Poor attendance sabotaged the lede.
I wanted to begin last week’s column on the Cincinnati Reds by spotlighting the club’s post-All-Star break improvement, and something about our true character, and the things we do when no one’s looking.
Before I could even type out the punchline – how the Reds roster must be chock full of saints because they’re still playing hard, and better, even though no one is really going to games or paying that much attention at this point – it occurred to me the Reds are actually averaging better per-game attendance this year than the Indians.
With about a month to go in the season, the basement-dwelling Reds are averaging 23,919 fans per game. That figure ranks 24 out of 30 MLB teams, according to Baseball Reference.
The Indians meanwhile, with a 74-56 record are in first place and poised for a deep October push. Still, the Tribe averages 19,739 fans per home contest, which ranks 28th in MLB.
Cleveland is again on track to draw fewer than 20,000 fans per home contest for a fifth consecutive year; a dubious anniversary, indeed.
The last time the Indians averaged over 30,000 fans per home game was 2002, on the heels of that extended 455 games home sellout streak that spanned 1995 to 2001.
Obviously, that sellout streak included five consecutive playoff appearances, division titles and two World Series appearances. Since, the Indians have been to the playoffs exactly twice, winning only one playoff series in that time.
A superficial glance at the Reds’ poor attendance this year might compel one to attribute that fact only to poor on-field performance, but in 2012 the club won more games than it had in 40 years (97) and field one of the best teams in baseball that (regular) season.
Still, average home-game attendance that year didn’t crack 29,000 per ballgame and the Reds ranked 10 out of 16 National League teams that year in attendance.
According to an October, 2015 article published by Forbes, attendance last year increased across MLB. Nearly 74 million people attended a Major League Baseball game last year, the seventh-highest figure in baseball history, according that Forbes report.
The all-time highest single-season attendance in MLB history were 2005-2008, and 2012-2013, according to Baseball Reference.
While MLB as a whole was recording all-time attendance records, fan turnout for the two Ohio teams matched their records during those intervening years as largely forgettable.
On the one hand, the Reds and Indians don’t really compete for the same fan base. While the majority of Indians fans are also resident Ohioans, the Reds core fan base is spread out across southwest Ohio, northern Kentucky, Indiana and well into portions of West Virginia and Tennessee.
On the other hand though, a loyal baseball fan that lives in Columbus is basically halfway to either club and has to choose north or south before buying a ticket to an MLB game. A baseball fan living in Colorado Springs has no such consideration before planning a road trip to see the Rockies in Denver, for example.
Or, that first Ohio fan may just decide to stay in Franklin County and take in a Clippers game, or visit any other of the myriad minor league ballparks dotting the rural Ohio landscape.
Neither Progressive (Jacob’s) Field nor Great American Ballpark may any longer be considered “new” ballparks, either, a fact that likely has some impact on depressed attendance lately. Expanded television rights and high-definition TVs with screens as big as your wall are also likely contributing, albeit unmeasurable, factors.
Economic factors should also naturally be considered. Live sporting events can be awfully expensive.
However, I can say with the conviction that comes from first-hand experience that they can also be super cheap, too, if you know try hard enough to find a deal or two.
Discounted tickets are available for everyone from the elderly, to service veterans to kids with good grades in school. Often, businesses will give away a pair of tickets as a promotional offer for filling up a tank of gas, or something.
Food and drink can also get pricey. The Indians and Reds both run regular dollar hot dog, and discounted soda pop and even beer promotions. Similarly, each ballpark has a carry-in food and drink policy that permits most unopened food and plastic, non-alcoholic beverages.
Ultimately, it comes down to making attendance at the game a priority. And in down years, sure, it can be tough to expel the energy on a losing club. This is the fewest Reds games I’ve been to my entire adult life.
Indians fans, however, should have enough reason to believe that something special is going on up there, especially at home.
The Indians have emerged victorious in enough nip-and-tuck affairs this summer to foster legitimate, this-could-be-our-year optimism.
Those kinds of seasons don’t come around often, and are truly better witnessed in person.