The Disappointment Zone

Musings from a Cleveland sports fan

More on attendance: revised edition

Posted by disappointmentzone on 26 July 2007

Over at Let’s Go Tribe there is a discussion going on about why the attendance numbers at Indians game are so poor despite the fact that the team is so good. Some people think it is an issue of economics. It’s not. Here’s why.

The Indians are averaging about 20,000 fans each home game. There was a while there that the team averaged a sell out. Why isn’t this happening any more? The answer is not the economy. The answer is winning.

The economy sucks (anyone want to hire me for a job??). Cleveland has been hit hard. But is the economy really so bad that there are not 10,000 fans within driving distance of Jacobs Field who can afford to pay the attendant costs of attending an Indians game (ticket, parking, food, etc.)?

No, the economy is not that bad. A few million people populate the Greater Cleveland and out of those few million there are tens of thousands of people who can afford the cost of attending a game. They were there in 1995 and 1997. In those years they were eager to pay to watch the Indians play. Now, not so much.

Where did they go? Nowhere. Why aren’t they at Jacobs Field?

Because in 1997 the Indians were winning and in 2006 the Indians finished under .500 and missed the playoffs.

Cleveland has a whole bunch of fair weather fans (as do most places). When the Indians were winning in 1997 people showed up. Going to an Indians game was the hip thing to do. People wanted to be part of that crowd. People who otherwise weren’t interested in spending their extra change on Indians tickets decided to do so.

Then the Indians stopped winning and started rebuilding and people stopped showing up to games and the reason they stopped showing up to the game is because the Indians stopped winning.

If the team makes it to the playoffs this season the Jake will suddenly sell out and it won’t be because of a sudden economic bump. It’ll be because about 15,000 people who couldn’t be bothered to go to a game during the regular season will find going to a playoff game enticing. Bandwagons are like that. These people will gladly pay their money to watch the Indians in the playoffs. Should the team win the World Series, these same people will gladly buy up tickets next season. It’s the same cycle that affects every single major sports franchise in a market the size of Cleveland. You win, people come. You don’t, people stay away.

When you are dealing with a market as small as Cleveland the biggest factor for whether the Indians have high attendance numbers is a combination of winning and how winning contributes to the appeal of going to a game. There just isn’t a big enough fan base in Cleveland to sell out a stadium featuring a .500 team. That’s an issue of population, not economics. In New York it’s possible. In Philly it’s possible. In Cleveland it’s not possible.

When the Indians start winning and the fans will come back. Just look at the Cavs.

The culprit is not economics and unless there is another Great Depression the culprit probably will never be economics.

What matters is winning.

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4 Responses to “More on attendance: revised edition”

  1. Jay said

    With all due respect, you really should delete this. It’s just astoundingly clueless, and incredibly insensitive to hundreds of thousands of Clevelanders who are in real economic distress.

    The culprit is in fact economics more than anything else, and all you’ve demonstrated here is that you apparently haven’t read a newspaper in 15 years. I’m doing you a favor here, get rid of this post.

  2. I’m not denying that there are economic issues in Cleveland. I am not denying that those issues are not incredibly important for the people under distress. I have no intention of not recognizing the economic issues facing Cleveland and I am well aware of what life is like in this area. Before moving away last year I had spent my whole life here.

    My point is that the economic issues facing Clevelanders is not the reason why the Indians are drawing so few fans. The fact that the team has not made the playoffs in a number of years and is coming off a losing season is a big factor, likely the biggest factor. There has been a lot of research done (at least in basketball) that shows that the biggest factor that contributes to home attendance is how well a team is doing in terms of winning. That’s my point. Winning is what brings fans to the stadium, though I admit that economics is what keeps many people away.

  3. Jay–

    I have no problem with criticism and I have no issues leaving your comment up. I revised my post to be more pointed, but the thrust of my argument hasn’t changed. Winning is what drives attendance in a place the size of Cleveland. You are wrong when you say that the culprit is economics more than anything else. This is wrong today, it’s wrong yesterday, and it’ll be wrong until everyone living in and around Cleveland can’t afford to go to a baseball game save for 70,000 odd people.

    Your intentions may have been pure but your tactic was to shame me into deleting what I wrote. I have in fact read a newspaper in the last 15 years.

    There is nothing blatantly wrong with the original post (in terms of facts or the validity of its argument). My hunch is that the relative cost of attending an Indians game hasn’t changed dramatically since 1995. I provide a terse explanation for why I think that’s true. It could have been better.

    I probably should have prefaced my argument by pointing out that I was speaking about the faction of people living near Cleveland who can afford to attend a game. There might be a lot more people now who can’t attend a game than there were in 1997, but right now there is a population of a few hundred thousand people who can afford to attend a game. That population is roughly the same as it was in the mid-1990s, I’m guessing, or at least not so radically smaller as to affect attendance. Of this group of people who can afford to attend a game–a group many times larger than the capacity of the Jake–very few do compared to 1997. This is the population any thoughtful consideration of attendance should focus on.

    The economic decline in the early 2000s hit Cleveland and hit Cleveland hard. I know. I lived here. I’m feeling its wrath. It’s one of the main reasons why it won’t make financial sense for me to move back to the area for a long time, which sucks. It was not my intention of belittling the economic downturn or its effects.

    But a lot of industrial towns were hit just as hard as Cleveland and some of those places have baseball teams. Detroit, for example, is one of them. They are selling out today because they are winning. They drew 17,000 a game a few years ago because they were losing. Even if next season the population of people who can afford to attend Tigers games increased threefold it would have little impact if Detroit lost all its games. The same is true for Cleveland. The same is true for any city not larg enough to include a population of fans who have no qualms going into debt to see a baseball game.

    Your comment that the culprit is economics more than anything else is just not true.

    Anyway, your comment helped me make my argument more pointed. That’s always a good thing, so thanks for that.

  4. Jay Levin said

    Happy to help — and you’ve been more than gracious in responding to some pretty strong feedback from me.

    Fundamentally, I think you had better points to make in your previous article. Detroit is a much bigger market than Cleveland, nearly twice as big. While you would say winning is even more important to attendance in a smaller market like Cleveland, I would say the same about economic factors.

    Going back to my cave now. Go Tribe!

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