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[6] Dolans – Look in Mirror: The #Indians Can Be Relevant Again

I will take one final stab at my critics who still cling to the view that the Indians attendance problem is caused by the people of Cleveland and not a failed business plan. My latest debate was with a good blogger who felt the attendance shortfalls reflected the population decline in the greater Cleveland area.

While I admit that Detroit and Cleveland have not increased population in their greater metropolitan areas over the past 13 years, it has not been like there is a mass exodus out of either metro area. Based on the US Census Bureau actual count and estimates over the past three years, the Cleveland Metro area started at about 2,148,143 and ended the span from 2000 to 2014 at about 2,064,295. This translates to an 83,848 population loss or 3.9% over 14 years. Detroit has lost 157,574 or 3.54%. It is certainly hard to fathom that a loss of about 84,000 people over 14 years is accounting for a 24% attendance drop over the past 4 years. So yet another belief or “excuse” is debunked by facts.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, baseball and all sports are part of the entertainment industry. The customers will respond to perceptions and reality. The customers definitely respond to talent. Any entertainment company will do whatever it takes to get talent. It is that talent that drives revenue and profit. To blame the customers for not showing up to your entertainment product seems rather counterproductive to me. Plus, it stops you from improving the product in order to turn around your business.

So could we please dispense once and for all with the continual excuses for the Dolans. They knew what they were buying when they put up the money. Now they are in a favorable position to make it work but it will take a considerable additional investment not matched by revenue to make this happen. All owners of entertainment companies need to do this from time to time unless they are extremely fortunate. Almost every MLB team needs to do this and can’t wait for matching fan attendance to do it. The Kansas City Royals have increased their salaries over the past 4 years from about 35 million to about 89 million and had virtually no increase in attendance until this year and it will be about 160,000 greater.

My point is that the Dolans need to look in the mirror and recognize that the current Indians team is pretty darn good but NOT good enough. They tried to really spend when they sold their TV station but swung and missed with Swisher. They need to bury that mistake and do it again. It is almost certain they will not do it, but I am hopeful that they will see the need and jump in again. There is no homegrown substitute for what the Indians need to really compete. That is a power, high average middle of the order stick.

I suggested Victor Martinez because he will be a free agent, plays for our primary competitor, has expressed interest in coming back to Cleveland, and fits our need perfectly. He also is a tremendous competitor and clutch hitter. Finally, he is an ex-Indian who was loved while here. The Indian fans have shown great interest in and have come out to see great ex-Indians return. It would be excellent from a PR standpoint and completely dispel the rumor that the Dolans won’t spend when the time is right.

However, this move would be very risky with high reward. Victor will be 36 years old by the beginning of next season. He has had some injury problems through the years. He would best be used as a DH but still plays first base fairly well. He virtually negates any benefit of Swisher unless Swisher can play right field. Finally, he will cost us a ton over several years and the latter years of the contract might be a poor investment. So, if we were sure Victor would have 4 years like this year, it is really a no brainer despite the cost. But that, of course, is not possible to know.

Knowing the Indians, they would prefer to find a one year player with warts like Nelsen Cruz. Baltimore’s investment in Cruz is definitely paying off. But that is also risky because you can end up with a Mark Reynolds instead. Those players are hard to find. Even with his age, Victor would be a far better risk.

Trades to accomplish the same result are also possible but we would have to give up a ton to get a younger player with Victor’s punch and average. So I am open to any and all possibilities to get the job done but I am not compromising on what I feel the Indians need. It is their only legitimate chance to really contend and get the fans revved up and interested again. The Indians pitching has the potential to be special, but the team must find a way to have fewer games where they score 3 runs or less.

I feel a substantially increased investment is necessary for the next two years to provide a true window to succeed and improve attendance. As Swisher’s and Borne’s contracts expire, they should not be replaced. We should have enough young players to fill those gaps by then. So, in two years, about 25 million will come off the payroll. Dolan should set up a business plan to severely deficit spend for two years and then get the payroll down in 2017.

I hope you have enjoyed this series on the Indians. It was the product of a lot of research and thought. I understand the final recommendation is kind of simple, but I think a major addition is needed. The team is set up overall to win with that addition. Whether this would succeed to peak the interest of the Cleveland fans, only time would tell. But I can assure you that doing nothing or very little will NOT result in a significant increase in attendance. The deficits created in that scenario might be deadly to the Dolan ownership and the Cleveland Indians franchise.

 

Cleveland Indians 1948 champs

[5] Dolans – Look in Mirror: The Window is NOW

Although I think any speculation that the Indians might move or abandon Cleveland is quite unrealistic, I do not think it is unrealistic to think that this is a critical juncture for the Dolan ownership of the Tribe. I spent 4 installments in this series to try and explain to everyone why local economics, population, sports popularity or other sports competition is NOT the reason for the declining attendance. There is NO credible evidence to support these theories other than trying to absolve the current Indians management or ownership from culpability for a failing business plan.

I have explained why it is failing to the best of my ability by analogy and explanation using real world examples.  The sad thing is that the failure might be primarily and unfairly generated by horrific perceptions of an inability or unwillingness of ownership to make the sacrifices necessary to improve the product toward the goal of a championship. I am not trying to argue that this perception is fair or just. Or that the Dolans are cheap or liars. That would be truly unfair and unsupported. What I am saying is that you can’t blame the customers for a failed business plan. I have discussed this topic with thoughtful and intelligent bloggers and friends with a few still firmly clinging to the theory that the market or the fans are to blame for the failing product. I will further address why the facts do not support such assertions in my final post later this week. But for this post, I will discuss what is right about the current Cleveland Indians, what is wrong, and what should be done to change perceptions and the competitiveness of the team.

The great news is that, in my opinion, there is much more right about this Cleveland Indians baseball team than wrong. And, contrary to what one might believe based on the first 4 posts, I credit the ownership and management for what has been done right. It is why I honestly feel that the “Window is Now”.  I will not recap all the moves that have led to this point, but I will look at the results.

The Indians have one of the best and most respected managers in Major League Baseball. He is steady and thoughtful and honest. I think he must have the respect of his players as well because they sure play hard for him. I have never questioned the heart, drive or determination of the players during Francona’s tenure. I may not always agree with Francona’s moves but it is a tradition to question the manager. He might be one of the best reasons for optimism going forward. And he manages the playing time of the players to keep them sharp better than any manager I have ever seen.

The Indians management with support of ownership have locked up key younger players to extend their contracts beyond their first years of free agency. This is a reversion to the 90s model that fits well with a smaller market team. It helps maintain a core of young players over an extended window. Brantley, Gomes, Kipnis and Santana will be here awhile and many others are under control for between 2-4 years based on their years of service. That includes many pitchers (including Corey Kluber) and middle infielders. This gives the Indians some flexibility to adjust and fill in their weaknesses but probably not in the weakest area.

In fact, if we look at our minor league system, the Indians have a more than adequate stockpile of middle infielders beyond the wave about ready for the big leagues. The stockpile of starting pitchers and outfielders is not as robust but there are still some quality arms advancing. Plus, keep an eye on James Ramsey who was acquired for Justin Masterson. Had the Indians drafted better during the past decade they would not be faced with the need to go outside the organization to improve the roster adequately. Unfortunately, for this “window” I think they should and must look outside their current major league and minor league rosters.

Although Terry Francona handles veteran utility players fantastically, some veteran presence might need to be sacrificed going forward. Names like Mike Aviles (whom I love as a player) and David Murphy and Ryan Rayburn come to mind. Sadly, Nick Swisher comes to mind as well but he has an untradeable contract and it might be a PR nightmare to trade him (especially because we would still need to pay about 80% of his salary if not more.) The Indians need to make room for some additional young players on the active roster and decrease salary in order to make the other moves necessary to take the next step.

One of the biggest difficulties with the current roster is how to attack third base and second base. Lonnie Chisenhall has finally taken great strides in 2014. However, he still has an average glove at best and probably not enough power for third base. Plus, I am not sure he can hit for a high average consistently. Even this year he was white hot and then stone cold before leveling off in the .280s. Jason Kipnis, also one of my favorite players, has looked lost this year and very ineffective at the plate. Plus, we have many options for second base going forward including Jose Ramirez who is a better second baseman than even a shortstop. As hard as it is to consider, the Indians will need to at least explore his trade value or consider a return to the outfield for Kipnis. Again, I am not advocating this per se but it must be considered.

All of a sudden, the Tribe’s starting pitching is young and incredibly effective. It would not be a total mistake to go into next season with a rotation of Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Bauer, and House. That would be a very young rotation to contend for a championship, but 2015 might not be that year anyway and they would be much more stabilized after 2015. If they do not supplement that group however with maybe one veteran with a great reputation near the end of his career (as they did with Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser), they will be very short on depth with McAllister being the next man up and little else. They have learned enough about their bullpen that the Indians might be able to make little or no change there. Another bullpen option is always a good idea but not mandatory to contend next year.

Defensively the Indians were simply awful and that poor fielding also contributed, in my opinion, to the poor fan acceptance of this team. I have been at the stadium many times when one of those clunker errors occurs. There is a collective groan from the crowd and it sucks the life out of the stadium. Not good to get return customers.  But there is no way to really upgrade that significantly without wholesale changes and I don’t think that would be wise or necessary. The team was in a season long slump defensively and you have to hope next year would be at least noticeably better.

So, except for that league worst or near worst defense, we have a pretty darn good baseball team in Cleveland. However, it is failing at the gate and there is only one way to energize the fan base and increase fan interest going into next year. That would be to find a way to fix the multiseason hole in the middle of our lineup and increase the Indians offensive efficiency. Statistically the Indians score enough runs in total until you add up the horrific number of games where they have scored 3 runs or less. I can’t find the exact number, but it is huge and has been quoted on TV several times. The Indians might win some of those games but a 2-1 game, while great for the baseball purists like myself, doesn’t excite the casual fan base which is what the Indians need to succeed. More importantly, it makes it too easy for the opposing team’s starting pitcher to navigate the middle of our lineup without much fear.

Brantley is a perfect number 3 hitter. He is a tough out in every way. Hits fantastically in the clutch. Has plenty of power for the 3 hole. And hits for a very high average. Carlos Santana has enough power for cleanup by some standards but barely so. Plus, he has way too many holes in his swing to make him a truly feared hitter like Brantley. His batting average is simply not good enough for the 4 hole despite his walk and OBP totals. It doesn’t really help the lineup for the 4th hitter to draw walks and not hit for average. Kipnis was terrible wherever Francona hit him this year and I only hope this is not the real Kipnis. If it is, we are in trouble. Gomes is developing into a true middle of the order hitter for the 5 or 6 hole. I could go on but you can see the picture. The Indians have no one to man the fourth spot in the lineup which is the most critical spot after the #3 hitter (and maybe the leadoff hitter by some standards.)

A feared power bat who hits for a high average in that position would vastly extend the Indians batting order and make it dramatically tougher for the pitcher. Now you are moving Santana or Gomes to the 5th spot and 6th spots. Kipnis can drop to 7th assuming Ramirez maintains his position in the number 2 hole. Then Chisenhall and Murphy (or whomever roams right field) drop to 8th and 9th.

I am certain that if the Dolans would look at this logically and realize it is a hole that hasn’t been filled for years, they would consider giving the go ahead to get that kind of player for next year. Although trades can be considered, there is a hitter out there available that would be willing to come to the Indians without us paying a premium over other teams. I am virtually certain of that because he said that he wanted to finish his career here and his next contract will likely be his last. Plus, he cried when he was traded and never wanted to leave. And he has paid us back many times over for our stupidity by pounding us into oblivion with his buddy Miguel. AND he plays for our direct competitor who is the major obstacle standing in our way to a division championship (the only real way to “make the playoffs”). As you already know, his name is Victor.

In my next installment I will address some of the other theories blaming the city population or the fans for the business failure of the Indians over the past 4 years. And I will explain why, in stark contrast to Paul Hoynes who simply said we now “can’t afford him”, adding Martinez would be an excellent investment and give our team a legitimate chance to contend that everyone could see. Thus increasing interest and attendance while erasing a probably unfair perception of the Indians management and ownership.

Need to check the mirror. Business as usual is killing business.

[4] Dolans – Look In Mirror: The Athletics Don’t Win Championships, Neither Will You.

This series is not intended to bash the Oakland Athletics but to explain the Cleveland Indians decline. However, using a proxy like the Athletics helps to explain Indian fan support, which is what this series is about. Since 1992, the Athletics have participated in the Post Season 8 times (not including this year). That is 8 times in 22 years. Not too bad really. In fact, pretty darn good. However, in those 8 appearances from 1992 forward, they have won exactly ONE playoff series and then promptly lost in the AL Championship series 4- 0. No World Championships. Not even one American League Championship. And those teams were, in general, created by highly sophisticated drafting and analysis and not by simply getting the best players.

Obviously, since this time frame included the 90’s, the Indians did far better and did massively better in attendance and in success in the playoffs. The lack of a World Championship during that time was more based on the Baseball Gods than actual talent. Sometimes even the most talented teams do not win it all.

But in the mid 90s, Cleveland fans KNEW that the team was vastly talented and odds on favorites to win their division and always contenders for the World Series. In fact, the Indians were so good that it was kind of a sick joke on Cleveland that a Championship banner never flew during those years. And therein lies the secret to attendance and acceptance in sports. The fans have to perceive you have created a team that is built to win. The fans have to perceive you have created a team that is likely to win. But most importantly, the fans have to perceive YOU will do whatever it takes to win. That is how trust is built. That is how sports teams thrive. That is how customer loyalty is  created. Then, when the fans come and you match their perceptions with actual winning, you have a money generating machine that will continue even if you underperform for awhile.

BUT, if you do it the opposite way and build a team that the fans perceive is built to be competitive with a minimal chance at winning a championship. That the fans perceive is not likely to win but might win. And conduct business in a way that the fans perceive you won’t do whatever it takes to win but you would like to win.  Then, when the fans come and you match their perceptions by failing to win big games, you have built a money hemorrhaging machine that won’t bring fans even when you outperform for awhile.

This is why the Oakland model won’t work to bring in fans even when they have modest success. And this is why the current Cleveland model won’t work. A super close friend of mine and I were talking recently and he provided me with a simple but profound explanation for all of this.  You decide to go to a restaurant with a decent but not outstanding reputation hoping to get a good meal. When your meal does not meet your expectations, the owner comes up to you and says “I’m sorry the meal was not good tonight. But I promise if you just keep coming I will be able to afford better meat and you will eventually get a good meal.” How likely are you to return to that restaurant for a possibility that you might get a good meal? Exactly !!! Not very likely. That is my analogy for the Cleveland Indians model of attracting fans.

They hope that fans will see they try hard and might win someday and will forget that the ownership’s commitment to winning is based on marginal deficit spending “hoping” to win by outsmarting and not outspending the competition. That is actually a smart way to approach the Cleveland market except for one thing that has buried Larry Dolan ever since he said it. He said something like this “When the time is right, I will spend what is necessary to bring us a winner. And not just for one year but for multiple years.” That is the missing link in the way to change fans perceptions and then transform those perceptions into reality. Thus creating a strong bond between fans, management and ownership that will sustain not only success on the field but in the stands.

The Indians need to build a strong team that is built to challenge for a CHAMPIONSHIP and not challenge for a possible “play in” game as a Wild Card winner. The fans can see it as clear as day and like looking through perfectly cleaned glass. They see a Cleveland Indians team that, while clearly talented, has virtually no chance for a championship without wild unadulterated luck. That is not the perception that will bring attendance unless the team dramatically outperforms their talent. While playing very hard and caring, the team just doesn’t quite have the horsepower needed to challenge the big boys.  The Cleveland fans will not support that model. Isn’t happening now and won’t happen in the future. That is why the Dolans need to look in the mirror and make a tough decision this off season. The entire Indians franchise might be hanging in the balance.

Finally, we will talk some Indians baseball in my next post. I will explain how this could work out well for all parties concerned. There IS A WINDOW of opportunity for the Indians to jump through. But it will take a drastic departure from the current model to pull this off. Our journey will continue tomorrow.

Cleveland Indians 1948 champs

[3] Dolans – Look in Mirror: Oakland Model is Flawed

Well here it is in black and white !! The “Holy Grail” of baseball management !! The Oakland Athletics !!

What I have done here is to put together a simple chart of the Indians and the Oakland Athletics from 2007 to 2014. It shows the “mid-market” (which Oakland is not BTW), “stay within your budget”, “look for bargains using advanced statistics”, “trade away stars before they cost you an arm and a leg” and “strive to be competitive in certain years” model of baseball management. So called “Billy Bean” baseballnomics.

Cleveland Indians
Year      W        L        Pct         GB        Attendance    Salaries
2014    76      70      .521       4.5         1,323,848       82.5 mil
2013    92      70      .568       1.0         1,572,926       77.8 mil
2012    68      94      .420    20.0         1,603,596       78.4 mil
2011    80      82      .494    15.0         1,840,835       49.2 mil
2010    69      93      .426    25.0         1,394,812       61.2 mil
2009    65      97      .401    21.5         1,776,904       81.6 mil
2008    81      81      .500       7.5         2,182,087       79.0 mil
2007    96      66      .593         –            2,275,916        61.7 mil

AVG     78      82       .487    11.8        1,750,000        71.4 mil

Oakland Athletics
Year      W        L        Pct         GB        Attendance    Salaries
2014     81     66      .551       11          1,775,616       83.4 mil
2013     96     66      .593         –            1,809,302       60.7 mil
2012     94     68      .580         –            1,679,013       55.4 mil
2011     74     88      .457    22.0         1,476,781       66.5 mil
2010     81     81      .500       9.0         1,418,391       51.7 mil
2009     75     87      .463    22.0         1,408,783       62.3 mil
2008     75     86      .466    24.5         1,665,256       48.0 mil
2007     76     86      .469    18.0         1,921,844       79.4 mil

AVG      82     79       .509    13.3        1,650,000       63.4 mil

Now I am not going to spend the time analyzing these statistics to death. It is quite clear that crappy low salaries with mediocre performance does not translate into fan support. That doesn’t mean I am implying that salary level directly correlates to fan support either. I do not know that to be true and it is kind of a self-fulfilling prophesy anyway. What I am saying is that the Dolans may have been sent a strong message that they can be fiscally responsible and have a competitive team. If not every year, then some years. Oakland has won their division twice during those years and Cleveland once. Both teams are likely to get a Wild Card game out of one of these seasons as well (assuming Oakland hangs on). Regardless of this competitive reality, the attendance is still awful by any standards for both teams. Now you can point to that awful excuse for a ballpark in Oakland for some of it and the team across the Bay. But the area is still vastly more populated than the metropolitan Cleveland area so I feel those factors balance out. The model SIMPLY DOES NOT WORK when looked at from the perspective of fan acceptance and attendance.

In a future post I will explain why I think that model fails and what the Indians could do about it if they looked in the mirror.

cleveland-indians-banner 2

[2] Dolans – Look In Mirror: Baseball Is Not Dead (Except in Cleveland??)

Before we explore the defeatist psychology developed from the Dolan ownership, let’s take a look at some of the failed generic “excuses” that try to remove management and ownership from responsibility:

One of the most commonly repeated reasons for the anemic attendance in Cleveland since 2008 is that baseball isn’t popular anymore. Young people want the excitement of a fast paced sport. No one likes the pace of baseball. Who wants to sit in the stands to watch an untimed sport? Well, the answer to that question is easily answered by game attendance. You might call me on this and ask for TV ratings and the like. But as valid as that would be, attendance still measures how many people want to spend their hard earned money on sporting events. MLB attendance has gradually grown since 2009 from about 73.4 million to about 74 million paying fans per year. In the same timeframe, NBA attendance has stayed flat at about 21.40 million fans. Both sports were better in years just before 2009 for about three years. That seemed to match the economy. The NFL attendance in 2009 was 17.15 million, went down, and then recovered to 17.3 million by 2013. To be fair it would be harder to grow attendance over a 16 game season but those are the figures. Conversely, the shorter season also places tickets at a premium and inflates attendance on the basis of demand per game. So, in summary, 74 million paying fans watch the 81 home games per team per year in MLB while 38.7 million attend the 48 home games per team per year for the NBA and NFL combined. Baseball has slightly grown attendance since 2009 and the other major sports have stayed basically flat. I don’t think that the “baseball is dead” theory explains Cleveland Indians attendance (or any team’s attendance for that matter).

Well, what do we expect, Cleveland is a football town!! Baseball is an afterthought. If it wasn’t for the Browns leaving, the Indians would not have been so popular in the mid 90s. This theory is thrown around with more regularity than a laxative. Yet, there is not a shred of evidence to link the Indians attendance to the Browns attendance. Since the Browns have been back in 1999, the Indians had massive attendance in the first 4 years of the Browns return. Starting at 3.45 million per year in 1999 and dropping to a still massive 2.62 million in 2002. What happened, did the fans take 4 years to get “used to” the Browns again?? And why did the Indians draw 2.84 million fans in 1995?? The Browns were still in town. The answer is simple and blows this “Browns Town” theory out of the water. The fans of Cleveland are not idiots. They can tell when a franchise is worth watching or rooting for and when they are not. They might miss by a year or so sometimes, but the Cleveland fans will pay money for a winning franchise or one that they perceive to be striving toward that goal. Since there is no evidence that Cleveland fans are unwilling to spread their money around to all 3 major sports when worthy, I don’t think the Dolans can find solace that their failing brand is based on their being trapped in a football town.

So if it isn’t that baseball is failing …. And if it isn’t that Cleveland fans can’t support the Indians because the Browns exist ….. It must be that, well….. , the darn stadium is getting weathered and we don’t have a stand up open bar in the outfield where people can stand and converse and drink with their family, coworkers and friends. Or we need a larger play area for kids so that the parents and child can avoid the game as much as humanly possible. Who wants to sit in the stands and watch the actual game anyway?? On the first point, I don’t drink at the ballpark because it is too damned expensive. But I don’t object to those who want a drink. And I have two grandchildren ages 3 and 5. They sit in the stands EVERY game we go to and watch the game and the players and the scoreboard and cheer every home run and every run. They laugh and know the players names and their batting stances. Now that might have something to do with my daughter and son-in-law both being diehard Indian fans but who knows. My point here is that, while any enhancements made to Progressive field might be nice, the ballpark is certainly not the problem here. So the big hoopla around the stadium enhancements that we won’t have to pay for (actually being paid by the concession company – what does that tell you?) is nothing more than a smokescreen for the real problem with the attendance there.

You know, I never really thought baseball was dying or the Browns existence lowers Indian’s attendance or the stadium was a problem , WE ALL KNOW it is the depressed economy in Ohio and the Cleveland area. Well, while the economic changes after 2007 certainly took a dire toll on Cleveland, it didn’t seem to correlate with Tribe attendance all that well. Between 2003 and 2008, the Indians averaged about 2 million per season. Low was 1.7 million and high was 2.3 million. In 2009, the year of by far the largest scare when the stock market crashed to an ominous low in March, the Indians drew 1.77 million. In 2011, they drew 1.84 million. Right now the Indians are sitting at about 1.32 million with about 6 home dates remaining. If they draw at their current pace, which might be a pipe dream, they will end up at around 1.43 million. That will be the SECOND LOWEST ATTENDANCE SINCE 1992 !!! Topped only by 2010 which was 1.39 million. This is exactly 1 year after the team had a dramatic season ending rally and somehow got into the wild card game by winning 92 games! During years that the Cleveland and National economy is clearly improving, 2011 to 2014, the Indians attendance has been 1.84, 1.60, 1.57 and now 1.43 million. Throw a 92 win season in the middle of those years (2013) and you still have a progressively declining attendance that doesn’t correlate to the economy, the condition of the ballpark, the popularity of the Browns, or the popularity of baseball. In my next installment, we will begin to explore deeper into the current state of the Indians and what, if anything, can stop the free fall.

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