There’s plenty of time left to go in the Major League Baseball season, of course, but if for some non-rapturous reason it were to end today, the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays would be the two teams in the American League with home field advantage for the AL Division Series. But would they draw sellout crowds to those playoff games?
The Indians and Rays are authoring the two biggest surprise stories of the young season, but fans in the long-suffering cities aren’t quite on the bandwagon yet. The Indians rank dead last in baseball in average attendance per game at 15,648 while the Rays are 25th at 18,021.
Even given their fast starts, the struggles of the Indians and the Rays at the gate are somewhat understandable. A combination of a stagnant Ohio economy and a pair of rebuilding projects by the Indians have resulted in a hemorrhaging of fans at Progressive Field, where the Indians drew just 1,391,644 fans last year — last in the American League and down more than 2 million from 2000, back when the Indians were in the midst of a record 455 straight sellouts at what was then known as Jacobs Field.
Few expected the Indians, who lost at least 90 games the last two years as they gradually dismantled the team that came within a game of the World Series in 2007, to contend this year. But the Indians have the best record in baseball (26-15) as well as the biggest lead of any division front runner (five games over the Detroit Tigers) through the games of Thursday, May 19.
The Indians have embraced social media and welcomed fans to the “Indians Social Suite” in hopes of re-establishing a long-term relationship with fans, and there are signs those efforts, along with the Indians’ on-field success, is beginning to pay off. Though the Indians rank last in the majors in attendance, their average crowd is down just 127 per game. And while the Indians averaged just 13,164 fans in their first 12 home games, they have welcomed an average of 19,906 the last seven games, including a robust 33,774 for what turned out to be the only game of a rain-shortened series against the Seattle Mariners Friday, May 13.
The fast start of the Rays, meanwhile, is an even bigger shock than that of the Indians. The Rays won the AL East in 2008 and 2010 but lost most of their bullpen as well as stars Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena to free agency and traded starting pitcher Matt Garza while reducing their payroll over the winter to just north of $41 million, the second-smallest figure in baseball.
The Rays appeared doomed in the hyper-competitive AL East when they stumbled out to starts of 0-6 and 1-8, but they have gone 24-11 since then and lead the division by one game over the stumbling New York Yankees and one and a half games over the Boston Red Sox, who got off to an even worse start than the Rays.
Alas, when it comes to luring fans to the park, the Rays have an even bigger mountain to climb than the Indians in Cleveland. The Rays, who lost at least 90 games in each of their first 10 seasons, had trouble drawing at Tropicana Field even as they ascended into contention and didn’t sell out last season’s decisive Game Five of the AL Division Series against the Texas Rangers until just hours before the first pitch. Capacity at Tropicana Field has been reduced by more than four thousand since 2007 (from 38,437 to 34,078) and by more than 11,000 since the Rays began play in 1998.
The dismantling of last year’s team, coupled with the high unemployment rate in the Tampa area (the NFL’s Buccaneers didn’t sell out a single game last season), lowered expectations and interest for this season, and Rays fans don’t appear to be stirring like their Cleveland brethren. The Rays’ average crowd of 18,021 is down 4,380 from a year ago, the third-biggest drop in the majors behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Mariners.
The Rays have drawn a bit better as they have improved — they had 14 crowds of fewer than 20,000 in their first 18 post-Opening Day games before welcoming at least 20,000 to every game in their most recent five-game homestand — but even a series this week against the Yankees didn’t generate the usual buzz. The Rays drew crowds of 25,024 and 27,123 to the two games. They drew more than 27,123 to 22 of the 27 games against the Yankees the previous three seasons.