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MLB: Cleveland Indians Must Learn from History to Improve Attendance

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MLB: Cleveland Indians Must Learn from History to Improve Attendance
Jason Miller/Getty Images
The new Indians are trying to get back to the winning ways of the old Indians

Cleveland is a city that is starving for a winner. Unfortunately for Cleveland sports fans the owners of teams are not always on the same page as what the fans would like to see. No team proves this more than the Cleveland Indians.

So far through the 2012 season, the Indians are 44-41 and are dead last in the MLB in attendance. Lately Tribe closer Chris Perez has been spouting off to the Cleveland fans about their lack of loyalty to the team, questioning the city’s blind loyalty to the Browns and lack of support for the Tribe.

Perez makes some good points, but he also needs to realize that his team is just above average right now and are only in the hunt thanks to being in an extremely subpar division. However, that does not explain why Cleveland has not supported the Indians a little bit better this year. In order to better understand what is going on, we must look at the past and see the culture that has led us to this point.

1993 is where we will begin our journey. Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, and Albert Belle were beginning to enter their primes. Looking back on it now, that is a solid trio that laid the foundation for some of the best seasons in Tribe history. This season saw one of the biggest spikes in Tribe attendance history, it went from 15,000 people per game in 1992 to 26,000 in 1993. This started the year where the Indians became a legitimate interest in Cleveland. From there the numbers continuously climbed over the next several years, reaching a point where they sold out 455 consecutive home games between June 1995 and April of 2001 which averaged around 42,000 fans per night. For a small market club that is quite the streak.

There was one common factor during those years that led to the fan support, the team was winning consistently and making the playoffs five consecutive years between 1995 and 1999. Players that had become faces of the franchise included Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, and Sandy Alomar Jr. That would not be the case for long.

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Jim Thome was one of Cleveland's most admired sports figures of all time

Cleveland had slowly begun to gravitate toward baseball even more in the 1990s in part due to the city losing their beloved Browns in 1995. The Indians had capitalized by building a winner that the city could fall back on and embrace. This was shown by that 455 consecutive game sellout that was notched. However, in 1999 the Browns came back to town and not long after that, the Indians lost sight of their  winning ways.

 

After the 2000 season, Manny Ramirez and Sandy Alomar Jr. left the club and Larry Dolan bought the club from then current owner Richard Jacobs, for whom the stadium formerly known as “Jacobs Field” was named after. To try and soften the blow of losing those players the Indians signed former MVP Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks. These players led the Tribe to another AL Central title, but the offseason would prove to be one of the worst in team history.

GM John Hart resigned and his assistant Mark Shapiro took over. In the process of his take over, the club lost Juan Gonzalez and traded away Roberto Alomar. Attendance dropped over 7000 people in 2002 and has since created the losing culture associated around the Cleveland Indians. Then following the 2002 season ,Jim Thome left the team and attendance plummeted as one of Cleveland’s heroes was no longer a part of the city. In less than five years (2000-2004), attendance average dropped over 20,000 people per game.

Between 2002 and 2006 the Indians had their struggles, but their young core of players was on the rise thanks to some savvy trade packages that brought back players like Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Cliff Lee and Coco Crisp. 

Will attendance ever reach 30,000 again?

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In 2007, the young guns finally put it all together and were able to make it to the ALCS, but fell to the Boston Red Sox.  Fans, however, were finally thinking a winning team was back. CC Sabbathia, Cliff Lee, and Fausto Carmona looked like a legitimate rotation and the offense looked like it was for real, causing fans to be cautiously optimistic—raising attendance to 28,000.  Fans were quickly disappointed over the next two years as the team dealt CC, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez. Attendance again fell reaching its low point in 2010 with attendance averaging less than 20,000 fans per game.

 

All in all, the Indians have lost over 20,000 fans per game and have not been over 30,000 fans (over 10,000 less than full capacity) since 2002. For a once dominate and lively stadium, it is a shame to see so few people there on a nightly basis.

The Dolans' excuse has always been they have been losing money. My question is how much money would they have gotten back if they had only been willing to invest money in their current stars that they have? If they had done that since 2001, they would have, for hypothetical purposes, had roughly 20,000 more fans per game over that 10-year stretch.

If my math is correct, then they would have made—on the low-end—an extra revenue of $16.2 million each season, not including playoff revenue. That, keep in mind, is estimating each ticket at $10 which is extremely low. That in itself would be enough to justify signing many of the core players we had let leave over the years.

For example Jim Thome made $8 million a year in 2002 with Cleveland. He signed a deal with Philly the following year worth $13 million a year. The extra revenue (assuming his previous salary amount, $8 million, would be carried over and then take the additional pay increase from the increased revenue) more than covers the salary and also lets the Dolans profit an extra $11 million—at the same time saving attendance from dropping over 10,000 fans per night.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
Chris Perez is vocal, but the man can pitch

CC Sabbathia made $11 million in 2008, according to Baseball Reference, and then with the deal he signed with the Yankees he maxes out around $24 million a year. If my math is correct the extra $16.2 milion a year would cover that extra $13 million a year and also would have allowed the Dolans to enjoy an extra $3 million in profit.  

Now these numbers are extremely simplified and I also let the ticket price low to compensate any major differences. If the Dolans would have invested in the team properly they would still be competing with the Browns for dominance in the Cleveland sports heart (Though they will never totally dominate as Cleveland is football first, everything else second city).

 

Maybe Chris Perez is right, maybe Cleveland does blindly follow the Browns. However, until the Indians become a perennial contender again, there will be no jump in attendance. Cleveland has a cult following to the Browns because it is a football city, and it was deprived of that sport for multiple years. The Indians and ownership must realize that until they invest properly in the team, the attendance will not follow.

Recently, with the acquisitions of Ubaldo Jiminez and re-signing of Carlos Santana, it seems that this current front office understands this concept. Let’s hope that they continue to build on that and see attendance, revenues, and the City of Cleveland rise.

All attendance numbers are courtesy of Baseball Almanac

Follow me on twitter @andrewj2010

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