The Cleveland Indian have been hot all year. So why is nobody watching?

Economic decline, population loss and a saturated marketplace entail the Indians are among the worst supported squads in despite this years success

It was a big weekend for the Cleveland Indians. The were in town, and the AL Central title was at stake. The Tigers came in six games back, but the three-game series was the first of 7 encounters between the two teams before the end of the season. For the Indian, the math was simple: win this series, and the Tigers would move far enough back in the rear-view mirror to practically assure a Cleveland playoff spot in October.

The Indian won the series 2-1, and the magic number to clinch the division dropped to seven with 13 games to play. There was baseball excitement in Cleveland. Maybe a Tribe championship to follow the Cavalier riveting NBA title a few months ago? A chance for a city that has had a professional baseball team since 1869 to win its first title since 1948.

Youd is considered that a ticket to the Indians-Tigers series would have been hard to come by, given the longtime rivalry the Tiger and the Indian entered the American League in 1901 and the implications for the postseason. But the team only described, on average, about 25,000 for this meaningful September series, about two-thirds of the Progressive Field capacity. Tickets on StubHub were going for less than $10. And based on the number of fans wearing Tigers gear, it was obvious that a few millions of those in attendance had driven the two and a half hours from Detroit.

The numbers for this series were no aberration. The low attendances for the Indian this summer are causing some head-scratching among athletics experts. The team has been in first place since early June, but are third last in the league in attendance, ahead of only Oakland and Tampa Bay. The league average is about 30,000 a game, and the Indian are drawing merely under 20,000.

And yet the team has been reasonably successful over the past decade. Counting this year, the Indian have been. 500 or better in six of the past 10 years, and barring some unforeseeable collapse this year is likely to be the third playoff appearance for the Tribe in the past decade. But despite those success, the team has been in the bottom third of Major League Baseball attendance in every one of those 10 years.

The attendance numbers for Cleveland are mind-boggling, said Wayne McDonnell, the academic chair of NYUs Tisch Institute of Sport Management, Media and Business and a man known as the business of baseball professor.

What is a likely explanation, but one no one in Cleveland wants to deal with, is that maybe the citys population loss is finally making the sports marketplace, McDonnell continued. When you look at demographics and household incomes and the number of squads in a market, sports fans have to build hard decisions on where they are spending their fund, and maybe Cleveland fans are choice basketball and football over baseball because they dont have enough for all three.

In the case of Cleveland baseball fans, the best interest is still there, but merely not enough interest to buy tickets. Proof of that is that the local Tv ratings are up about 50% over last year. But Cleveland has the smallest US metro area with three of four major league sports teams( NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL ), and the Cleveland metro areas average household income is the fourth lowest of the MLB team markets( ahead of only Pittsburgh, Miami and Tampa Bay ). For economists, its simple: fewer people with less fund entails less spending. And with the success of the Cavaliers, and the popularity of the Browns no matter how bad they are, the Indians may be the odd squad out in Cleveland.

Since 2010, only two metro marketplaces in MLB have lost population: Cleveland and Pittsburgh. But population loss and a bad economy are only part of the reason the Indians might not be draw; it is also hemmed in by athletics marketplace geography. Three other major league baseball teams are within 250 miles.

Tyler Naquin signs autographs for the fans at Progressive Field. Cleveland are third last in attendance, ahead of merely Oakland and Tampa Bay. Photograph: David Maxwell/ Getty Images

There are no reasons the Indians should not be depicting well this year under the basic criteria for the business of baseball. Besides the team being very good, the Indian and the city have invested about $40 m in stadium upgrades in the past two years, including a new scoreboard, better eatery options and more plaza areas that allow fans to move and watch the game from great sightlines. In fact, a popular ticket option started two years ago gets a fan a standing-room-only ticket and a beer for $13, and bar areas inside the stadium to sit in. Progressive Field is 22 years old, but has none of the fan dissatisfaction issues that the stadia in, say, Tampa Bay or Oakland have.

The team has also been overachieving in some way, with few big-name players and a bottom-of-the-league payroll. Manager Terry Francona has get very good numbers from what many deem median players, and they are vying for the best record in the American League and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs( the Texas Ranger are one-and-a-half games ahead for home field ). In many routes, like the city it calls home, the Indian are a hard-working, blue-collar team that one would think would appeal to the masses in north-east Ohio.

The fact is that this team is still popular, and we ensure the support in the TV ratings and people wearing Indian gear all over town, said John Adams, who has been pounding his drum in the Cleveland Indians bleachers for 43 years. But the poverty rate here is real, and people are struggling. The comeback they are talking about in Cleveland is that we are staying afloat and not sinking. But for a family of four to spend a few hundred dollars going to a baseball game is only not doable for many here right now.

The population numbers are daunting. The city of Cleveland itself has dropped from 500,000 in 1990 to about 385,000 today. In 1970, the Cleveland metro area had 2.3 million people; it now has two million. The only baseball marketplaces that have lost population during that time are Pittsburgh and Detroit, but Detroit has about 4 million people and is still big enough to accommodate four pro sport teams. Even when the Akron-Canton and Youngstown populations are added to the mix, the Cleveland market has still diminished.

For comparings sake, look at Dallas-Fort Worth. In 1970, DFW was similar to the population of Cleveland with 2.4 million, but now has 7.1 million people. DFW only had the Dallas Cowboys back then, but its growth brought in squads from MLB( Rangers ), the NBA( Mavericks) and the NHL( Stars ). Cleveland still has three franchises and even had an NHL team in the mid-7 0s. But the Cleveland population loss is even bigger when you look at “the member states national” tendencies: the US has had a population gain of about 50% since 1970.

The geographical factor is also a problem. Within a two-hour drive of Progressive Field in Cleveland, there are three decent-size townships: Toledo( metro population of 650,000 ), Columbus( 2 million) and Youngstown( 550,000 ). But Toledo is closer to Detroit, Columbus is closer to Cincinnati, and Youngstown is closer to Pittsburgh. There are also six minor league baseball teams within two hours, which dedicates cheaper options for the casual baseball fan.

There are other factors at play. The Dolan family bought the Indians after the successful 1990 s, when they went to two World Series in 1995 and 1997, but attendance declined soon after and payroll spending went down significantly. Baseball is also is having trouble with younger fans; the games are too long for many and have too little action for others.

The success of the Cavaliers with LeBron James hasnt helped, either. To some degree, the Indians are now behind the curve[ that] the Cavs success has brought about, said Robert Boland, a prof of athletics management at Ohio University. Businesses have to buy Browns and Cavs tickets in advance because they will be gone if they dont. The Indians tickets are always there, so the business community feels they can buy them when they need to. But businesses and fans buy fewer tickets if they think they can get them at the last minute.

Can the Indians reverse the trend? The best blueprint might be the New York Mets, which had a lose record in 2014, went to the World Series last year and are in playoff contention this year. Mets attendance was 26,500 in 2014, and this year is at 34,500, an increase of 30%.

But the economics might be different for Cleveland. The Indian went to the American League Championship Series in 2007, and were just one win away from the World Series. That success did not translate into increased attendance; it actually went down in 2008, by about 5%( 28,500 a game to 26,700 ). Since 2010, the Indian have only been above the 20,000 median once.

A part of the reason people are perplexed by this is the perception that Cleveland is such a great athletics city and its fans will show up for losing squads irrespective. That perception is based upon emotion, and the faith that sports teams are immune from basic economics. But the exceptions sometimes complicate those analysis.

Mathematics are important, but if they were the only predictor, Green Bay wouldnt have an NFL team and St Louis wouldnt be depicting 40,000 a game for the Cardinals, said Jacob Rosen, a athletics business analyst and columnist for the Cleveland sports website Waiting For Next Year. Cleveland fans have always had a higher affinity for athletics than other growing areas in the country. Sports entails a lot more to people in the midwest than the west coast.

But where[ the Indian] are at right now is difficult to change; it is tough in baseball at this time to reversal sinking attendance numbers, Rosen said. The stadium is no longer shiny and new. Casual fans have other options. But I still guess winning this year and getting in the playoffs will have an effect. Fans here are very hungry for winning, and maybe well watched how that affects things from how the city has reacted to the Cavs title.

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