a guy in his 30’s with arthritis to a huge deal? The signing was a fan favorite, but the fans are not learned; The front office should have been able to foresee his ultimate downfall. It is their job.

  • bob d. sgusted

    The writer of this article is a 100% loser.

    The OWNERSHIP and G M (SHAPIRO) has ruined this team. The REAL fans have spoken by providing EMPTY SEATS.


    Yes…Cleveland has turned into a minor league city…pure cheap ownership.

  • Narm

    @ 77

    While the Hafner deal looks bad now, would you rather give $25 mill a year to a 300 lb pitcher? Or a guy who was in AAA in ’07 and then came back to have a dominant year? Or the catcher who was going to have to move to 1B and had no power?

    All the guys we dealt had issues and probably weren’t with their deals. Hafner actually signed a team-friendly deal (when you consider he was a top 3 hitter in all baseball). It just didn’t work out.

    As for market size, I think immediate metro is a more fair number. When you count full DMA (with Canton and Akron) you start counting people who are fairly far from the stadium and probably aren’t going to be season ticket holders or go to more than a handful of games.

  • whipjacka

    you can get downtown from akron in 45 minutes.

  • MattyFos


    Are you going to make that drive 81 or 50 or 25 or even 10 games a season with gas prices nearing $4 a gallon to pay for an $8 beer to wash down your $5 hotdog?

  • Ezzie

    Know what the Indians should try for an upcoming series where they expect almost no attendance? Free (cheap) seats. Get people in the place, hope they buy stuff from the concessions (jack up concession prices if you must and tell everyone you are in advance maybe), and show them a fun time for a few days. Basically, do what any business does when it has little/no additional cost to giving a few freebies away, and I can’t imagine that there’s a large cost to giving away free tickets when those seats are otherwise going to be empty.

  • 216livingin404

    @ mgbode

    weather doesn’t mean anything, so what if texas is hotter than cleveland? i’ve been to texas and yes, it sucks. if weather determined how great a city was then nobody would live in chicago would they? does that mean that texas is better than the likes of NYC, Chicago, etc? LOL no i didn’t think so. i live in atlanta now and believe you me, the summers are brutal. sometimes i really curse atlanta and i know DAMN WELL atlanta is better than anything in texas. no comparison to cleveland, sorry for the insult but texas is one of the crappier places i’ve been. it’s so flat it gives me a headache.

  • brady

    They don’t deserve to have a team anymore. Clearly shows that cleveland fans are just bandwagon fans. If there team is doing good they show up in droves but when there bad they could care less. A city that big and your getting 10,000 a game? are you freaking kidding me, I don’t care how poor there performance is. I live in portland maine and our AA team as no problem getting 7,000 every game.

  • mgbode

    @brady – someone is upset that the brooms were taken to the ‘Sawx’ today methinks.

  • B-bo

    The spirit of the 90’s is still alive in Portland

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  • DCBrowns

    Please stop beating up us fans! This is so much more simple than we’re making it out to be.
    Cleveland sports only have 1 problem – losing. The fans are quite good, unquestioned passion. But lifetimes of losing have an effect. In all other sports towns, hope exists and often flourishes. We don’t have very much of that. Some people have given up hope entirely. And there you go.
    All the rants on the owners are distractions, even if they might have some valid points. All cities have various complaints against their owners. Many other places also have had economic issues, though yes Cleveland’s had it worse than most. And sure the population thing doesn’t help. But again, it’s not that unique.

    The one unique thing is the consistent, often hope-killing losing. Why are most posters ignoring this simple fact? Even as this Tribe team rips off a win streak, there is some optimism….but I’m sure than many fans will not get too excited, as for some hope is somewhat extinguished and they’re reluctant to buy-in to a sports team fully. This does not happen in other cities and is Cleveland’s albatross. It’s unfair, unfortunate and somewhat logical. And it is the real difference between Cleveland and other sports towns. Unless there is winning on a big scale this will continue to be the case. The good news: winning cures all.

    As for the poster on here who said Cleveland fans are “front-runners” — you, sir, have authored the dumbest comment ever! How can you be a front-runner when you’re not in front!!!! Wow.

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