To say the mood at Progressive Field in Cleveland was electric the last two nights is the understatement of the baseball season.
The first two games of the World Series brought sellout crowds, mostly made up of Indians fans, totaling more than 38,000 both nights. Everywhere you turned, there were happy Clevelanders sporting Indians jerseys, jackets, hats and t-shirts.
The Cleveland Indians are hot stuff.
Which is why it’s confusing to check the year’s attendance figures. Cleveland ranked 28 out of 30 teams during the regular season. Progressive seats a little over 35,000. The average attendance this season?
The Indians had a great season and won the American League’s Central division by a comfortable eight games. But that apparently didn’t move people until the playoffs.
So what gives? Are gritty, rust-belt Clevelanders, known for their loyalty and other bedrock Midwestern values, actually flighty, fair-weather baseball fans?
A CHAMPIONSHIP HANGOVER
At Progressive Field before Game 2, some theories emerged about the attendance numbers.
“I think sometimes people just aren’t really ready to jump on until it’s like, ‘ok we’re winning and we’re really winning,’ ” said PJ Hetkey from Akron.
Indeed, the Indians’ division title was its first since 2007. During that time, the team for the most part settled into a routine of not qualifying for the postseason. And not exactly inspiring its fan base.
Another theory – the Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA title in June of this year and left the city’s sports fans sated.
“I think there was somewhat of a playoff hangover from the Cavs,” said Steve Mansbery. He was born and raised in Cleveland. “I think the city was probably a little bit, maybe financially exhausted from being involved in committing their entertainment dollars to that team.”
Mansbery continued, “I think the other thing is it’s a long season for baseball, and I don’t know if Indians fever caught on until after that playoff hangover left them.”
Although low, this year’s attendance figures actually are an increase from last season, when the Indians finished 13 ½ games out of first place in the Central Division.
But not much of an increase. Last season Cleveland ranked 29th in attendance. This year, 28th, although the team did draw almost 2,000 more fans per game.
In general, these low figures are not outliers. Cleveland attendance consistently has been at or near the bottom since 2010.
It hasn’t always been that way.
CLEVELAND WAS THE PLACE
From June 1995 until April 2001, Progressive Field (then called Jacobs Field) set a Major League Baseball record by selling out 455 consecutive games. This coincided with the Indians’ last great stretch on the field – they went to the World Series in 1995 and 1997. Their attendance figures were as high as fourth in the majors in 2001.
Then the numbers started falling off.
It’s not a stretch to link the declining numbers to when Cleveland stopped playing great baseball. And also to when the novelty of the Indians ballpark started to wear off. When it opened in 1994, Jacobs Field was considered one of the trendsetters in the move toward smaller, retro ballparks in urban settings.
HOW ‘BOUT THEM BROWNS?
Another confusing tentacle to this story, the NFL’s Cleveland Browns currently rank 18th of 32 teams in attendance. Not great. But not near the bottom like the Brown’s baseball brethren in Cleveland.
Who happen to be in the World Series.
While the Browns are the NFL’s only winless team. 0-7.
Of course, an NFL team only has eight home games, compared to 81 home stands in baseball. So every NFL game is an event.
But there also could be a specifically Cleveland element to this attendance discrepancy.
“I think it’s always going to be a football town,” said Cleveland native Steve Mansbery, adding “I’m the same way. I’ll turn on the game [even] if they’re 0-7. I will listen to the game on the radio, listen to Jim Donovan [play-by-play announcer]. I know the outcome. They’re going to lose. They’re not good. But there’s just something about this town and its love of the Browns. It just won’t go away. It’s in the city’s blood. There’s just no way to get rid of it.”
HOPING FOR MORE NEXT YEAR
Of course the Indians hope this year’s success (still to be determined) translates to another era of prosperity at the gate. Indians’ fan PJ Hetkey thinks it can happen, as it’s happening next door to Progressive Field at Quicken Loans Arena, home to the NBA champions.
“I mean look at the perspective of the attitude toward the Cavs and what they’ve done,” Hetkey said, “and how people are really looking forward to this [NBA] season. I’d like to see that carry forward with the Indians as well.”
There’s the matter of the World Series to settle first. The action now shifts to Wrigley Field in Chicago for Game 3 on Friday. During the Chicago games, Progressive Field will hold “watch parties.” Big crowds are expected.
Now, they can’t keep ’em away from the ballpark.