Monday, July 09, 2007

It's NOT the economy, stupid

If you've been paying attention to the Cleveland blogosphere recently (and I bet you have if you're reading this), the lack of attendance at Tribe games has been a very popular subject.

Despite spending the majority of the season in first place, and being one game out at the all-star break, the Indians rank 25th out of 30 Major League Baseball teams in attendance, down with bottom-feeders like the Orioles and Nationals.

Everything you can probably expect out of a team with a bottom-tier payroll, the Indians have delivered -- and probably more. The Indians are not just competitive, they're contending. They're a major league-best 32-11 at home. Recently, Kelly Shoppach and Ben Francisco brought walk-off homer magic back to Jacobs Field.

The clouds are starting to lift a bit as attendance begins to rise for weekend series. The Tribe's last home game to date, July 2 against Tampa Bay, netted the biggest walk-up crowd in ballpark history. Some of that might have had to do with the Fourth of July fireworks show that night, but there were plenty of other places to watch free fireworks last week.

But attendance still lags. And the Tribe's overall ranking probably won't change much this year, even if attendance spikes in the second half. It's simply too late in the season to erase the bad numbers, like Joe Borowski's overinflated ERA.

There are several legitimate reasons why the Indians attendance is lagging. And several myths that need to be debunked, right here and now.

Legitimate reason: The Dolans are unwilling to make a big splash in free agency or through a trade.

Fans respond to sexy, marquee names. If they didn't, teams wouldn't spend outlandish sums of money to lure big-name players. While the Tigers have spent big bucks and made bold moves to land household names like Pudge Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers and Gary Sheffield, the Indians have gone with a far lower-key approach, one betting that wins will make the turnstiles click, not big names.

Wins do make the turnstiles click, but there is no substitute for landing the big player that gets the fans buzzing. That's not to say the Indians should go out tomorrow and mortgage the farm system to land Alex Rodriguez, but big players equal big fan interest.

Myth: The Cavs' playoff run diverted tons of gate revenue away from the Indians.

Not likely. As it is, Cleveland isn't a very strong basketball town. It's going to take a dynasty's worth of Cavs titles to change that, and even then, there are still going to be many middle-aged white suburbanites who simply identify more with a team of guys who look like them and talk like them playing a sport they grew up watching, as opposed to a team of heavily-tattooed, predominately black and European players playing a sport where everyone seems to be seven feet tall.

It's not prejudice. It's human nature to gravitate toward what is familiar. And in Northeast Ohio, baseball is far more familiar than basketball -- at least NBA basketball -- to many people.

What I'm getting at is, I don't think the fan bases of the Cavs and Indians overlap as much as we'd like to believe, certainly not so much that the Cavs' playoff run would suffocate the Indians at the gate. Not to mention Cavs playoff tickets were very difficult and expensive to acquire after the Nets series.

Legitimate reason: Cold weather killed the Tribe at the gate in April.

It started with an Easter weekend snowstorm that wiped out the entire opening series at Jacobs Field, then forced the next series to Milwaukee, and the remnants of winter continued to maintain an icy grip on the Tribe's home schedule throughout most of the season's first month.

Take it from someone who covered baseball at Bowling Green State University for three years: Few things in the world of spectator sports are worse than watching a baseball game in sub-freezing temperatures.

Baseball's laid-back pace is meant for warm evenings and sunny days, when it's a crime to be indoors any longer than it takes you to relieve yourself in the restroom. On days when the only thing you can think of is drinking coffee and getting indoors, the ballpark is the last place you want to be.

Until early May, the Indians simply had way too many of those kinds of days for home games. It put their attendance figures behind the 8-ball from the get-go.

Myth: The fans aren't showing up because they don't believe this team is for real.

Amazingly enough, fans usually don't cast that critical of an eye when deciding to spend their hard-earned money at a baseball game. Not even in Cleveland.

When Joe Parma Resident is considering whether to take the tribe to a Tribe game, whether the team is winning or not is actually down the list of variables that influence his decision. More important is affordability and availability of tickets and parking and what the promotion is that night -- because Junior will be crestfallen if he doesn't get that Grady Sizemore bobblehead.

When casual fans (which comprise the vast majority of fans) go to a Tribe game, they are going for the experience. They are not thinking, "Man, if Dolan would just shell out enough dough to add a decent seventh-inning middle reliever or a right-handed stick to split up Victor and Pronk, I'd be all over this team."

Don't get me wrong, winning definitely influences attendance. But winning teams don't necessarily draw because they are winning. Winning teams draw because they create an atmosphere where games are "the place to be." I think that fact gets lost on some of us more hardcore fans at times.

Legitimate reason: Some fans are still sour because the Indians parted with their favorite player(s).

This is what 40 years of non-contention can do to a town:

From 1995 to 2001, Cleveland was a Leave It To Beaver baseball town competing in a Sopranos league.

Much of what we collectively remembered about winning baseball was from a different era when the Bob Feller in your pack of bubble gum cards was going to be the same Bob Feller from start to finish. Always an Indian, and always your favorite pitcher. Barring an Earth-shattering trade like the horrible fate Rocky Colavito suffered at the hands of Frank Lane, you never had to worry about seeing your heroes suit up for the other team.

But while Cleveland's sleeping baseball giant was sawing logs, free agency entered the picture, and hero worship took on a whole new meaning.

Suddenly, heroes went to the highest bidder when their contracts came up.

In 1995, Cleveland emerged from its baseball cryostasis, and all was good for about five years. We fell in love with Manny and Jimmy, DJ, Robbie, Sandy and Little O. Albert Belle, well he was just a big jerk who smashed thermostats and chased kids down in his car, so the White Sox could have him.

But soon thereafter, June Cleaver stopped baking us cookies and started chasing us around the house with a shotgun. Manny took the money and ran. So did Jimmy. DJ was traded to save cash, Robbie because he flaked out (again). Little O and Sandy were tossed aside like used car parts.

Fans that had been brought up to embrace Tribe players as their own were given a cold splash of modern baseball. Some still haven't gotten over it, so they keep their emotional distance from the current Tribe under the blanket excuse of "What's the point? They'll all be playing somewhere else in a couple of years anyway."

Myth: It's the economy, stupid.

Two weeks ago, I was listening to one of the weekend sports yakkers on WTAM, and a caller phoned in to the show adamant that he had the real reason the Indians' attendance was lagging.

Cleveland's economy is in the garbage bin, he said. Fans can barely afford the necessities in life, so how can they afford to go to a baseball game?

There is no question the economy of Northeast Ohio has been eroding for decades. It's the cause of many problems. A lack of posteriors in the seats at Jacobs Field -- or any entertainment venue, for that matter -- is not one of them.

People spend money to be entertained whether times are lean or fat. Entertainment is one of the last things people want to part with, especially during difficult times when sports, drama, movies and music provide an escape.

If anything, Cleveland's sagging economy is an argument against sluggish attendance at Tribe games.

During the Great Depression, the story goes, some people would use their only nickel of the day to buy admission to the ballpark. If baseball hadn't been so important to people, franchises like the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Browns might not have survived the 1930s, and professional baseball would be a lot different today.

Despite nearly half a century of a downward economic spiral in this region, the Indians managed to sell out 455 straight games. The Browns sell out every game, no matter how bad the team is or how expensive the tickets are. Playhouse Square continues to operate, as does the Cleveland Orchestra, the museums at University Circle and about a half-dozen major concert venues in the area.

Say what you will about jobs leaving the area in droves and the population center of the country shifting to the Sun Belt. When it comes to empty seats in Cleveland-area entertainment venues, it's NOT the economy, stupid.

6 comments:

t.a.m.s.y. said...

Regarding the Cavs: I don't think it was that people were spending money on Cavs tickets instead of Indians tickets. But the city was so focused on LeBron for April, May and June, the Indians got pushed to the back burner. People weren't following the Tribe as closely as they would've otherwise -- so I do think the Cavs' run had to have had a non-negligible effect.

I disagree with you also about the economy factor. Ticket prices have gone way up since the 90s, but the average income hasn't. When the economy is down, people do sacrifice some luxuries, and taking one's family to Jacobs Field (not to mention season tickets) certainly qualifies as a luxury these days.

MP said...

I liked this article and I agree with you on every point.

Two points in particular stand out to me: that the attendance problem IS due to fans not recognizing faces, and IS NOT due to the economy.

A smaller-scale case in point is Toledo. No matter what, you have to agree that Cleveland's economy does much better than Toledo's, though it is accurate to say that the entire Northern Ohio region is suffering.

Despite the economic struggles of many, Mud Hens games are still pretty well-attended by Toledoans. Sure, ticket prices at the Fraction are substantially less than prices at the Jake, but it shows that it's correct to say that fans don't want to do without entertainment, even in hard times. Toledo doesn't, and Hens attendance is indicative of that.

On the other hand, take a look at the ECHL's Toledo Storm. Low attendance has caused the owners to threaten to close up shop more than a few times now. Of course, it is likely related to the fact that the Sports Arena is ancient, but low Storm attendance can also be traced to the team losing its identity.

The Storm have been affiliated with at least three, maybe four different NHL teams over the past decade. Add to that the fact that in hockey, fights are now generally discouraged, and the fact that no player stays with the Storm for long (probably because they are affiliated with the perpetual youth movement known as the Chicago Blackhawks right now). It all amounts to seeing players that fans can'tidentify with, especially not in Toledo.

Joel said...

Recognizable faces: Pronk, Victor, C.C., Sizemore and now, Carmona. C.C. will be gone. No problem.

You've hit on the ultimate debate the Indians will be having for years and years on end, and this attendance issue won't be any different next year.

Do they want to spend their offseason allotment on one guy, Manny or Sheffield or Carlos Lee, and forget about improving the bullpen, thus being another mediocre team?

Or do they want to improve the team across the board and sacrifice a few posteriors for more wins?

Whether anyone likes it or not, the payroll isn't going to accommodate any $20M-a-year players anytime soon, including Sabathia. Or if it does, it won't accommodate that player and a suitable supporting cast to make the team a winner.

Somehow, I think Tribe players like Nixon, Dellucci, Borowski, Betancourt, etc. would rather have 20K fans who are going to scream for nine innings than 40K who only came to see Gary Sheffield.

I don't think the attendance bothers anyone in that clubhouse as much as anyone leads on.

Zach said...

I'm not sure if there's anything I can add as to why the Indians aren't drawing that well.
But I do think this season (and to a lesser extent, 2005) demonstrate an issue that hasn't been the case much.
The Indians are winning.
The Cavs have won.
The Browns exist.

I think, for casual fans, there is a level of burnout when it comes to sports. It may not be financial. But there is a fatigue for a number of people when it comes to sporting events.

Most of us that read this site are hard core sports people. But when the Indians had 455 consecutive sellouts a number of the fans who went were not die hards. For about six years, Jacobs Field was the place to be for sports. It's not that way anymore. There are other, newer and fresher options. The Q is practically new, and the Browns exist, so people will buy tickets.

Some people just can't intensely follow sports all year. They may go to four sporting events a year. In 1995, all of those events would have been Indians games. It's just not that way anymore.

Erik said...

t.a.m.s.y--

Without a doubt, season tickets are a luxury. I was arguing against the point that the vast majority of Cleveland-area residents are too hard up for cash to afford going to a Tribe game. I don't think that's the case by a long shot.

MP--

Minor league sports are a whole other ball of wax. Not only can you not sell fans on a "winning plan," your roster is basically at the mercy of the parent club. Which means, if you are governed by a dreg like the Blackhawks, any player that shows a modicum of promise is instantly brought up to the show. That means you need all kinds of bells and whistles to draw fans.

I point to the example of the most recent reincarnation of the Cleveland Barons, which had nothing worth seeing if you weren't a hardcore hockey fan. That's why the team moved to Worcester, Mass. and we're preparing for the Lake Erie Monsters.

Joel--

I personally think the whole debate over attendance is overblown. Many people have pointed out that it's a trailing indicator. Most of what's going on is due to the fact that the Indians went 78-84 a year ago. If the Indians get to the playoffs this year, attendance will undoubtedly spike in '08.

Zach--

The vast majority of people don't guzzle sports the way present company does. I think there might be something to the burnout factor. Some people just aren't going to throw away 75 percent of their disposable income going to sporting events. They want to go do something else, like take the kids to go slap giant Central Floridian mosquitos at Disney World.

Rob said...

One quick observation, and I'd like to get your thoughts:

I'm 25 years old, grew up in Akron, and have been following sports and the Cleveland teams my whole life. Something that has jumped out for me over the last 5 years is the lack of interest in the Indians by people in roughly my age group. I know tons of sports fans and I never hear anyone talk much about the Indians, but rather all Cavs and Browns. These people would kill for Browns/Cavs tickets but rarely talk about going to Indians games.

Now, I this may be just a coincidence that many I know or come across aren't Indians fans. I also realize many that pay for the tickets would be those of other generations.

But I do think baseball is not nearly as popular for people the age of about 30 and under, at least not like it was when my father was 25.

I keep hearing about how baseball attendance has been up over the past few years, and that may well be true, but I've lived in NE Ohio, the East Coast, and now out West, and very few sports fans roughly the same age as me pay much attention to baseball.

It really would be interesting to do a study of the popularity of sports among different age groups. I think when I'm about the age of 50 or 60 (God willing), baseball will have fallen further down the sports map.

Just my opinion and my experience, though. I realize this may not be true or everyone else's experience.