Often times in life, something happens that’s a big deal for a minute, then is largely forgotten two weeks later. The off-season in baseball is full of those things as we grasp at any bit of baseball news, only to move on completely once the season begins. One of those things this off-season was Edwin Encarnacion‘s interesting bonus structure. It breaks down as follows:
We covered the bonus when he was signed and, despite an immediate increase in season ticket sales, things didn’t look very positive for the slugger. The Indians last reached 2,000,000 fans in 2008 and they’ve since had two renovations that each removed seats and limited their per game peak. Even with their success since Terry Francona took over the team on the field and particularly in 2016, they’ve averaged just over 1.5M per season since 2013.
Now that we’re deep into the season, however, we can take a better look at not just Encarnacion’s financial interests, but how the team is doing in attendance overall compared to the last decade. Coming off a big four game, weekend set against the Yankees, things are looking up. Both Friday and Saturday night were sell outs and Sunday was pretty close, tallying over 100,000 for the final three games of the set.
With those games, the Indians have reached 1,369,787 fans (based on box score totals) in 56 home games, an average of 24,460 per game. To finish the Encarnacion premise, the Indians have two games left on this home stand against Colorado, then just three more home stands this year for a total of 25 remaining home games. A straight projection would show the Indians bringing in about 611K more fans for a total just under 2M for the year. Sorry, Ed, the other $18M you made this year may have to suffice.
However, that average includes all games, like the two in the first series of a season where they averaged about 15,000 each and individual games under 15,000 in each of the next three home stands. Recently, however, things have been different. Since June 27th, the Indians haven’t had a home game with less than 19,000 attendees and they haven’t fell below 16,000 since May 30th against Oakland. Since the weather warmed up, it’s been much more common to see 20,000 or more at Progressive Field every game.
In addition, since June started, the Indians have averaged more than 31,700 fans per weekend game and that number has risen recently to the point where Fridays and Saturdays at least should be expected to sell out for the rest of the year. With four more weekend series coming up this season and using a slightly more accurate average of 22,685 for Monday through Thursday games and 31,700 for Friday through Sunday, the Indians project to hit 2.045M fans, a number that could definitely increase as the pennant race continues and is unlikely to decrease. In that case, Ed will get his extra $150K, which is very important to his livelihood.
Of course, the real focus of this information should be that the Indians are doing well at the box office for the first time since 2008. At about 24.5K per game (and rising), they are filling the stadium to about 70% every game; a stark contrast to previous seasons like 2010, when they filled about 41% of the stadium on a daily basis. Even considering the new, smaller size, the Indians would have only filled 57% in 2013, 53% in 2014, 51% in 2015 and 57% in 2016. There’s likely a small boost from Encarnacion’s signing and a much bigger boost from the 2016 World Series, but at least there is a boost. This wasn’t the case after the 2007 or 2013 play-off appearances as each season following saw a significant drop in attendance.
There are still those who will complain about attendance as Cleveland ranks 25th in average attendance. However, the top nine teams in average attendance are averaging more than will even fit in Progressive Field. Also ahead of the Indians are the Braves, who had similar numbers to Cleveland’s 2017 stats last year, but are enjoying a new stadium bump. The teams behind them are more important, however. Rather than finishing in the bottom three like they have every year since 2012, they have surpassed a few teams with much bigger ballparks (like Cincinnati and Oakland) and much bigger markets (the White Sox and Marlins). They are also within 2,000 fans per game of the next seven teams and if things continue as they have, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see them over take San Diego, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Minnesota and Pittsburgh, all bigger ballparks with bigger markets.
While not something we focus on as much as much as evaluating prospects, bullpen solutions or line-up construction, attendance does matter. The whole reason Encarnacion had that attendance clause built in was because the signing was based off an expected escalation in attendance. In fact, the entire “Dolanz Cheap” narrative was shut down during the off-season based on this expectation, which was in turn based on the Indians increase in attendance from 16,656 per game in the first three months last year to 21,929 per game in the last three.
Even after the Indians had clinched the Central last year, however, they had multiple games with less than 14,000 fans and four in the final home stand under 20,000. The increased season ticket base this year makes that unlikely to be the case again. Even in late August when the division was far from claimed, the Indians had an entire series against the Twins where less than 12,000 fans showed up for each game. This season hasn’t been anywhere near having a period like this.
What’s best about this is that it isn’t a minor increase for a single series, but an overwhelming increase throughout an entire season. Last year, they broke the trend of decreasing attendance that had went on since 2010 and now they may finally be returning to the levels of the mid to late 2000’s. This can only be a good thing for the Cleveland Indians, not just for the freedom it allows Mike Chernoff in roster spending, but in the experience it gives the fans at the stadium.