SBJ/September 26 - October 2, 2005/Other News

Tribe a hit on field, still waiting at the gate

The film “Major League,” about a rag-tag Cleveland Indians team that made the playoffs, grossed nearly $50 million in 1989 and later developed a ubiquitous presence on cable and home video.

The real-life version of the movie, playing out nightly as the no-name Indians make a similarly improbable run toward the postseason, has been anything but a hit at Jacobs Field.

The Indians last week stood firmly in the hunt for both the American League wild card and Central Division title despite having MLB’s fifth-smallest payroll at $41.5 million. Average attendance at Indians home games, however, was 24,228, putting Cleveland No. 24 among MLB clubs. Non-contenders such as Seattle, Baltimore and Texas were far ahead of the Indians in home attendance.

Worse yet, as the Indians steamrolled to an MLB-best 33-11 record between Aug. 1 and Sept. 18, the average home draw during that span improved to only 27,673. Eleven games in that time frame failed to draw 23,000 people. Just 14 of 75 home games all season have topped 30,000.

“Can we do better? Sure. But it’s our job to engage the fans,” said Indians vice president Bob DiBiasio.

The lukewarm reception from the public has been puzzling to club officials and local business leaders alike. After dismantling the core of a star-studded roster that helped win six division titles between 1995 and 2001 and generate 455 straight home sellouts (see chart), the team aimed to return to contention in 2005.

That plan, in danger of veering far off course as recently as 10 weeks ago, returned to reality as the young roster assembled by general manager Mark Shapiro coalesced into a strikingly balanced team long on chemistry and grit, and one designed to succeed, unlike its Hollywood counterpart.

“There’s a bunch of us trying to make sense of [the attendance]. We’re not really sure,” said Mark Rosentraub, a dean at Cleveland State University and frequent author on baseball economics. “There’s no question this has been frustrating and disappointing.”

The most popular opinion, or perhaps excuse, around Cleveland is that the team’s run began in earnest toward the end of the summer, long after summer vacation plans were made. The team’s hot play is now competing with the new school year, a frequent drag on baseball attendance.

“The series against Oakland, Kansas City — no one really had those on their radar a month or two ago,” DiBiasio said of recent, poorly attended games. “We didn’t start really delivering on our promises until after the All-Star Game, late July, really.”

Team officials expect a bump in ticket sales next season. The club offers priority placement for postseason seats to fans who commit to 2006 season tickets.

There are other reasons for optimism. As attendance lags at the stadium, TV ratings for Indians games on FSN Ohio have risen 32 percent since Aug. 1. Ratings for recent games have soared into double-digits.

“The interest is definitely there. We were averaging a 5.7 [in Cleveland-area ratings] before Aug. 1, and we’ve done a 7.5 since then. The game [Sept. 20] against the White Sox did a 15, which is a very, very strong number,” said Steve Liverani, FSN Ohio general manager. “The general interest, however, is more focused now from the living rooms, which you’d think will be a precursor to the fans going back to the ballpark.”

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