Geography And Baseball: Cleveland’s Declining Attendance


In 1989, the movie Major League came out. It was about an at-the-time horrible Cleveland Indians. Between 1960 and 1993, the Cleveland Indians managed only 6 seasons about the .500 mark (1965, 1976, 1979, 1981, 1986), and 1965 was the best they would do (87-75) for the balance of that time period. During the 1980s, the team finished lost 100+ games, twice (with one more 100+ loss season waiting for them in 1991).  The movie Major League featured many things that could be considered allegories for the team itself during the 1980s.

The song “Burn On” by Randy Newman plays in the introduction to Major League. The beginning shots show a large ship traveling on its way to Lake Erie, to Cleveland’s industrial port. One can see the industrial and the blue collar economy in Cleveland. It is also apparent that Cleveland has seen better days. Cleveland’s economy took a massive downturn during the 1970s as the steel mills laid off many. During these hard times, Cleveland Indians themselves did quite badly. The riot that took place on 10 cent beer night was a fitting allegory for the times. The song “Burn On” is about the Cuyahoga River, which has caught fire numerous times, including the imfamous 1969 river fire. Part of the intro features a bar with a photo of the 1948 Cleveland Indians, 1948 being the last time Cleveland won the World Series. And then a quick montage to the 1954 AL Pennant winner Cleveland Indians being beaten by the New York Giants, and then onward to more bad times for the Cleveland Indians, more losing seasons.


(Photo: Municipal Stadium, where the Cleveland Indians used to play).

Now fast forward to 1994, when the Cleveland Indians make their very first push to the playoffs, before the 1994 MLB Strike stops it cold. Cleveland has a new stadium, and it’s part of the revival of Downtown Cleveland. 1995 would prove to be no fluke, as Cleveland made it to the World Series for the first time since 1954. The Atlanta Braves would beat them in 6 games. Cleveland would return to the World Series in 1997 before the Florida Marlins beat them in 7 games. The Cleveland Indians of 1994 through 2001 gave the city of Cleveland some excellent baseball, and a reason to fill the seats of the new Jacobs Fields (now called Progressive Park). In those times, sold out games at Progressive Field were commonplace. The team has seen some hard times after, but the team has managed to field some good teams after, especially from 2016 (when they made it to the World Series before the Chicago Cubs broke their own curse and beat Cleveland in 7 games) to now. Cleveland is definitely not the hapless team they were during 1960-1993. However, they are struggling with declining attendance.


(Photo: Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. Chicago Cubs at Cleveland Indians. Photo by K.Farabaugh/VOA)

Cleveland has been a decent franchise from 2013-now. But even in 2016, when Cleveland made it to the World Series, the average attendance per game never touched the 20,000 mark. It finally went above 20,000 and stayed above that mark for the balance of the last part of the 2010s. Even then, Cleveland has only seen its annual attendance hit 2 mllion once in the 2010s, in 2017. While baseball attendance has been dropping throughout MLB, Cleveland is feeling it worse than other teams, and it represents something in human and economic geography that needs to be examined.

Not only has attendance dropped in Cleveland, so has the population in Greater Cleveland metropolitan area. Greater Cleveland is the only metropolitan area with an MLB team that has seen its population drop. And this decline extends beyond Cleveland. Akron proper, also in northeast Ohio, used to have a population of 290,351 people. As of 2018, barely over 198,000 people live in Akron (and given the 2020 Census will be out soon, Akron’s population might likely be lower than that). In 1950, Cleveland had 914,808 people, 2 years after the Cleveland Indians won their last World Championship. In 2018, Cleveland was estimated to have 383,793 people. Nearby Canton, OH has seen its own population decline. And this segues into more problems.


(Photo: Skyline of Cleveland,Ohio, as viewed from Edgewater Park).

Northeast Ohio has long been a major steel producing corridor. And with the lake port of Cleveland, this provided a good way to ship all of that steel. Cleveland’s location on Lake Erie and converging railroad lines made it a great place for a steel industry to grow. Iron ore from the Lake Superior region. Coal coming in from nearby Mahoning Valley (where Youngstown, which was also a major steel producer, is located). All could meet in Cleveland. Steel produced could be shipped via Lake Erie. However, like many cities where steel was a major part of the economy, Cleveland experienced massive job losses as changes in the steel industry took place during the 1960s-1970s. The steel industry attracted many people for the jobs in the factories. When those jobs declined, so did Cleveland’s population, not to mention other places in northeast Ohio. By 2000, Greater Cleveland’s population was at 2,148,143, down from 2,321,037 (its peak).


(Photo of Otis Iron and Steel Company, Cleveland, circa 1909).

Another problem has come from this. It isn’t as cheap to get baseball tickets as it used to be. It isn’t as cheap to drive places as it used to be. Economics plays a major factor in baseball attendance. Northeast Ohio’s economy has been changing. In the Greater Cleveland area, the economy is moving towards healthcare, finance, insurance, and tech. Manufacturing is still an important part of the economy, but not what it used to be. And manufacturing can be very volatile. During the Great Recession, unemployment rates skyrocketed throughout the country. No worse was it felt than in the Rust Belt areas such as in Cleveland and Detroit. While it has dropped, the effects are still there. Many have likely left for jobs elsewhere. And in general, there has been a trend towards cities in the Sunbelt region, such as Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Charlotte, etc. More people are moving to cities in the southern and southwestern USA. Also, the poverty rate in the Greater Cleveland region is higher than the national average. The city of Cleveland has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. Cuyahoga County (where Cleveland is located) has a poverty rate close to 18%. Some counties are doing better than others. Geauga and Medina counties (just outside of Cleveland) have among the lowest poverty rates in Ohio. However, those counties (while maintaing some population growth) are among the less populated in Greater Cleveland. Summit County, (part of Akron metropolitan area) has a poverty rate close to 12%. Akron itself has a poverty rate of 24.1% and a decreasing population.


(Photo of Akron, Ohio skyline. Akron has become a major center for polymer research. In spite of this, Akron’s population, inside the city limits, has been declining since the 1960s).

There is more to look at as well. With economics being a factor, Many people decide to watch minor league baseball teams nearby, rather than make the trip to Cleveland. Northeast Ohio is home to 4 teams that aren’t MLB teams. 3 of them are affiliated with the Cleveland Indians: Akron RubberDucks, Lake County Captains (located in neaby Eastlake), and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers (located in Niles, near Youngstown). The Lake Erie Crushers, who play in Avon (located near Lorain), are an independent Frontier League and have no affiliation with Major League Baseball. Northeast Ohio has several smaller teams that play near Cleveland. Many people choose to go to those games rather than to Progressive Field in Cleveland.


(Photo of area around Canal Park. Canal Park is home to the minor league baseball team Akron RubberDucks).

There is more to consider. In addition to having some small teams nearby, the state of Ohio is like baseball’s battleground. The Cleveland Indians must compete with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Detroit Tigers, and even the Chicago Cubs (via Indiana’s fan base). Some residents in the southeast Ohio might be fans of the Pirates due to relative proximity to western Pennsylvania. Toledo might share a lake and a state with Cleveland, but it’s one the far west side of Lake Erie, and the city of Detroit is much closer. Tigers fans are more likely to be found there. There might be some Cubs fans in northwest Ohio too because of the proximity to Indiana (where many Cubs fans live). Columbus, the capital and largest city in Ohio, is Cincinnati Reds territory (and the hometown of Paul O’Neill, who was part of the 1990 World Champion Cincinnati Reds). Cincinnati Reds also have the advantage of having the state of Kentucky just across the river (another Geography & Baseball article for another time). With much of Ohio being Reds territory, and the Indians having to compete with teams much closer by, this can be a factor.

baseball map2

(Map from naterattner and SeatGeek).

Geography is in the details, and for the Cleveland Indians, those details haven’t helped it as of late. Economics have played a factor. Distance to Cleveland in response to economics has been a factor. Minor league teams closer by, and competing with other fan bases close by, this might be playing a factor in Cleveland Indians’ attendance being lower than many other teams.

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