Thursday, May 09, 2013

Lingering items--Collective Shrug Edition



On Tuesday night, the Cleveland Indians beat the Oakland A's 1-0.  It was the second straight win for the Tribe over the As. It also was the team’s  8th win in their last 9 games and pushed their season record to 16-14.  Overall, a decent start to the season, right?  The answer depends on what you’re measuring.

While the Indians were winning there were a total of 9,474 people in attendance at that game or about 40 less than the night before.  Those are the kind of pre-Jacobs Field numbers that ought to give fans the willies.  Apparently it’s just giving them shrugs.

The Indians have the worst attendance in the major leagues and they aren’t even sniffing the next worse team, the Kansas City Royals.  In fact, the Indians would have to increase their average per game attendance by a whopping 27%, or another 268,000 fans over the rest of the season, just to equal the Royals’ average.

Parsing further, if you eliminate opening day and the first game of the Yankees’ series, each of which drew over 40,000 fans, the Indians are averaging almost to the person the attendance at Tuesday night’s A's game.  That would mean they’d have to attract almost a half million more fans than the current pace just to stay with the Royals' current average.

Lest anyone think this suggests that the Indians’ attendance is in a free fall, that wouldn’t be quite accurate.  Year over year the Indians are averaging a mere 534 fans less per game than at the same point in 2012.  This year’s poor attendance isn’t news, it’s the norm.

When you think about all this in economic terms it’s pretty clear that the Indians’ are losing more and more ground against their competitors.  If you assume that the average fan spends a mere $20 at a game, including his ticket, the difference between the Indians’ and Royals’ attendance translates to more than $5.3 million less in revenue for the Indians and that’s being exceptionally conservative in estimates.  It’s probably far closer to $10 million and likely even more than that.

There are a multitude of reasons for the Indians’ poor attendance including the deadening approach that the owners, Larry and Paul Dolan, have taken over the years.  A seemingly never ending string of poor personnel decisions wrapped around an exceptionally tight budget have combined to make the Indians not just a perennially lousy team but a boring one as well.  The fans have been systemically conditioned to expect the worst.  This past off season the Dolans decided to switch the paradigm, at least for one season, by spending money in advance of the revenues.  It’s resulted in a marginally better team and a less boring one to boot.  They lead the league in home runs, for example. But the revenues at this point aren’t following.  Indeed they are still dropping.  If that trend continues, don’t look for deficit spending next off season and so the spiral will deepen.

The Dolans haven’t been the worst owners in team history or even the cheapest.  But they haven’t done much to infuse the franchise with much excitement either.  They've entrusted their  franchise to Mark Shapiro, first as general manager and now as team president, and the results, well, speak for themselves.  Chris Antonetti is relatively new to his job but he’s a Shapiro acolyte and subordinate so there’s no reason to expect a different approach or result.  The on field results this group has achieved are dubious.  But perhaps the broader indictment is that they’ve been part of a far larger problem.  Their indifferent ownership and poorly executed approach has helped foster a town of indifferent sports fans, people that at best casually care about what's happening but certainly not enough to invest.

The Indians mostly own the spring and summer and as they’ve wallowed in the muck and mire, people who were once fans have been infected not with disdain but indifference.  At least when fans show animosity toward you they’re feeling something.  They’re engaged still on an emotional level.  When they’re indifferent it simply means they just don’t care what happens.

But we can’t lay this all at the feet of the Indians though because they have the longest season they get a slightly larger share of the blame.  Cleveland is a Browns town and it hardly bears mentioning the soul-sucking siege that this team has inflicted on this area.  Randy Lerner was not just a reluctant owner he was an indifferent one as well and it showed in both his approach and in his results.

The sale to Jimmy Halsam was at least two years too late.  Yet even with all the issues Haslam is facing professionally, he still remains the best hope to re-energize the moribund franchise.  Unfortunately, those professional issues are a huge distraction to Haslam personally and will be for months, if not years, to come.  Meanwhile he’s entrusted the day to day operations to perhaps the most boring front office executive ever in Joe Banner.  Holmgren was a joke but his nonsensical outbursts at least added comic relief.  Banner just generally rests his head on his hands and sighs.  It’s the perfect meme not just for the completed draft but for the fans as well.

Then there’s the Cavs, bleeding fans at a faster clip than even the Indians.  The Cavs have been in a free fall for 3 years now coinciding with the loss of LeBron James.  During that time owner Dan Gilbert has been mostly distracted by an expanding empire of other businesses including his casinos.  Fans also know that the NBA is the toughest league in which to turn around a franchise so even a fully engaged Gilbert wouldn’t make much difference anyway.  Fans don’t just know the Cavs are awful right now they know they’ll be awful for years to come as well.  Put it this way, when the biggest selling point going into the next season is to tout the rehiring of a former coach who couldn’t win a championship with LeBron James, the franchise is in more trouble than it realizes.

When you look out toward the horizon on each franchise there’s nothing much to see and there hasn’t been for a long time, especially in the case of the Indians and the Browns.  It’s had an impact, a significant one, on the fans.  They’ve gone well beyond cynicism and are now simply indifferent and if there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear from the Indians’ attendance results thus far, indifferent fans don’t throw good money after bad.

One of these years one of these teams will emerge to reinvigorate this town and give the fans a reason to believe again.  It's just that when you look out into the distance it doesn't look like a ship will be coming in any time soon.

**

One team that isn’t suffering from an indifferent fan base is the Ohio State Buckeyes.  According to a study done by USA Today in conjunction with the Indiana University National Sports Journalism Center, the Buckeyes are one of but a handful of schools that have self-sustaining athletic departments, meaning that their revenues exceed their expenses without the need for subsidies either from local governments or student fees. Of the $49 million in ticket revenue generated by Ohio State fans, $41 million was from football.  I'd say that the Indians, Cavs and/or Browns owners would do anything to capture that kind of passion and coin but I know it isn't true.  They've had any number of opportunities and simply haven't done it.

The larger story on the Buckeyes front though is that they are mostly an anomaly in college sports.  They are one of only 23 Division I programs out of 228 that broke even or were in the black.  Within that group of 23 were just 7, including Ohio State, that didn’t receive any form of subsidy from either taxpayers or students in the form of fees.  And of that 7, Ohio State has the most intercollegiate teams to support: 36 overall.

Meanwhile, the NCAA as an entity has never enjoyed greater profits.  It had a whopping $71 million budget surplus in 2012, which, when coupled with the previous paragraph, tells an intriguing and disturbing story about the state of college athletics.

Perhaps the poster child for how wrongheaded things have gotten are our newest bestest buddies, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.  According to the USA Today study, Rutgers spent over $28 million more on athletics then it took in just last year.  To cover the short fall it had to take over $18 million from other areas of the college and the other nearly $10 million directly from the students in the form of additional fees.  I suspect the financial picture for Rutgers will get a bit better as members of the Big 10 but that alone won’t suffice.  Just over half, 7, of the Big 10 schools are running at a profit and only 5, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Indiana and Nebraska are doing that without any form of school or student subsidy.  Michigan needed over $250,000 in subsidies to make ends meet, which isn’t significant but it is informative.  If they can’t at least break even on their own accord with a facility like the Big House in Ann Arbor and its 100,000+ fans for 7 or 8 games a year along with the massive amount of merchandising revenue they generate, then what hope is there for Rutgers?

There are any number of reasons this matters but the most important is the simple fact that getting a college education has never been more expensive or more out of reach to the middle class than it is now.  When a school like Rutgers is draining other academic programs as well as the wallets of its students to pay for athletics, you have to question what it's trying to accomplish as an institution.  And Rutgers is hardly alone. Fully 90% of Division I schools are doing something similar though perhaps not at the same scale as Rutgers.

If you’re looking for another reason this matters consider Indiana University.  Though the school turned a small profit in its athletic program in 2012, about $276,000, it needed nearly $2.8 million in subsidies from the school and the students to get there.  In other words, it didn’t really turn a profit at all.  But let’s suspend that bit of reality and consider the impact of robbing Peter to pay Paul at Indiana.  Because there are no coincidences, that university recently announced that it is limiting all employees there to 29 hours or less of work each week as a way of avoiding the impact of the Affordable Health Care Act, a result it wouldn’t need to worry about if it would quit paying subsidies to its athletic program. Quality employees who have options will eventually leave IU for a school that offers them better benefits, like health care.  It's a topsy turvy world where school administrators fund a mediocre athletic program at the expense of the larger mission and the general welfare of the rest of the school's population.

The real benefactors of this insane race for athletic prominence and its increasingly illusory promise of pots of gold is undercutting the very reason these academic institutions allegedly exist.  The NCAA could do something about it though that would cut against its own economic interests.

I’m not sure exactly how Rutgers can sustain itself as a viable school, let alone a member of the Big 10, if it continues to run up such huge deficits.  Surely its board of trustees must be asking themselves that very question and if they aren’t they should be removed.  The same goes for virtually every school running at a deficit.  At some point some prominent school will drop out of the race either by force or by conscious, but it will happen unless there is a massive change in attitude and approach.  But as we’ve seen for so long, the NCAA traffics in the small problems like tattoos while the rest of the house is literally on fire.

**
The Browns have a rookie mini camp this week and if not for them signing a pile of undrafted free agents it probably could have been held inside a conference room in Berea rather than on the practice field.

To this point two of the draft choices have been arrested with one of them, Armonty Bryant, a serial offender.  I knew Joe Banner was following a rebuilding blue print from other teams, but I thought it would be the Philadelphia Eagles.  I didn’t realize it would be the Cincinnati Bengals.

**
Given the character issues that already have emerged with this Browns' draft class, this week's question to ponder: Does anyone in the Browns' scouting department know how to even do a Google search on prospective draft picks?

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