DETROIT: I often feel uncomfortable, almost embarrassed, watching the Indians at Progressive Field this season.
This is not a commentary on the performance of the team but on the tens of thousands of empty seats stretched out before me.
Where are the fans? I can’t help but wonder whether I missed the news; everyone else in Northeast Ohio is somewhere more desirable, and nobody told me.
I thought I was following the right people on Twitter, but I’m not hearing anything. From 1994 into the new century, Jacobs/Progressive Field was the place to be. Now, anywhere but the ballpark is where the 3.7 million people that comprise the Tribe’s primary market go to be entertained.
Are there secret nightly parties at the unfinished Medical Mart? Is the entire population of Cuyahoga County in a long line to claim free $100 chips at the Horseshoe Casino? Are the Gladiators suddenly filling up Quicken Loans Arena?
Is there an overwhelming urge for thousands of fans to visit Holmes County to eat cheese? Are all the young couples who used to come to baseball games sitting in wine bars sipping merlot and pinot noir? Is every baseball fan staying home to watch Duck Dynasty on the flat screen? Are there any baseball fans?
I know there are at least 10,000. That seems to be the baseline number at Progressive Field. There have been even smaller crowds for a few games but not much smaller. And yes, the Indians got their usual Opening Day sellout and drew 20,000 for Dollar Dog Night (Now I am embarrassed).
This is not a plea for people to spend their money on the Indians. I’m not about to tell anyone what to do with his discretionary income.
I also know generally how and why teams attract fans and why they don’t, but this is an extreme case. This franchise is last in attendance in all of major-league baseball, and it’s not even close. Per-game attendance at Progressive Field is 4,000 less than the Kansas City Royals, who are 29th in attendance.
Does the Tribe have the worst winning percentage in baseball? Not by a long shot. Does the team play in a dump? Hardly. Are prices for tickets, food, parking and merchandise higher than the market can bear?
Even if many seats weren’t heavily discounted, Indians tickets would be reasonably priced. And you will find the cost of ancillary items are similar to that of most teams.
So what is going on?
Attendance is largely based on fans’ expectations formed by the club’s performance in preceding years and by the moves a franchise makes the previous offseason.
That being the standard, the Tribe deserves to be among the lower rank of teams in attendance. Performance over the last decade has been disappointing at best, and the fans had a serious grievance with owners Larry and Paul Dolan, who have had problems funneling sufficient cash into the team to make it competitive.
But circumstances changed that dynamic over the winter. Because the Tribe dropped about $36 million in salary, General Manager Chris Antonetti had the resources to sign Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, Brett Myers and Jason Giambi.
And when Antonetti discovered that Michael Bourn would agree to come to Cleveland, the Dolans allowed the GM to go over budget to sign the center fielder.
Even before signing season, Antonetti created positive buzz by signing Terry “Why would he come here?” Francona to succeed Manny Acta as manager.
Early in spring training, club officials told me that the signings of Swisher and Bourn (especially Bourn) caused a serious spike in season-ticket renewals, to upwards of 90 percent.
But the small number of season tickets — fewer than 8,000 — probably is the most serious hurdle in trying to rebuild attendance. No team can draw 2.5 million or more without a solid season-ticket base that numbers at least 15,000.
When Dick Jacobs owned the franchise, season-ticket sales passed 26,000, which means before the first game was played, the club was guaranteed to draw more than 2.1 million.
Why have season-ticket sales plummeted? The team has played poorly, and fans have learned that the Dolans’ method of supporting the club doesn’t work. Maybe they realized that, too, which might have contributed to the offseason spending spree.
But perceptions are difficult to change. Fans aren’t likely to buy into the Dolans’ approach unless they see more winters like the last one. People are not about to spend thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars on season tickets if they don’t think the owners will do whatever is necessary to win.
Despite the layers of negative feelings erected over the years, it looked like 2013 would be the year the Tribe could begin to turn their fortunes around on the field and at the turnstiles because of the active offseason.
And that might have happened if not for the club’s poor start. Keep in mind the Indians were five games under .500 10 days ago, and they spent most of April trying to dig themselves out of a hole.
When the team got off to a slow start, the fans tuned out. In addition to losing, the club wasn’t hitting, and offense was the element that Antonetti tried hardest to fix (proving again to the fans that Cleveland is jinxed and can’t catch a break).
Keep in mind that April weather and kids still in school keep attendance down in a normal year. But small crowds usually have numbered 15,000 not 10,000, which too often has been the norm the first six weeks of the schedule.
So will this season rank as the attendance nadir for the Tribe? Call me crazy, but if the team can stay reasonably close to the Detroit Tigers until September, I think there will be a small but significant rise from last year’s attendance of 1.6 million. If the Indians can stay hot for another week or two, fans will begin to buy tickets for June, July and August.
But lagging attendance isn’t something that can be repaired in a few weeks. It took a decade to ruin the season-ticket base, and it will take at least half that long to rebuild it, even if the team is a postseason contender for the next five years.
Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Julius Caesar only had to worry about the threat of assassination, not public apathy over the signings of Aaron Cunningham and Vinny Rottino.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.