“You’re hitting .185? Are you serious? I don’t even think you weigh 185.”
A clever heckler shouted those words at Chicago’s Brent Lillibridge during the first game of Monday’s double header between the Indians and White Sox. You didn’t have to be within earshot to hear the trash talk at Progressive Field on the sunny afternoon, when the announced attendance of 9,196 appeared to be closer to about 600.
After all, how many people have the flexibility within their schedule to skip work on a Monday and attend a makeup game? Well, crowds that scarce have been the norm at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
Team president Mark Shapiro told me the attendance has been “slightly below expectations,” but the Indians rank last in all of baseball in attendance, averaging 14,291 fans per home game. Given the dynamics of April and May weather in Cleveland, that number might not appear too surprising. But the Tribe ranks far behind the rest of the pack, checking in more than 5,000 fans per game behind Oakland, which ranks 29th with 19,763 fans per contest.
“Weather, certainly for cold-weather markets like this, has a huge impact,” Shapiro said. “There is a lot of weather volatility that exists early in the season. So when we plan here, and I would assume other teams plan similarly, although on a different scale, we certainly take into account the challenges that exist in April and May. Our expectations are different in April and May than they are in June, July and August.”
Weather can’t be the only decisive factor shunning fans from the ballpark. When the two-time reigning American League champion Texas Rangers were in town last weekend, the Indians averaged about 18,000 fans for the three games that included the first fireworks show of the year, a Chris Perez replica jersey giveaway, the grand opening of the Indians Kids Clubhouse and ideal spring weather.
The Indians compare their ticket sales and revenue streams to clubs in similar markets, such as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Oakland and Kansas City. All five of those teams rank in the bottom half of the league in attendance. Still, the Reds draw more than 10,000 fans per game more than the Indians. Even the Pirates, who have suffered through 19 consecutive losing seasons and countless chilly springs, attract nearly 23,000 per night.
So what’s the difference in Cleveland?
“The 455 is representative of a great era of Indians baseball that’s worthy of celebration,” he said, “but when calibrating business expectations and metrics, it was a different city with a different set of market conditions. Our organization was run with a different set of operational parameters. It’s not a lens which we can look through or should look through when setting expectations or evaluating performance in today’s world.”
In the ’90s, the Indians prospered from a booming economy, being a perennial championship contender playing in a brand new ballpark and the fact that Art Modell relocated the Browns. Fans, tired of repeated rebuilding processes over the last 10 years, have routinely quipped that they’ll start showing up when the team proves its merit on the field. Not everyone buys that notion, however.
“We’re in first place,” said Tribe closer Chris Perez. “What else do they want? They keep saying, ‘We’ll see if this team’s good.’ Well what are you waiting for? We’re in first place. Are you going to wait until we win the World Series and then come to the parade?”
Perez has a point. The Indians drew even fewer fans last spring. Attendance through 18 home games in 2012 is actually up four percent. Crowds increased as spring turned to summer, but only by enough to get the Indians to 24th in the final attendance rankings for 2011.
This might just be the Cleveland standard, however. In 2007, when the club last qualified for the postseason, the Indians ranked 21st in attendance. The following season, the Tribe checked in at 22nd.
“There is no question that making the playoffs has an impact on attendance the following season,” Shapiro said. “From market to market, the magnitude of that impact varies greatly. There are a host of variables that affect how great of an impact it has. Recency of playoff performance and contention, size of market, any number of factors can enter into it.”
For the 2012 campaign, the Indians have sold a little more than 8,000 season ticket packages. When faced with economically driven choices, Clevelanders would prefer to spend their disposable income on the Browns, who drew nearly 66,000 fans per home game in 2011, 18th in the NFL. While they filled 90 percent of Cleveland Browns Stadium, no NFL team filled less than 75 percent. The Indians, on the other hand, have filled 32.9 percent of Progressive Field this season.
The Indians have done everything in their power to alter that line of thinking. They have lowered bleacher seats to $10. They have tried to combat high concessions prices with All-You-Can-Eat seats. They have given away tickets on social media outlets.
Is the problem baseball as a whole? Fourteen years ago, the sport captured America with its thrilling home run race. Then, the game appealed to anyone with an appetite for round-trippers and slugfests. Now, as @ZoneStar26 pointed out on Twitter, we live in an age of instant gratification. So as the sport evolves and becomes more statistic-based, people have lost interest. After all, most people don’t find sabermetrics sexy.
Minor League options might also take away from the Indians’ ability to draw. Anyone within a short distance of Cleveland can drive to Akron to see the Aeros, Lake County to see the Captains, Columbus to see the Clippers or Lake Erie to see the Crushers.
Shapiro said he is “not surprised and not worried” about the early-season attendance figures, predicting that the ballpark will host a greater number of fans when the weather heats up.
“The more we can heighten demand or provide greater value in April and May and win, the better chance we have of increasing attendance,” Shapiro said. “But it’s always going to be, to a certain extent, a lot less than the summer months.”
Manager Manny Acta didn’t want to touch the subject when asked. He did, however, project optimism.
“They’ll come,” he said.
Clearly, there are a number of external factors keeping fans away from the ballpark during the season’s early months. Surely, more fans will pass through the turnstiles as the weather heats up and if the team remains in contention.
But will the crowds be large enough to drone out the hecklers?