Few teams have been as pleasantly surprising this season as the Cleveland Indians. And yet somehow the Indians have averaged fewer than 20,000 fans per home game this season. The attendance has been particularly disappointing in recent weeks, as the Tribe has somehow powered its way into the middle of the wild-card kerfuffle.
Granted, the Indians aren't alone. The four franchises at the bottom of the attendance table are all within a thousand per game of each other. Are there other commonalities among them? The two key factors in attendance are population and performance. The Indians play in a tiny market but are quite competitive, which gives them half an excuse. But let's look at them all ...
- The Indians are playing .544 ball, and have been at least nominal contenders for most of the season. Only two major-league teams play in smaller markets.
- The Astros play in the fifth-largest market in the majors -- with two teams in Chicago and two in New York, there are 28 markets -- but are playing .342 ball this season.
- The Marlins play in the ninth-largest market and are playing .369 ball. The Marlins have rarely drawn well, and repeatedly have spit in the collective face of their fans.
- The Rays play in the 18th-largest market, they're playing .547 ball this season, and are competitive every year. Their stadium issues are well-documented.
What's interesting is that everyone's different, which makes comparisons difficult. However, we might reasonably compare the Indians to the Royals and the Pirates, as all three franchises play in small markets, and are playing well this season after many years of playing poorly. The Royals are out-drawing the Indians by roughly 2,000 per game, while the Pirates are out-drawing the Indians by more than 8,000 per game.
This basically happened last year, too, but it's more noticeable this season because this season the Indians have been contenders for longer.
I mentioned this last week somewhere, and there was essentially one explanation: Fans hold a grudge against management. This was echoed by a couple of local radio personalities (via Crain's Cleveland Business) ...
"There are many layers to it," said Tony Rizzo, a longtime Cleveland television sportscaster and current host of "The Really Big Show" on WKNR-AM, 850. "But my answer is Tribe fans are holding a grudge. Quite frankly, I don't think it's fair."
Mr. Rizzo, who has bought Indians season tickets the last three years, finds the club's failure to draw even decent crowds during a postseason race "baffling." He dedicated two hours of a recent morning show on WKNR — "We could've done it for six," Mr. Rizzo said — to the Tribe's attendance problem.
The common complaints all were grudges from days gone by, including the trades in consecutive years of Cy Young Award winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, the Dolan family that owns the team not spending money, the second-half collapses of the previous two seasons and the lack of a winning season since 2007.
Adam "the Bull" Gerstenhaber, an afternoon drive host on WKRK-FM, 92.3, concurs with his sports talk competitor.
"When it comes to the Indians, the fans have no faith," Mr. Gerstenhaber said. "They traded two Cy Young winners, Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia. The fans haven't gotten over that. Both of those trades were disasters."
Those trades were disasters. The best player the Indians got in the Cliff Lee deal has been Lou Marson; the best player the Indians got in the Sabathia deal has been Michael Brantley. Sure, Brantley's pretty good. But the Indians traded two huge stars and got exactly zero stars in return. As things turned out. And you can understand if the fans were, and remain, frustrated.
Every team makes bad deals, though. It's hard to figure how a couple of bad deals would completely poison the attendance well. As for second-half collapses, the Pirates' second-half collapses have been even more dramatic. As for lack of a winning season, the Indians are pikers compared to the Pirates. So, grudges? No faith? Perhaps. But it doesn't get us all the way.
Mark Shapiro's got his own theory:
"I think the largest driver of our attendance numbers are tied to our market size," Mr. Shapiro said. "The second factor is we need to get a greater number of season tickets or advanced purchases in a city where so few people live and work downtown.
"We need to have people committed to coming downtown," Mr. Shapiro said. "If they're making the decision last-minute in a world where the home entertainment option is such a positive one and there is some barrier to driving downtown, then our attendance is going to suffer through that."
Market size? Well, sure. It's obviously a problem. But while Pittsburgh's got significantly more people than Cleveland, Cleveland's got significantly more people than Milwaukee, and the Brewers are drawing 60 percent better than the Indians. Basically, for every excuse for the Indians' attendance woes, there's a contradictory response. And of course there's one thing I've not mentioned: Between 1995 and 2001, the Indians set a record with 455 straight sellouts.
Granted, 2001 was a long time ago. But unlike the fans in Miami and Tampa-St. Pete, the fans in Cleveland have filled their team's ballpark for years on end. Just not lately. And while it obviously can be done again, you do have to wonder ... If they won't come back this year, when will they come back? Remember, the Indians actually made a small splash last winter on the free-agent market, signing both Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.
At this point, it's difficult to say what might bring the fans back. A World Series, probably. But you know, those are hard to come by.
For much more about the Indians, please visit SB Nation's Let's Go Tribe.