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Back to the Future: Looking at the past to renovate the future

Back to the Future: Looking at the past to renovate the future
Photo: AP
November 24, 2014
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Some of my best memories growing up are tied to watching the Cleveland Indians with my family. Following “greats” like Graig NettlesChris ChamblissCharlie SpikesGeorge Hendricks, Jack Brohammer, Duane KuiperAndre Thornton and, of course, my idol Rick Manning always made it easy to find someone to emulate in the back yard as we played ball. And seeing them along the fence signing autographs brought them even closer to us as fans.

Yes, the Indians were always average at best, playing in the old American League East, having very little chance of success with the Yankees, Orioles, Red Sox, Brewers and Tigers to deal with every season. But that didn’t matter -- they were our guys, our team.

As sports salaries spiral out of control, and professional teams rack up the profits, I see only one segment of the game taking the hit for the apparent success of a game that once was so accessible and meaningful.

The fans.

As ticket prices soar to accommodate $200 million contracts and a gigantic profit margin for owners, it’s the common fan who pays the price for this perceived success.

In recent years, the Indians have taken a huge hit in attendance as the Browns and Cavs vie for sports entertainment dollars. The game in general has become more a spectacle and less of an experience, no longer the same lifelong glue that bonds a father and son.

No, the days are long gone when a family could, on a whim, drive down to the park, grab some tickets at the booth and enjoy an afternoon or evening down at the old ball yard. Memories of attending twi-night double-headers, enjoying hot dogs with the best mustard in sports, dropping peanut shells beneath the seat and cheering on our Tribe was an experience that was seared into our memory banks forever.

But those times are gone.

These days, you need to plan a trip to a game like you would a vacation, setting money aside ahead of time to deal with parking and escalating ticket prices, as well as hot dogs and peanuts that cost the price of a good meal in a sit-down restaurant.

With the club struggling at the gate, Tribe deep thinkers have come to the conclusion that they need to keep up with the times. They have already updated areas within the stadium for electronic access, and now are taking out seating to create chic gathering spots where people can hang. Perhaps this is what it takes to attract the new, young clientele of this generation. As if it’s not enough to provide guests with a baseball game, you need to create an entire experience. I’ve got news for them…

The game was the experience.

I would argue that the Indians don’t need to look to the future for answers to declining attendance, but to the past. Look to a time, beyond even Sudden Sam McDowell and past the successful teams of the forties and fifties.

Do you recall in the movie Eight Men Out, when Bucky and Scooter could scrounge up enough change to score a couple tickets to see their beloved White Sox? Baseball was a game that was accessible to those in all walks of life, one that young boys could watch in awe one day and step into their shoes the next day on the sandlot.

But why is baseball losing its appeal in Cleveland? Why do young men emulate LeBron James and Johnny Manziel, instead of having Michael Brantley as their hero?

Some would say it’s because baseball is losing the marketing game with other rival sports, while others would blame it on the “cheap” Dolans for not having superstars to follow like the great teams of the 90’s.

I would argue that it is more due to not only the changing of the game itself, but even more so the inaccessibility of youngsters to the game and its players.

Living almost two hours from Cleveland, I am a die-hard Tribe fan who loves baseball. This past year we made it to exactly ZERO games. A combination of a busy teenager schedule, the distance, the cost and being able to watch the games so readily on TV made it easy to not go. Odds are, those same reasons minus the distance were in play for the locals as well.

In the early to mid-1900s, fans could watch their beloved teams almost at will. These days it’s not quite so easy. So here’s a thought for the Indians to drum up some ticket sales. Make the tickets more affordable and the players more accessible.

The Tribe Tour used to make it to Holmes County on a regular basis, allowing fans to rub elbows with actual major league ballplayers. These days, it’s either too costly or too much effort to make such an event happen. If you want to get an autograph, or even see the Tribe take batting practice, you need to get to the park hours before a reasonable time, and even then there’s limited access to the individual players.

As for tickets, I know the marketing personnel of the Indians will be quick to point out that there are $10 bleacher seats available almost every game. And while that’s true, it’s not like the good old days when one could grab a seat along the first base line and snag a Julio Franco foul ball with one hand (yes, I did). So here are some thoughts on improving the relationship with the fans and bringing a generation back to the game.

The Atmosphere Needs To Change

One thing the organization has right is that the atmosphere in the building does need to improve. But what made it so electric during the sell-out streak of the 90’s? It wasn’t the kids place, Slider or some fancy bar deck in right field…It was the team and its fans.

And the place was alive.

What the Cleveland Indians need to do is get a good product on the field and get butts in the seats, and I would argue that each one depends upon the other.

Remember the feeling that a crazy comeback could happen at any moment, and the fans would sit on the edge of their seats in anticipation of a Manny or Thome blast, or a great Lofton catch that would change the outcome of a game? Band-wagoners would argue that happened because the team had talent. That’s hard to argue with, but that team also fed off a huge crowd every night.

This team also has talent…they just don’t have fans.

Cleveland was 29th of 30 MLB teams in attendance in 2014, averaging only 18,428 fans per game and drawing less than 1.5 million fans for the year.  The last year the Tribe drew over 3 million fans was in 2001, which was a hangover from the Dick Jacobs ownership era.

Looking at the average ticket price (and this is definitely loose math), it appears the Indians average price was around $21 for 2014. At an average attendance of 18,428 per game that equals about $387,000 in ticket revenue per game. Take that times the Tribe’s 78 home dates (due to a few home games that were a doubleheader) and you’ve got roughly $30 million dollars in annual gate revenue.

So, if $30 million is our baseline, where do we go from here?

Well, if you were digging the charged atmosphere of the 90’s, wouldn’t it be easy to surmise that it was more fun to attend a game back then and that the team had more people who actually followed them and the players?

How can the Indians get back to a larger crowd?

Again, good team, affordable prices. If the organization were to make going to a game extremely fan-friendly, what would it do for attendance? Say the Tribe made some adjustments on weekday games, and ALL SEATS were $15. How many additional fans would it take to make such an endeavor worthwhile? Let’s see.

There are 42 non-weekend dates for the 2015 season. Here’s how attendance could work if we use 40 of those:

20,000 fans @$15 = $300,000 revenue per game
25,000 fans @$15 = $375,000 revenue per game
30,000 fans @$15 = $450,000 revenue per game
35,000 fans @$15 = $525,000 revenue per game
40,000 fans @$15 = $600,000 revenue per game

We see that somewhere between 25k – 30k fans the team would hit our benchmark for revenue that was set the past year. Is it unrealistic to assume that lower ticket prices would make more fans come? There would be more, the question is how many more?

There are other relevant questions, such as:

• How much more concessions do 30k fans consume compared to 18k?
• Is the fan experience better with a stadium 1/3 full or over 2/3 capacity?
• Will the players play a more inspired brand of ball with a larger crowd?
• Would more trips to the game turn a casual fan into a real one?

Now we’re getting somewhere.

The more people come through those gates, the more potential lifetime fans the team is creating, the more excitement they are building, the more concessions and merchandise they are selling.

If the adjustment makes it so the club can attract 30,000 per game over the course of the season, it gives the Indians over $50 million in gate revenue on the year. More money to improve the team makes for a better product, a better product makes for more excitement and more fans.

See how this works?

The fact is, the Indians need to build a relationship with their city and their fans, and no amount of retooling the stadium is ever going to accomplish that. But the team reaching out to its fan base in a fashion such as this could be huge for building their brand now and in the future. Fans love their Dollar Dog Nights with fireworks, how about seeing what a Ten Dollar Tuesday would do for a weeknight attendance?

User Comments

November 24, 2014 - 11:30 PM EST
Just FYI John--

Average ticket price, 2013 Season:

St. Louis Cardinals: $33.84
Cleveland Indians: $21.31
November 24, 2014 - 9:22 PM EST
Regardless of his age, Matthew has a valid point. The past is long past in Cleveland. It is no longer a major city. When baseball was less costly there were lots of blue collar fans to whom it was affordable entertainment but that does not exist now. Unlike Matthew, I have seen Cleveland win a world series but I live in San Diego. I do not attend games any longer but enjoy some on TV. It is no longer a game for the masses. Cleveland, win or lose,cannot compete long term with the financial wherewithal of more successful cities with more interest in the pastime. Welcome to this century.
November 24, 2014 - 4:57 PM EST
Basically I think that Matthew has it right.

Unless the Tribe can convince a whole bunch of people, like 20k, to buy season tickets (and in terms of discounting the price, this is one strategy that might be successful, and where it could make sense to focus efforts), it's going to depend on what might be called fair-weather fans.

John, for people to connect with the team it has to be a good team. They're not going to connect w a loser team. People will "connect" with a winner. It will take a consistent winning team (which they have not had, we're falling short of that) to get people excited about being there. To ever think that people are going to come in droves and then the team can get better after that is just wishful thinking it's just not going to happen. It all starts with a great team to root for and be associated with.
John M
November 24, 2014 - 3:31 PM EST
Wow, Matthew, you put me to shame. You don't sound like a fan from a generation that doesn't care about baseball. You made good points and I totally agree in that the best thing they can do is create a winner. One item I would like to stress is that I'm not advocating that this program would make them more money at the gate. I do propose, however, that this idea would upgrade attendance to at least the break even point where they are now (in ticket sales), but the larger attendance would result in more profit from concessions and gear sales, a more exciting home field to play on for the team and an overall better relationship between the team and the town, which would hopefully result in the long run with a new generation of youngsters who in 30-40 years can write about their great memories. Progressive Field needs to somehow again become a destination of magical finishes and warm fuzzies. How exactly one makes that happen I can't say, but this was my take on it.

When you look at teams like the St. Louis Cardinals who have this rabid fan base, one has to want to examine that and figure out why. They have pro hockey and football yet baseball is king. If MLB was smart, they'd do some kind of study in the successful baseball cities and help out the rest of the league.
November 24, 2014 - 2:59 PM EST
I am sure that marginally more fans would show up to games if tickets were discounted. That's simple supply/demand/price curve stuff. What I'm suggesting is just that 1) I don't believe your suggestion that lowering prices would lead to increased overall revenue, and 2) I don't believe that increasing attendance, on its own, should be the goal of the front office.

The player development side of the front office should be dedicated to building a winner, and the business side should be dedicated to maximizing profitability. I know fans don't like hearing that, but it's the reality of a for-profit entity. If the player development side is successful, more fans will want to attend games, and the business side will adjust their pricing model to reflect the changes in demand.

So, my only contention here is that I'm pretty certain there is no easy fix to the attendance problem. Building a consistent winner is the best way to improve attendance, and I think the front office has actually done an excellent job recently in building towards that.

As for what would make me, personally, attend more games, I would say almost nothing. I am a member of the dreaded generation much maligned in your piece. I'm 30 years old and I live in Chicago. I managed to make it to 6 home dates during the 2014 season (I planned both of my weekend trips back to Ohio during home stands and went to every game) as well as all 10 dates they played on the South Side here in Chicago. So I am pretty much doing what I can to support the team, aside from moving back to NE Ohio.
John M
November 24, 2014 - 2:02 PM EST
OK, Matthew. If lowering ticket prices and "loose math" (my term, not yours) are not any kind of solution, what is your idea on how to remedy the situation? Is the right field bar going to fix anything? More bobblehead promos?

If there are no other ideas, then the Dolans might as well pack up and go elsewhere, because it sounds like in your world 18,000 a game is about the max to expect.

And I'm not asking this in a confrontational way. As a fan, what would make you attend more games or be appealing to you?
Scott M
November 24, 2014 - 1:28 PM EST
I don't understand how you can discuss the Indians sellout streak without mentioning that the Browns were gone for the vast majority of it. There are just not enough sports dollars to heavily support 3 sports teams in this town and with Lebron back it may get worse for the Indians.
November 24, 2014 - 12:14 PM EST
I think that this is a great topic to write about John, so thanks for doing that! You make some good points. I think its sad the way that sports have changed over the last 30-40 years (I've been following the Tribe from a distance since 1969), and especially astronomical salaries and the burden this places on teams to increase the cost to the average person. Some markets can easily increase prices (like my local San Francisco Giants), and some cannot.

That said, to your points: You aren't factoring in inflation, and imo in any conversation about ticket prices this is necessary to do. For example, a $15.00 ticket from the sellout days in1994 has the purchasing power of about $24 today. And your example of today's average ticket price of about $21 is equal to between $12 and $13 from 1994. Maybe lowering the price to $15 a head would make a difference, but I think that factoring in inflation makes today's prices look quite reasonable, and makes your point questionable as the reason people don't come to the games. (I do think that the Cleveland area might have a lower CPI inflation rate relative to the national avg that I used here though...).

The other factor that need to be mentioned is that the world has changed dramatically since the mid '90's, and it's not going back. For better or worse, many people's lives are "busier" and more complex in ways that effect how they think about something like a baseball game. Everyone seems to be doing multiple things at one time and the kids today have a lot more options for engaging entertainment than I did when I was growing up, or even a young adult. I know my nieces and nephews (who are just crazy about athletics in general) have no interest in baseball whatsoever! It's just a different world today w our iphones and internet.
John M
November 24, 2014 - 10:52 AM EST
Joseph, I surely can appreciate your points, and agree that the Tribe ticket is the best and most affordable in town. While grading a curve this speaks well for the Indians, in the spirit of the article it still speaks to something that ails the Tribe -- there is a disconnect between the team and its fans.

The Browns can have ridiculous prices because they have only 8 home games in a football crazy town. The Indians have to deal with trying to fill a stadium for 81 home dates. That's a huge difference. Plus, the NBA and LeBron are overmarketed and blown up in such a way that people are duped into feeling they absolutely need to be there to watch. I don't think the Browns or the Cavs tickets are a good value.

While the article speaks more to baseball, and specifically the Indians plight, it addresses the overall obsession with pro sports in general, and this generation's extreme need to be entertained, rather than sharing an experience and a love for a game together.

I appreciate your comments. You, too, Thom.
November 24, 2014 - 10:47 AM EST
I see this same argument being made in the comments section of occasionally, and it really boggles my mind. Do people really believe that the Indians FO hasn't done extensive market research and testing to determine the price point that maximizes profitability? Do people really believe that their back-of-the-envelope "loose math" would result in a significant revenue improvement, if only the front office would just stop making tickets so expensive? Delusional.
Thom Tyler
November 23, 2014 - 7:16 AM EST
I have for years been trying to tell Tribe fans the same things. Thank you for putting it out there for the e-world to see and read. I get modernization, love my iPhone and all I can do with it, my kids are certainly consumed in all of their electronics and gadgets. I even hopped on Twitter recently and found what I can do with that and connect with the Indians, players, and the rest of the world.

I travel back and forth from Rochester NY to Cleveland at least once a month with my boys for a weekend series. We have a rule, we can use our phones for some pictures or selfies before or after the game, but for the three hours while the game is being played, that's what we drove 4 1/2 hours for.

It's a shame to see so many "fans" paying more attention to their phone than the game. Heck last September (2013) with the Indians on a hot streak and the playoffs in sight, I spotted fans watching a Browns game on his phone in front of me and missed a foul ball because he was so clueless to what was on the field. Too many young fans do the same. They are more interested in what's happening on their phone than the field. And now the Indians are appealing to them with the modern amenities (which have a place and needs to be embrace) but unfortunately at a cost to us all. It's too bad that the true baseball watching fans like ourselves are being forgotten. I don't need to be entertained or have an experience at Progressive Field. If Brantley, Kipnis, Santana, and all of other favorites play a great game and the Indians win, wasn't that the experience I paid for. Even if they lose, that's part of the game too and part of the experience and discussion at the restaurant, our hotel, and drive home.

Actually wasn't the best experience all that quality time I spent with my boys, not on my phone?

Thanks for the great piece. Roll Tribe!
Joseph Stanonik
November 23, 2014 - 1:17 AM EST
Hey John,

I really appreciated your passion in this piece and I can definitely tell you love the baseball team as much as I do which I value because fans like us seem to be a smaller group every year. I just wanted to take a moment to comment on some of the issues you brought up here, some of which I disagree with. First off I live in Cleveland which is a very different perspective than people who travel to see the Indians. But what I would say is that based on pure value you will not get a cheaper ticket, parking, or concession bill for a professional team than the Cleveland Indians. I typically go to like 15-20 games a year and I pay $15-$25 depending on how I get my ticket. The secret is if you buy your ticket in advance (and if you are traveling from out of town you should) you will save about $10. Of course high attendance games on the weekends always do cost more. Parking always varies between $10-20 but you can park for free at a variety of RTA spots throughout the city for free. As for concessions, I find the concessions to be reasonable. I usually try to eat before games and beer and drinks are fair for what they are. The key is not to go there expecting to eat a full meal and drop five beers. I could compare this to what the Browns/Cavs cost but I think we both know the experience costs significantly more than an Indian game.

My biggest issue you brought up is your opposition to the stadium changes. As someone that represents the younger demographic (32) I am sympathetic to what the Indians are trying to do to improve the game-day experience. For me, baseball will always be the draw to the park. But we have to remember that even in the hay day maybe like 25% of the fans were true baseball purists. The other 75% were there for the environment and to see dynamic All-Star players. Jacobs Field/Progressive Field has not had a significant remodel in 20 years. I hate to say it (because to me it still is one of the more beautiful parks in baseball) but the stadium has grown stale to a lot of fans. If making the stadium more local and new helps bring in people who have become disenfranchised with the team I say by all means make the improvements. I know in my group of friends the stadium remodeling is generating a lot of excitement that I think will carry over into the season.

My hope is that if new renovations can encourage fans to go back to the stadium maybe some will notice we have a pretty good young ball team with a great manager and some exciting All-Star talent. We have Brantley, Kipnis, Kluber, Gomes, Carlos, Lindor, Ramirez, Chisenhall, Carrasco, Bauer, Allen, and House all locked up through 2018. This has the potentially to have a nice little run. Maybe it won't be the 1990s but hopefully better than the last 15 years. I think people feel closer to players when they are truly superstars and household names. I mean look at Lebron. I don't think anyone in Northeast Ohio can definitively say they feel close to him but we all act like he is our family. Stars have a way of creating a feeling of access. The more fans who see our Tribe stars we come away feeling the same connection your have with your players from the 1970s.

In conclusion I think you make a good point that the Tribe can do more mid-week promotions to generate higher weekday attendance. I have thought that the Indians should do free attendance days once a month to encourage people to come to the stadium. I feel they would make up the profits lost in tickets in concessions easily. But I think we both know that if there is one thing the Dolan's cannot be blamed for it is promotions. They have done a high magnitude of promotions from dollar dog nights, firework nights, ball park concerts, half-off student nights, bobble heads, jersey give-aways, etc. I believe the only true way to generate interest is by doing what the Tribe did in 1994 by linking a new exciting building with an exciting team. They are working on the stadium as we speak. I believe the team is there. I guess we will see at the ball park this summer if they can recapture some of that magic.

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