Lost in the kerfuffle of the Cleveland Indians allegedly polling season ticket holders about their opinion on Chief Wahoo was the fact that said inquiry was literally one of roughly three dozen questions pertaining fans and how they relate to various aspects of the team. Drowned out by all of the noise and nostalgia surrounding the polarizing mascot was the fact that the team was conducting an exit interview of sorts, gauging fan thoughts on items like concessions, ticket prices, and most importantly, the roster of players who wear Cleveland on the fronts of their uniforms.
We have long discussed how attached fans are to the current roster. Gone are the days of having the same group of guys fill the Indians lineup card season after season; Kenny Lofton isn’t walking through that door, as much as he would probably like to. And while the stark reality of another 455 straight sell-outs continues to loom as an impossibility, the team wants to know how much they—despite still rocking their faded navy blue t-shirts with “BAERGA” on the back—assimilate with guys like Swisher and Kipnis and Bourn and Brantley. They want to know how important it is for the owner to be more out in the open, discussing the team’s direction and their plans for the future. They want to know, in addition to price adjustments at the concession counter and box office, what it would take to get that season-ticket base back up—how can they get you to invest in this team’s future?
Poll a large portion of Cleveland fans, varying in degree in terms of fandom of the Indians and Major League Baseball in general, and the majority will say that the odds of the Cleveland Indians repeating—or trumping—a 92-win season are very slim. The team had to rattle off an epic winning streak just to make the postseason; Ubaldo Jiménez and Scott Kazmir are free agents and could be eying up a nice payday; the bullpen situation has the makings of being a huge mess; Asdrubal Cabrera has had year-over-year declines in production since 2011—the list goes on. Paul Dolan, fresh off of his payday from the sale of SportsTime Ohio and knowing that it was now-or-never in terms of getting fans (however many) to buy in, finally decided to spend in free agency. Chris Antonetti, despite missing wildly on Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers, struck gold with Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi. His acquisition of Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles for Esmil Rodgers was Executive of the Year-type stuff. But for as successful as these low-risk moves were, how repeatable are they? Will the Indians’ win total rely on finding the next Giambi and Raburn year after year?
[Related: It's time to say 'goodbye' to Chief Wahoo]
Some fans want to poke holes in the return on investment in guys like Swisher and Bourn, but in a season where every single win was important, having a few loss leaders on board aren’t exatctly a bad thing when marginal victories are obtained.
The issue arrives in building off of this success, realizing that unlike the offseason that followed the 2007 run, merely acquiring someone like Masa Kobayashi while resting on the laurels of an overachieving season would not be enough to keep fans coming. The price of a ticket or a 12-ounce beer is likely impactful to the fringe fan—there’s a reason the survey asks how big of a fan one is, how many games they have attended over the years, and how many they plan to attend in the future. But at the end of the day, consistent winning is all that the city of Cleveland covets. Yes, the hardcore fans will be there every night; the TD’s and Jon’s of the world will watch every pitch, home or away. But to get Progressive Field to be filled at a respectable level, it’s player development, smart front office acquisitions, and consistent winning. The logos and uniform layout are fantastic talking points. Dynamic ticket pricing is still a new way of life, and people largely hate change. But these would be entirely ancillary if the team had a fraction of the success of other Midwestern squads like the St. Louis Cardinals or Detroit Tigers. At the end of the day, they could be renamed to the Cleveland Bachelorette Parties; their hats can be festooned with neon dildos; every at-bat could be accompanied by obnoxious screaming and off-tune singing of a Dixie Chicks song; every drink stand could limit their menu to cosmos and drinks made with Apple Pucker. If the team can provide fans with a consistent roster of players who they can relate to as they rack up 90-plus win totals, corporate investment will increase and the season ticket base will grow.
Hopefully, this is what the team will take away from yesterday’s fan survey. It’s tough to not recall the comments made by Mark Shapiro from a season ago, saying that if all fans want to see are wins, that they shouldn’t come to the park. It’s also tough to not believe that Shaprio would gladly erase those comments from the memory banks of fans across Ohio. Winning is hard. Consistently winning is harder. But if the goal of this team is to increase attendance, increase the emotional connection to players that was there many moons ago, they have to do it on the field. Again. And again.