Because a number of commenters on this site have expressed concerns about the Tribe’s poor attendance so far this year and some have wondered about the possible effect of this poor attendance on the continued viability of the franchise, I thought I would try to offer my own perspective on the subject.
The small NE Ohio firm which I used to own and for which I currently consult has had four season tickets since 1992. The total cost of the tickets, including a parking pass we buy, is a little over $10,500 per season, which is a serious commitment for a firm the size of ours. Before we had season tickets, we bought tickets to about twenty games a season for the several preceding decades.
I mention these things at the outset not to claim any great expertise on the subject of attendance. Rather, I’m simply trying to show that we have a strong incentive to remain aware of our clients’ attitude toward the Indians before also mentioning my own ongoing experience in making phone calls to our clients to make sure that we have someone lined up to use the tickets every game. In making these calls over the years, I have developed some awareness of what influences a person’s decision about whether or not to attend any particular game—or any game at all.
The first thing that I think readers and commenters should keep in mind about the attendance this spring is the overwhelmingly negative effect that cold, rainy weather has on a casual fan’s decision about whether to go to a game even when the seats offered are both free and in an excellent location. In my experience, regardless of the team’s record it is hard to find guests for games which are forecast to be played in such weather conditions. In fact I have almost always found it harder to find guests for springtime games being played by a good Indians team than for summer games being played by a lousy team. It seems to me that people just can’t stand the thought of being wet and cold at an Indians game.
Incidentally, prospective guests much more readily accepted the possibility of such conditions at a Browns game; we used to have Browns tickets as well and always found takers regardless of the likely weather conditions. My guess is that people consider bad weather to be a legitimate part of the football, but not the baseball, experience in Cleveland.
So while this is no earthshaking observation, I think that most of the reason for the bad attendance so far is simply the bad weather we have had.
The second point I want to make has to do with scarcity. Prompted by some comments on this site earlier this year, I recently conducted my own informal survey at a barber shop and a diner in our small town about why the Browns continued to draw better crowds than the Indians even though the Tribe’s record has been better. (I am aware of the sample size problem, among others, in using this approach, but keep in mind that a number of political pundits have made entire columns and careers out of occasional interviews they have done in small town barber shops.) When I asked people why they thought the Browns were drawing better crowds than the Indians, one answer seemed to come up repeatedly. People said that it was because the Indians “had so many games”.
While at first this answer sounded irrational to me, in thinking about it further I concluded that what people were really saying is that they knew that they could always get good tickets on game day to an Indians game and were thus inclined to wait to see what the weather was going to be like for a game before deciding whether to go. Thus I’m fairly certain that the low springtime attendance of recent seasons in and of itself has contributed to poor attendance this season by allowing people to defer decisions on whether to buy tickets until the day of a game and to avoid buying tickets altogether if the weather turns out to be lousy. If, on the other hand, they thought that they wouldn’t be able to get good seats unless they bought them in advance they wouldn’t defer the decision to purchase and would be compelled to attend bad weather games because they had already invested money in attending.
To return to the issue of better Browns attendance for a moment, I think that people know that there are only eight home games and that if the team turns out to be good and they haven’t bought tickets in advance they might be shut out entirely. So they buy tickets to at least a game or two well in advance even if it means they might ultimately be forced to watch a bad team. This greatly bolsters attendance figures.
Finally, I think there may also be a subtler issue at work in depressing attendance at Tribe games, though it is at best only a small part of the explanation: poor attendance may in and of itself somehow send a signal that the games aren’t worth attending. I say this because my wife and I are currently travelling in a country where people eat dinner much later than Americans normally do. Because we’re creatures of habit, we show up at restaurants at the time we usually eat to find that we are almost invariably the first customers of the evening. And the person at the door invariably tries to guide us to take a table at the front window. Most restaurants follow this practice, and they do it for a reason. Simply seeing that people are already patronizing a restaurant will incline passersby who are undecided about where to have dinner to go to a restaurant which has already attracted patrons. The fact that people are already there creates the impression that the restaurant must be a good one. If I’m right about this signaling issue, the sight of empty stands on television may contribute to the perception that the games aren’t worth attending. There are certainly more obvious explanations for the current poor attendance, and I hope I’ve already mentioned them, but I just wonder if televised pictures of empty stands don’t somehow taint the product in the mind of the casual observer of the Cleveland sports scene.
Let me conclude with a thought about whether the poor attendance figures of recent years are an existential threat to the franchise. As one who lived through the bad old days when we were constantly afraid of losing the franchise, let me offer two reasons that I believe that the franchise is relatively safe: revenue sharing and baseball’s antitrust exemption. As much as I despise the current economic system in baseball, it does produce significant revenue sharing payments to teams like the Indians and, as best I can tell, helps keep them financially stable. And the antitrust exemption gives the commissioner the ability to force teams to stay in place. Contrast that to the situation in basketball and football, where so-called franchise free agency has become the norm.
What I think will happen to cure the attendance problem is the following: I think that the Tribe will continue to play well, and fans will begin to confront long lines as they try to buy tickets right before the game. This will cause them to get worse tickets than if they had bought in advance and to miss part of the game to boot, which will give them an incentive, in addition to the price incentive the Indians already offer for early purchase, to buy tickets far enough in advance that they’ll be committed to attending even if the weather’s bad. This will lead to a fuller stadium, and this will start a virtuous cycle of better crowds leading to even better ones.
Keep your fingers crossed that the weather gets a lot better and that team continues to play well. If it does this problem might cure itself.