Cleveland is Experiencing a Baseball Revival


A trip to the World Series can do wonders for a traditionally strong sports city’s fan base.

The Cleveland Indians, despite cruising to an American League Central title and an American League pennant last year, finished near the bottom of the pack in regular season attendance. Cleveland sold just over 1.5 million tickets, for an average of 19,650 fans per game. That put them in 28th out of 30 teams.

2017 Is Looking to Be Different

As I said, a deep playoff run has its benefits. Fans not only re-engage with a team that may have struggled for years, but thanks to the structure most teams use to sell postseason tickets, it also leads to increased season ticket sales. For Cleveland fans, ticket priority in the postseason could be earned by buying season tickets for 2017, and that they did.

As noted by Crain’s Cleveland Business, the “floor” established by season ticket holders is much higher than in 2016:

As of Wednesday morning, the Indians, according to vice president of sales and service Tim Salcer, were up to 12,300 full-season equivalents. That’s a 43% jump from the end of the 2016 season.

The Tribe has 7,800 season-ticket accounts, which is more than double the approximately 3,500 the club had in 2016. And a good portion of the organization’s bulked-up season-ticket base has come from fans purchasing partial packages. (In such cases, four 20-game buys would count as one full-season equivalent.)

Season ticket holders obviously provide a solid benefit to attendance, notably because their tickets are “sold” whether they attend the game or not. That means that Cleveland’s 12,300 “full-season equivalents” already yield 996,300 tickets sold, or 66% of last year’s total tickets sold.

In addition, as of one week ago the Indians have sold another 200,000 tickets, which is a notable feat given that the season doesn’t open for several more weeks:

For the Tribe, though, that’s a significant development. The Indians didn’t reach 1.2 million tickets sold until July 4 last year — when they were 50-32 and just three games removed from their franchise-record 14-game winning streak.

Long story short, it would take an unprecedented early season collapse for the defending American League champs to not eclipse their 2016 attendance numbers and perhaps climb out of the bottom of the barrel by league attendance standards.

The Revival Started in 2016, on Television

The interesting thing about the Indians’ 2016 run is that it didn’t go unnoticed in Cleveland, even prior to their postseason drama.

In July of last year, at the same time the Indians were just hitting their 1.2 million tickets sold mark, they were faring far better on television:

The not-so-special result stands out in a terrific first half by the Indians for the amount of interest it generated on TV. That Thursday night game produced a whopping 13.46 rating and was watched by more than 200,000 households in the Cleveland designated market.

The July 7 rating is the highest for a Tribe game since April 4, 2014, when a home-opening win over the Twins produced a 14.77 rating.

The July 7 Yankees-Indians game is also the highlight of an impressive 10-day stretch in which six Tribe broadcasts on SportsTime Ohio generated ratings in double figures.

The Indians would end the season sixth in prime-time television viewing, a 71% increase over their 2015 television performance. There’s no reason to believe they won’t build on that expanded fan base in 2017.

Cleveland Was a Baseball Town

Some say it was because the Cleveland Browns were shipped off to Baltimore. Some say it was because the city reached a deal with team ownership that resulted in a shiny new stadium. Some say it was because the city had a brief economic reprieve through much of the 90s before the downward spiral of manufacturing continued to take its toll.

Regardless of the reasoning, Cleveland was the baseball town in the 90s, selling out 455 consecutive home games between 1995 and 2001. It’s worth noting that stadium capacity through much of this streak sat over 40,000, while recent renovations have dropped the capacity of Progressive Field to just over 35,000.

Still, it’s tough to blame other sports teams for Cleveland’s recent baseball dwindle. The Cleveland Browns drew just over 500,000 fans in 2016, putting them in 25th place out of 30 in attendance. The Cavaliers, bolstered by LeBron James, finished 3rd in the NBA, but that’s been consistent during the James era, and Indians attendance has fluctuated wildly.

It’s far more likely that the sell-outs can be attributed to economic factors, compounded with the Indians reaching the World Series in both 1995 and 1997, and making the playoffs every year between 1995 and 1999. It’s worth noting that they also finished with 90 wins in 2000 before returning to the playoffs in 2001.

The Cubs-Indians World Series Was Good for Baseball

Another tangent to the baseball revival in Cleveland is the city’s role in what was baseball’s best year in a long time. Attendance league-wide was relatively steady compared to 2015, but the postseason television ratings were a different story.

The World Series drew an average of over 20 million viewers — the first time the Fall Classic had reached that mark since 2004. While the Cubs’ historic drought surely had the biggest impact on those numbers, the juxtaposition of another Rust Belt team looking for their first ring in over half a century surely didn’t hurt.

Cleveland also did their part by battling against the favored Cubs all the way to Game 7, which averaged over 40 million viewers. 75 million viewers, nearly a quarter of the population of the United States, saw at least part of the game. That’s tremendous for the sport, and tremendous for a Cleveland team rebuilding a fan base.

Where Does It Go From Here?

Will Cleveland’s baseball revival be a simple blip on the sports radar? It will depend heavily upon the team’s 2017 campaign.

After reaching the 2007 American League Championship Series, Indians season ticket sales spiked for the 2008 season. Starting with high hopes, that season ended in disaster, and the Indians saw year-over-year declines until the beginning of the Terry Francona managerial era in 2013.

That being said, another playoff run for the Indians could lead to Cleveland again becoming a “baseball town”, at least to the extent it can while a generational talent is still playing basketball next door to the baseball stadium. The television numbers and ticket sales point to a revival. What happens next is up to the players.