Tickets and attendance have obviously been big news in Cleveland all year because the Indians have had difficulties drawing fans into the stadium. This has been amplified by Chris Perez’ statements wondering how Browns fans can justify supporting that team when he feels like the Indians are legitimately competing for the playoffs. This always goes down a few predictable roads. One fan will use the ad hominem phrase “FOOTBALL TOWN” rendering baseball and its fans lesser and just leave it right there. Another fan will look at intricacies of the schedule and the weather for baseball while claiming the magic will happen when school’s out. All of these things are true, and yet none of them describes the situation completely. There are a ton of variables. So let’s add another variable to the list. Everyone always assumes the Browns’ attendance is great, but is it really?
The short answer is no. Obviously the Browns have been bad and yet the Browns continue to sell out games and have managed to avoid blackouts 100% of the time since 1999. Occasionally tickets have been picked up by corporations and given away for free, but considering the Browns’ record since 1999 that’s some serious dedication. Does that speak to Browns fans or does that speak to the NFL as America’s favorite sport? I took some information from a Wall Street Journal infographic1 describing attendance across the NFL for last season.
According to their stats, NFL stadiums were 95.2% full. The top team was the New Orleans Saints with 107.4% capacity and the worst was the Bengals at 75.2%. 107.4% seems like a silly number to me. Seven teams in the list claim to have percentages over 100% for attendance. If you reject the notion that attendance can ever truly be over 100%2 and you adjust everyone to a top number of 100% the league average only drops 0.6% to 94.6%. So league-wide attendance is basically 95% on average, regardless. The Cleveland Browns on the other hand, in a city steeped in football tradition, where generations of fans pass it along like religion, were 89.8% full last season.
That’s below average from a percentage standpoint. It’s the seventh worst trailing teams like the Cardinals, Raiders, Chargers, Jags and Chiefs, while narrowly edging the Bucs, Rams, Bills and Redskins.
At the same time, I don’t want to be deceptive. That’s a percentage standpoint and the Browns have a pretty large stadium with the tenth largest capacity in the league. Considering the market size that’s in the middle of the pack for the NFL, the Browns have a pretty big stadium. The Bears have the league’s smallest with 61,500 seats. The league average is 70,815 and the Browns are listed at 73,300. The Browns drew the 18th most fans for the entire year with the 10th largest stadium. Honestly you could take those numbers and probably fit them to either argument that Browns attendance is high or low depending on your talking points.
The bottom line for me is this. In a year where the NFL was coming off of an ugly labor relations battle with the players, they still sold 95% of their tickets. So, when Chris Perez can’t understand why Browns fans continue to go to see that team, he’s missing the bigger picture about the NFL in America. Browns fans are below average in terms of NFL attendance. Yes the stadium is large relative to market size, but considering how rabid a football town this is, I think it’s fair to say that attendance could be much better if the team was better.3 The fact that they aren’t the worst in the NFL speaks to this being a Browns town and a football town, but it isn’t like they’re leading the league in terms of attendance.4
The conclusion here for me is that NFL attendance is great overall because the NFL is the healthiest of all the professional sports “brands” in the United States. Browns attendance is below average and could be at least 10% better if the team found a way to perform on the field. As for the Indians, there are a lot of factors at play here, but the biggest of all for me is one that baseball needs5 to wrestle with in terms of competitive balance and making their game more competitive in the overall sports landscape.
I do, by the way. It seems like a silly way to falsify your numbers. [↩]
Especially if you consider that the stadium could stand to be filled with a larger percentage of actual Browns fans rather than visiting away fans who were able to score seats on the secondary market. [↩]
They are out-drawing the Pittsburgh Steelers 527k to 504k. Yay! We beat Pittsburgh! [↩]