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Plenty of Good Seats Still Available 

An empty summer at the Jake

Do you hear it? Do you hear the buzz humming around town about the Cleveland Indians? It's inescapable. Does Jake Westbrook even have a right arm anymore? How do you even spell Grudzielanek? Wonder where Grady buys his coffee mugs? You can't hope to cure Wahoo Fever right now — only contain it.

Opening Day in Cleveland is rapidly approaching — believe it or not, it's only a month or so away — and while the Indians might have hoped signing Russell Branyan and bringing back Sandy Alomar to wave his arm in a circular fashion behind first base would bring out droves of ticket-buying Tribe fans, it looks as if that's not the case.

It's pretty easy to gauge the Tribe's desperation. About a month ago, a source (OK, an employee at one of the Indians' team shops) told me there were still between 10,000 and 15,000 tickets left for opening day. That number has probably gone down, but not by much.

And while the game usually isn't sold out at this point, it's usually close, and from all appearances, the Tribe isn't even in the same zip code as "close" yet. Circumstantial evidence not only seems to support the ticket estimates but confirms how desperate the Tribe is to unload ducats for the home opener.

The Indians are now offering discounts to entice buyers for a game that usually needs no enticing or discounts (say what you will about Tribe attendance, but opening day has never really been an issue). How desperate is the team? It's trying to latch onto the large, faithful and financially solvent band of Lake County Captains fans to scoop up the remaining seats on Twitter. If that doesn't work, expect Mark Shapiro, with his newly found abundance of free time, to go door-to-door in your neighborhood. He may or may not have Girl Scout cookies as well.

Opening day is the least of the team's worries, however. (I expect the game to eventually sell out, but if it doesn't, it will be about seven different kinds of embarrassing.) Coming off an absolutely dismal and mind-numbingly boring season — ditching Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez but acquiring Brian Bixler! — the team has to be looking at some truly depressing numbers when it comes to projected ticket sales.

The stats and spreadsheets from last year's campaign aren't pretty. In 2009, the Tribe averaged only 22,492 diehards for home games. Total paid attendance: 1,776,904 (26th in the MLB). And that was with the benefit of advance ticket sales based on some measure of (mistaken) optimism that the team could contend, or at least keep it interesting, in the lowly AL Central.

This year? Not so much. No hype. No promise. Feel free to dig through your favorite Major League quotes to describe this bunch. Uttering "rebuilding" isn't much of a sales pitch. So between last Friday (when single-game tickets went on sale) and the start of the season, I doubt Indians ticket reps will be very busy. Maybe they can go door-to-door with Shapiro.

And the Indians know this, which is probably why they have a much lower projected loss this season after losing an estimated $10 million last year. With a payroll of just $65 million for this season (27th in the MLB) and the absence of any major free-agent signings, the Dolans seem pretty sure they're going to be looking at plenty of empty seats in their ballpark this year.

Crain's Cleveland business reporter Joel Hammond recently wrote about the recession, market saturation and our local teams: "According to a December study published on portfolio.com, it's a money matter: The Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor metropolitan statistical area is badly oversaturated for professional sports based on a measure of the MSA's total personal income (TPI) and a formula the study's authors used to determine what income level adequately can support each sport.

"Meanwhile, the Indians have adjusted downward their sales goals for this year after a 65-win season in which attendance fell 17.6 percent from 2008. 'They're most vulnerable because of their ticket price point,' said Cleveland State economist Ned Hill. 'The Cavs and Browns draw the more serious fan, while the Indians draw more pure entertainment dollars. That entertainment dollar goes to movies, dinner, the bingo table and now gambling.'

"The Indians, though, are undeterred, citing improvement in attendance when they've won: In 2005, when the Indians won 93 games and fell just short of a playoff berth, attendance jumped 11 percent from the year before; in 2007, when the Indians were one win away from the World Series, 14 percent more fans bought tickets than in 2006. That's nothing like the 455 straight sellouts of the mid-1990s, but it's nothing at which to sneeze, either."

Throw in the frenzy surrounding the Cavs, who are drawing approximately 97 percent of Cleveland fans' attention right now, and you have a recipe for the "good ol' days" when you could walk up to the stadium a couple of minutes before first pitch and snag a great ticket.

Which leads us back to the maddening chicken-egg conundrum of attendance and payroll and success. Remember, the Dolans seem to hold the exact opposite view of Dan Gilbert, who famously said in his first press conference as Cavs owner: "We believe that the money follows, it doesn't lead. We're going to be willing to invest in this team to build a consistent championship contender and believe the fans will support us."

vgrzegorek@clevescene.com

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