Friday, June 25, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

After spending a lovely Thursday afternoon watching some baseball (not involving the Indians) as the Brewers completed a three-game sweep of the Twins here in Milwaukee, one aspect of the game was particularly striking to me in the context of following the Indians. No, it wasn’t that Yovani Gallardo was perfect through 5 or that the AL Central leading Twins looked eminently beatable all series, unable to match the Brewers in NL baseball strategy.
No, one thing stood out…35,898.

That was the attendance for a Thursday afternoon game in Milwaukee on the first day of SummerFest (and if you don’t know what that is, Google it) for a team that went into the game with a 31-40 record, 9 games out of the NL Central race. The Brewers won the game, their 4th in a row, raising their record to 32-40, not quite good enough to lift their projected loss total for the year above 90 as they’re now on pace for a 72-90 season.

And yet, 35,898 came to see it at 1:00 on a weekday.
Thing is, that attendance number is no great surprise in Southeast Wisconsin as the Brewers are averaging 34,833, good for 10th highest in MLB. What’s worth noting here as the immediate response that “yeah, well the Brewers are good and have been good” is that the Brewers finished 80-82 last season and are now two years removed from their only 90-win season since 1993, when they went 90-72 in 2008, making it to the NL Playoffs as the Wild Card before bowing out in the LDS.

What’s so interesting about this in the context of the Indians and their recent history?
Let me move the years around to get these records lined up, but here’s where I’m going with this:
Indians 2005: 93-69
Average Attendance: 24,861

Brewers 2006: 75-87
Average Attendance: 28,835

Indians 2006: 78-84
Average Attendance: 24,666

Brewers 2007: 83-79
Average Attendance: 35,421

Indians 2007: 96-86 (lost in ALCS)
Average Attendance: 28,448

Brewers 2008: 90-72 (lost in NLDS)
Average Attendance: 37,882

Indians 2008: 81-81
Average Attendance: 27,122

Brewers 2009: 80-82
Average Attendance: 37,499

Indians 2009: 65-97
Average Attendance: 22,492

Brewers 2010: 72-90 (projected)
Average Attendance: 34,833

This is not pointed out as any sort of referendum on why individual Indians’ fans didn’t cause the appreciable bump in attendance that was enjoyed in Milwaukee, only to point out that two small-market teams who experienced success in the latter part of the 2000s have had wildly divergent results at their box office.

The Brewers saw a HUGE increase in attendance on the heels of a 75-87 season in 2006, bringing in 25% more fans to the ballpark for a team that would ultimately finish 83-79 in 2007. The Indians experienced no such bump after their 2005 season (93-69) and actually saw a lower average of fans in 2006 for a team that would finish 78-84.

The oft-repeated refrain in response to why the Indians were never able to capture the excitement of the town was because of their inconsistency from season to season and their inability to remain in contention. However, looking at the Brewers’ record on the heels of their 2008 playoff season, it shows that the Milwaukee team was just as disappointing on the field, with those disappointments simply not making their way to the box office as they did in Cleveland. Additionally, two years removed from the playoff appearance, the Brewers have continued to draw despite a slow start and despite some particularly soul-crushing losses in early 2010.

That all being said, extenuating factors unquestionably play a role as the late-2000 Brewers represent the first baseball contender for a city in 25 years while the Indians’ fans are still largely playing the “show-me” game after the sustained success of the champion-free “Era of Champions” of the late 1990s. To date, the Brewers have been more pro-active than the Indians, firing their manager in the midst of a playoff hunt and trading for Sabathia to spur that playoff hunt. Additionally, the Indians traded their reigning Cy Young Award winners in consecutive years in 2008 and 2009, a fate that has not yet occurred in the Cream City.

Maybe that day is coming for the Brewers, who have yet to conduct a full-scale fire sale as the Indians have for the past two years. However, it is worth mentioning that every fan I spoke to felt that the Brewers should be trading Corey Hart and Prince Fielder this year (2 of the only 3 good hitters on the team) because of “baseball economics”. None of them seemed to project that trades of Hart or Fielder would lessen their desire to come to the ballpark in 2011 or beyond.

So what gives in Cleveland?
How did the Indians not get an appreciable bump in attendance after the 2005 season and the 2007 season the way that the Brewers did by hovering around .500 for most of the time and putting forth one playoff season?

Of course, it’s easy to say that the contempt for the ownership and the Front Office has kept people away, but we’re not talking about 2010, where the team slides below rock bottom with each passing day. What factors contributed to the Indians simply not capturing the hearts of a city back in 2005 and 2007 while the Brewers team, with 2 over .500 seasons in the past 5 years has been able to do so may remain unanswered in perpetuity. Maybe the Brewers slide down that slippery small-market slope to the bottom of the mountain once again, joining their former AL East counterparts from Cleveland. Maybe the attendance numbers will drop just as precipitously in Milwaukee once the known names make their way out of town for faceless prospects.

On a Thursday afternoon, making my way through the tailgaters outside of Miller Park, all decked out in Brewers gear, ready to root on a team that sat 9 games back, that startling drop in attendance is hard to see. Even with trades that will affect their offensive output on the horizon and with one good starting pitcher and a bullpen that calls to mind those of the Indians of the past few years, the people keep coming.

As the brats and the beer flowed freely and while that spigot never really got going at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario over the last 5 years, it doesn’t look to be turning off any time soon in Milwaukee.


Parker said...

As an Indians fan living in Madison, WI since 1997 (I was at the Twins game on Tuesday), here is my perspective on comparing the Indians and Brewers.

As a whole, Wisconsin is all about football (Packers and Badgers), much like a large part of Ohio is all about the Browns. When the Brewers and Bucks are winning, there is increased interest, which mirrors the Indians and Cavs, but it disappears immediately when the winning ends.

The biggest difference between the Indians and Brewers right now is that Indians are basically in decline without the novelty of a "new" ballpark plus a jaded fanbase, while the perception of the Brewers is that they are on the rise with a newish ballpark that is way better than the dump formerly called County Stadium, plus an optimistic fanbase.

A better comparison might be Cleveland 1994-2001 and Brewers 2001-2008 (each starting with a new ballpark and contention expectations).

Halifax said...

First off -- Paul, you nailed it, the Indians fans were spoiled in the 90s and early 2000s when the economy was booming and the Tribe was the only show in town. It will always be Browns Town and if LeBron flies the coop the Cavs may regress back to their "heyday" of mediocrity.

Parker's call on the new stadium does come into play. What hasn't been mentioned is the extremely poor economy coupled with the fact that this town has never in recent history been a supporter of baseball as long as the Browns were around. Toss in the coolness of recent Cavs editions and the Tribe's rebuild and it's a recipe for attendance disaster.

If LeBron leaves and the Cavs stink, it will help the Tribe bounce back in the box office if their team can do the same on the filed. But it will never again be what it was in the 90s, and unfortunately for the Dolans, that is their bar that has been set.

ChooChooChooseU said...

I don't disagree with anything already said by Halifax or Parker, but what about the fact that the Milwaukee is a National League city?

During the entire time period we are talking about here, the NL has been much more winnable than the AL. The other thing is that being in direct competition with the Yankees and Red Sox every year is a little soul crushing given their payrolls and the fact that our former All-Stars and Cy Young winners are now sprinkled through their respective line-ups. I suspect the average Brewer fan doesn't have a similar level of Yankee/Red Sox angst because they will never have to go through both teams in the same postseason, and if they do have to go head to head with one of them, at least they've made it to the Series. At times like this, morale should be a little higher in Milwaukee, shouldn't it?

milwaukeeTribe said...

The spoiling of Cleveland fans in the 90's (and recent trends offending the sense of entitlement it spawned), the jaded fan base, and the Cavalier bandwagon plays a role in the attendance disparity, but, I also think that Milwaukee has more (and more knowledgeable) baseball fans than Cleveland.

I will probably be flamed for saying that, but having spent my first 18 years growing up in Cleveland, and the last 16 years living in Milwaukee (with family roots and frequent homecomings in Cleveland), in spite of remaining a die-hard Indians fan, that's my impression.

I base that not solely on attendance, but in observing the coverage and reaction in the media, and from the people I interact with here... consistent with Paul's observation, their interest, their insight into realities of their situation & sound front office strategy, (I would also add sheer knowledge of the game)...

That Milwaukee fans brought out 10k per game, 3 days in a row, for 2 out-of-town teams to play in their home park, also played a role in that impression!

I don't think the relative new-ness of the stadium is at all a factor. The novelty of Miller Park vanquished pretty quickly: 10k drop in average attendance in its second year, followed by several years hovering around the average for the final years of County Stadium.

Parker said...

Here are the average attendance numbers for the years in question:

County Stadium, AL (90-97): 18,371
Cleveland Std, AL (90-93): 17,528
Jacobs Field, AL (94-97): 39,578
County Stadium, NL (98-00): 20,934
Jacobs Field, AL (98-00): 42,765
Miller Park, NL (01-09): 30,267
Jake/Progress, AL (01-09): 27,011

Parker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Parker said...

Year-by-year numbers

2001 Miller Park 34,704
2002 Miller Park 24,317
2003 Miller Park 20,992
2004 Miller Park 25,461
2005 Miller Park 27,296
2006 Miller Park 28,835
2007 Miller Park 35,421
2008 Miller Park 37,882
2009 Miller Park 37,499

2001 Jacobs Field 39,782
2002 Jacobs Field 32,308
2003 Jacobs Field 21,358
2004 Jacobs Field 22,400
2005 Jacobs Field 24,664
2006 Jacobs Field 24,667
2007 Jacobs Field 28,448
2008 Prog Field 27,122
2009 Prog Field 22,357

I'm not trying to be a dick here, but the "numbers" cited by milwaukeeTribe don't really match the numbers at The Baseball Almanac. I really feel these numbers support "new" stadium excitement.

Miller Park attendence exceeds County Stadium attendence seven of 11 years since 1990 (and even that was by less than 1000 people per game). I'm not sure what happened in 2003, but by 2004, MP attendance was 3000 more than the best season at CS and 2005-09 it is 14K better that County Stadium.

I live a painful 5-hour round-trip from Miller Park and I know that MP is a huge reason that my peers are much more-willing to make that trip.

Two reasons that the neutral games in 2007 and 2008 got the attendance they did is that all seats were very cheap ($10 for the Indians series, I don't remember the price for the Cubs/Astros) and it was almost impossible to get ticket for an actual Brewers game, so people jumped at the chance to see ANY game at Miller Park.

I haven't noticed any difference in the baseball knowledge between the two fan-bases, but I will agree that Cleveland fans were spoiled by the 1990s, are now jaded, and currently pouting (by not going to the games). I expect to see the same sort of thing starting in Milwaukee once they "lose" Prince Fielder, who equals Albert Belle in this sad story.

Parker said...

Sorry I misspelled "attendance" a bunch of times... and probably some other words too... and used bad grammer. I guess my argument is now invalid.

milwaukeeTribe said...

Actually, I looked up the numbers at baseball almanac before I posted that.

The difference is, I wasn't taking as many years into account in evaluating the "newness" factor of miller park since, the thing about "newness" is, by definition, it wears off over time. And trying to examine the effect of the "newness" over too long a period brings in the effect other factors..... for example, that by the latter half of the 2000's, the Brewers were rising from a perennial .400 team (early 2000's) who hadn't had a winning season since .82 to a contender in 2008. Just flirting with a winning record in '05/06/07 was a big deal here, and brought more interest from the "casual" fans.

So saying:
Miller Park had a 10k drop in average attendance in its second year (34K '01 to 24k '02)
...followed by several years hovering around the average for the final years of County Stadium.
(24k in '02, 20k in '03, 25k in '04) versus ~20k at county over '98, '99, and '00 is not wrong. True they don't match, but "hovering around" is a reasonable conclusion.

Your proximity to more distal brewers fans willing to make the trip with Miller Park versus county is something I hadn't considered (and don't have a pulse on), and I'd agree...that could play a role in that segment. But in Milwaukee, the novelty did not last long.

Good point on the availability of brewer tix helping attendance at the 2007 indians series. I don't count the cubs/astros game...since it really was not much of a "neutral site" game, with all the cubs fans coming up for it.


Ryan said...

I also think we're all ignoring the fact that the Brewers have recognizable players that stand as the face of their franchise: Fielder, Braun, Gallardo, Weeks, Hart. Despite the team's struggles, those players have been the face of the franchise for a few years now, and the fans feel like they know who they are rooting for and show up to root for them despite the team's record.

There has been so much roster turnover for the Indians, I doubt that more the 10% of the folks in the stadium most nights could even tell you who the position players are on most nights without looking at the scoreboard. If these trades generate some true stars and bring a core of stability to the roster, the fans will feel like they have a hold on who their team is and come back and watch.

To be honest, I don't think this has a ton to do with LeBron. You can get into the stadium for $8-&10 any night, I have a hard time believing that fans have blown their sports budget on the Cavs.

Paul Cousineau said...

Remember that we're talking about 2005 to 2009 here, when there were no shortage of "faces". From CC to Vic to Grady, the Indians weren't lacking in an identity. If we're talking now...sure, have at it. Sure, some of those guys left, but from 2005 to 2008, that "core" was pretty much intact.

Plus, this wasn't meant to address the 2010 attendance issues, just to put into context how different the attendance numbers were in two similarly small markets with teams that experienced success in the mid-to-late-2000s.

And Parker and mkeTribe, thanks for shedding some WI light on why you think the differences exist. The more that I think about this, I wonder how much of an impact the success of the 1990s and the "sense of entitlement it spawned" as mke Tribe says plays a role here.

Interesting to see this weeknend that the Reds aren't drawing very well while they're contending in a new ballpark...but don't get me started on Reds "fans".