In any numerical list, there is an entity in first and an entity in last. When looking at ticket sales in Major League Baseball, the Indians are the entity in last. They have just averaged 12,871 fans per home game (all numbers as of May 16th), their lowest total since 1991 at Cleveland Stadium. While the Indians generally have their lowest attended games of the season in April and May, the team never had numbers this low, even early in the season, from 1993 through 2011. The Indians also never had $96 regular season, single game tickets. The reason for the drop of in ticket sales could be for various reasons including team success, local economy, ticket prices, weather, opponent and a number of other variables. Rather than try to put everything together at once, the point of this article will be to see how the Indians compare to the rest of the league in ticket price.
Obviously, many factors go into ticket pricing as well. With teams realizing these factors more now than before, most teams are using variable pricing depending on the opponent, day of the week or promotion. All the ticket prices used in this article will be from each team’s next Saturday game as these are generally a team’s most expensive tickets. Outside of these variable, day-to-day, factors, the biggest difference in ticket prices from one team to another and from one year to another is inflation. A good tool for comparing inflation is the CPI of the country and various regions as posted by the Bureau of Labor. The CPI is the cost of a hypothetical “basket of goods” in any individual area at any time. For example, the most recent from Cleveland-Akron is from March of 2014 and was $220.96 (all CPI numbers are from either March of 2014 or the second half of 2013 if 2014 was unavailable), while the most recent from New York City was $259.97, the highest among American League cities. Twenty years ago, the same “basket of goods” in Cleveland cost just $143.30 and the value of a dollar has halved since 1987.
The graph above shows the CPI, high ticket price, low ticket price and average ticket price for each American League city (minus the Blue Jays, who are more of a Canadian League city). The purpose of this is to see if there is any correlation between cost of living and ticket prices. To make it easier to read, the cities are ranked by highest CPI from left to right, from New York all the way to Tampa Bay. If there was a high correlation to any ticket prices, there should be a visible slant from left to right, but essentially, there isn’t.
Now, obviously demand has a lot to do with ticket pricing as well. For example, it doesn’t make sense for Oakland to have high ticket prices if no one is coming to the games, despite their high CPI. Also, cities like Boston, New York and Los Angeles should have higher prices as they come close to selling out almost every game. The following chart shows each team’s winning percent from 2013 compared to the percent of the stadium sold out in an average game this season. If there is a high correlation between winning percent and ticket sales then it would make sense to increase ticket prices when a team is winning and decrease them when they lose to maximize seats sold.
There is actually a decent similarity between winning percent and ticket sales with a few exceptions. The biggest markets, like Boston, New York and LA do well irrelevant of results while the Twins are still riding the wave of their new ballpark. The only two teams to vastly under perform in ticket sales compared to winning percent are the Indians and A’s and the Indians are by far the worst.
Looking at this, it is difficult to explain the Indians attendance struggles. While the economy in Cleveland is struggling, it is significantly better than Detroit’s and slightly better than that in Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg. Despite this, Tampa has higher ticket prices at every level and still has double the attendance of the Indians. In many of the larger cities in the United States, costs are increasing while income is decreasing, but the ballparks have still been supported by the suburbs. This is why the Athletics want to move to San Jose and the Braves are moving out of Atlanta. Both teams are moving to where the people are, but around Cleveland, the people looking to watch the Indians are scarce. To show how local the situation is, Cincinnati is included on the above graph as they have had little trouble selling tickets, despite one of the largest capacity ballparks in the Majors.
While many in Cleveland say that Progressive Field will fill up once the Indians start winning or the Dolans start spending, that is obviously not the case. The Indians were one game away from the World Series in 2007, yet attendance decreased in 2008 by almost 2,000 fans per game. Other than an upswing in 2011, attendance has decreased every single season since then, falling to an all time Progressive Field low of under 13,000 per game this year, directly following the teams first appearance in the play-offs since 2007. Overspending on high priced free agents wasn’t the answer either as, prior to 2013, the Indians signed Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers for over $100M total salary. None of the signings worked out very well and the Indians are still paying for them, yet they still finished just one game behind the Tigers in the Central and came in 14th in attendance in the AL with just 19,419 fans per game.
The solution to this is not an easy one. If the ticket prices were just too high, the Indians would be selling out the upper deck and bleachers while the lower deck stayed empty, but that is not the case. If it had anything to do with winning, there should have been a spike this season and in 2008, but that has also not happened. If it was the economy, other stadiums would be seeing similar numbers. The answer then seems to be apathy, despite the fervor that still surrounds the Browns even though they have made one play-off appearance since their return to Cleveland in 1999 (and that was a quick Wild Card round exit).
While advertising, lowering prices and winning may be temporary solutions, maybe the only real answer is the one that the Athletics and Rays have been trying to complete for years. Move to where the rich people are. For the Indians, the most obvious solution would be Columbus. Columbus is now the biggest city in Ohio and would likely have been the home of Ohio’s American League franchise if the populations had been in the current proportion in 1900. The city has no problem filling up the Horseshoe with more than 100,000 fans each week to see the Buckeyes and supports the Indians AAA team as well. The Clippers have averaged more than 6,000 fans per game, despite being composed mostly of former Major League role players that aren’t good enough to make it back. It certainly wouldn’t be popular in North East Ohio, but maybe the best thing for the team would be a rebranding, changing the name, logo and location to give the franchise a fresh start. As STO’s booming ratings have proven, the people in Cleveland are just watching on TV anyway.