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Indians may return to playoffs, but fans will return...when?
Attendance is down a hair from last season despite a significantly improved ball club

Kabir Bhatia
As game time approached on Saturday, people were still filing in, showing that fans are literally slowly coming back to the ballpark after several seasons of 90+ losses
Courtesy of K. Bhatia
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The Indians are off tonight, but they've been ON for several weeks, battling their way toward a spot in the playoffs. Yet average home attendance is about even with last season, when they had the fifth-worst record in baseball. WKSU's Kabir Bhatia reports on when the fans might come back to Progressive Field.
Indians may return to playoffs, but fans will return...when?

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It’s been six years since the Indians were in the playoffs. 

Sixteen years since they were in the World Series.

And 20 years since they kicked off a hot-streak at then-new Jacobs Field. 

This season, on average, less than half of the 45,000-plus seats have been filled in what’s now called Progressive Field. Over the weekend, the team swept the Astros in a four-game series, including in their last Saturday night home game of the season. Attendance was up by some 25 percent over the previous Saturday-night game.

Show me the money
People like Gary Parrish voiced similar reasons for staying away much of the year: “Cost.”

Stephanie McBride says, “For nine tickets, it was $361.”

Steve Yachanin: “For a family of four, you're talking a sizable amount of money.”

Rebecca Fridley: “People honestly don't have that kind of spare money right now.”

Mike Marquis: “Food's going to be $40-$50. This is not Boston or New York.”

Ticket and concession prices were actually cut this season – yet attendance is still down almost 200 people per game from last year. But fans like Marquis, from Lakewood, were willing to pay to see a winning team on Saturday.

“It’s my first pennant race. Ever! It’s not going to get anymore exciting than this! The 1990s wasn’t a pennant race. They were ahead by eight or 10 games. I’m 62 and this is my first pennant race.”

A slow start 20 years ago
Looking back to the Indians’ two World Series appearances in the ‘90s, it’s easy to forget that the team didn’t consistently sellout until its second year at Progressive Field. The first year was marred by a strike. Sports economist Mark Rosentraub says that’s because fans usually look back before they look forward.

“It may be that fans are going to react more positively when they see a consistency from the team," he says. "If this year is going to be good, will next year be equally as good? Some argue you can actually predict attendance figures not by the season you’re playing, but by the season before. In effect, attendance in 2013 is actually a product of 2012, and attendance in 2014 will be a product of 2013.”

A new product on the field
Heading into 2013, the Indians invested heavily in manager Terry Francona and first baseman Nick Swisher, two moves that seem to have paid off on the field, if not in the stands. And while the team has not approached the 455-straight sell-outs of the late ‘90s, TV ratings are up 65 percent from last year.

At the game on Saturday, Mike Kozlowski from Parma was excited about the team doing well. But looking back over the past few years of less-than-stellar baseball, he explains why he thinks fans are coming back so slowly.

“I think the team is so up-and-down. In a way, they’re hard to watch. They get behind 3- or 4-to-nothing and you think the game’s over. It’s not like the ‘90s, when they were pounding out home runs.”

By the numbers
That’s one reason a group calling itself “Our Town, Our Tribe” popped up earlier this month. The group wanted to get 10,000 more people to each of the Indians’ last six home games -- not just to watch a pennant race, but also because ticket stubs can be exchanged for free admission to either the Cleveland Aquarium or the Great Lakes Science Center. 

The weekend series against the Astros saw an average bump of 6,100 people over the earlier season average, and yesterday was the best-attended Sunday game of the year. This Tuesday and Wednesday, the Indians have their last home games -- against the White Sox.

M.L. Schultze contributed to this story. 
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