The City of Cleveland has always had a natural affinity for professional sports. Ever heard of the Browns Backers? An organization of fans with chapters dedicated in every state in the US, and many, many cities and other countries across the world. Our beloved Cavaliers never have a problem packing the stands, especially during the two LeBron James eras, where Cleveland’s local economy as a whole spiked big time.
For as bad as the Browns and Cavs have been, the ticket sales departments on both teams have always been incredibly busy. The Cavs have placed in the top-10 in attendance around the NBA in each season since 2014. Every year they had LeBron James in both eras, that skipped up to being in the top-five.
Attendance has been rough in recent years for the Browns. However, “rough,” by their standards, has been middle of the pack at worst. When the Browns briefly threatened to win the division in 2014, they entered the top 10 and have been trending upward since their horrendous 1-15 season in Hue Jackson’s first season with the team.
Yet, the Indians made it to the World Series in 2016 and have been a perennial playoff contender and frequent division winner for several years now. In spite of that, attendance for them has long been a running joke- they’ve consistently been in the bottom 1/4th of the league.
When LeBron James returned to Cleveland after time in Miami, his presence was once again immediately felt. Cleveland’s economy began to boom. Not just at home games in Quicken Loans Arena, but the city, in general, thrived as Cleveland became a much more friendly general tourist city.
When the Browns went 0-16 in 2017, a small group of fans began to prepare a protest, angry at the many years of ineptitude Browns fans had experienced. That ‘small group of fans’ turned into thousands upon thousands of people littering the streets, from all over the country, standing for hours in -35 degree, horrendously windy and chilly weather, making many loud, passionate (in some cases, profanity-laced) statements and cheers against the team’s front office and ownership. Even from the faraway state of Massachusetts, my Patriots fan father and myself attended this protest.
In recent years, the Indians have not set any records for ineptitude on the field. The team also frequently loses big-name players (like the Cavs have lost LeBron) and yet they are perennial playoff contenders. Why then, do they suffer more from attendance issues than their neighboring sports teams?
For one, Cleveland is simply not as much a baseball city as it is basketball or especially football. Given the Indians season intersects and often competes with these two for the in-person attention of fans and it’s easy to see where the first issue is.
The second issue likely stems around the timing of these games and the fact that baseball games can be really, really long. A particular fan or fans with children are unlikely to be able to make a game when their child is in school particularly often. People with early morning work schedules may dislike a game potentially lasting until midnight or later.
The third issue is probably the cost, experience ratio, to an extent. If you go to a Browns game, you are witnessing at least 1/16th of their season. When you go to an Indians game, you are witnessing 1/162nd of their season. You would need to attend 11 Indians games to match the impact of a single Browns game. Obviously, doing that would cost a lot more money and time. Additionally, what if you go to an Indians game and Francisco Lindor is given the day off? Maybe you went to see Trevor Bauer or Corey Kluber pitch on a day they just didn’t have it. Barring injury or suspension, you will never see Baker Mayfield or Odell Beckham Jr. take a game off.
The fourth issue would be the team’s appallingly cheap ownership. Follow this line of thinking here: the team is suffering from poor attendance year after year after year, so they proceed to trade away their best catcher, best power bat, and willfully let multiple good relief pitchers go to other teams without contest. While this past offseason was particularly brutal, the Dolans, in general, have always shown a hesitance, or downright refusal, to spend money fielding a competitive product. This downright negligence of the team has long been a huge turn off to the fanbase and the attendance numbers back that sentiment up big time.
Finally, the real elephant in the room here. For as small a demographic as the average Cleveland fan would like to think, there is a very noticeable amount of people who do in fact take offense to the team name “Indians,” and especially the team’s Chief Wahoo mascot. While Wahoo has been largely phased out by modern-day apparel stores from the team, Wahoo was certainly in circulation long enough where enough fans have plenty of Wahoo gear and aren’t afraid to lord it around, in games and in Cleveland in general. The general controversy surrounding Wahoo has no doubt driven potential fans away. There are also those who opposed the team’s decision to remove Wahoo from team merchandise and as the team’s primary logo and actively boycott or go to fewer games than they would’ve as a result.
Ultimately, some of these issues (namely, the Chief Wahoo issue) don’t seem to have obvious answers of correction. We also don’t exactly know when the Dolans plan to sell. Unfortunately, until they’re corrected, we should continue to expect the Indians to hover around the near-bottom of MLB’s attendance numbers.