Cleveland Indians: The End Of Progressive Field?

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The St Louis Rams are among several NFL teams maneuvering to move to Los Angeles, partly on the grounds that their 23-year-old stadium is unsuitable.  The Atlanta Braves are abandoning their 20-year-old stadium for digs in the suburbs.  The Minnesota Twins have already demolished the Metrodome after less than thirty years of occupancy.  The multipurpose ballparks in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati lasted barely thirty years.  The RCA Dome in Indianapolis was torn down and replaced by another dome after 25 years.   The Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA are angling for a new arena to replace the Bradley Center, built in 1986.

We may think of the Cleveland Indians’ Progressive Field as brand new, and it has been maintained well enough to pass as such.  However, by these measures, Progressive Field is well past middle age.  The refurbishing that is being done this offseason does not fundamentally change that fact.  It also does not address the fact the most of the upper deck seats are closer to low flying aircraft that to the action on the field.  It also does not remove the many luxury suites that sit empty for most of the season.  Given the seemingly incurable attendance woes of the Indians, one has to wonder how long it will be before the Indians begin to ask for a replacement, or at least for major changes to enhance the revenue potential of the facility.

The Indians may be making enough from television and other sources that they can turn a profit drawing fifteen thousand per game, but that’s beside the point.  All of the NFL teams angling for the Los Angeles market are already making boatloads of money, but as long as an owner has an opportunity to make more money, you can bet he’ll consider it.

Let’s face it, the changes currently being made, essentially turning the right field stands into a food court, were not made because of an outcry for more chicken and waffles.  They were made because chicken and waffles sell better than those seats have been lately.  We can argue over why that is – the weather, because nobody likes the Dolans, because of the shrinking population base, because of ticket prices, or because they play in a stadium where no more than 25,000 seats provide a pleasant watching experience (perhaps it is no coincidence that they surpassed that total only thirteen times last year, eleven of those on Fridays and Saturdays).  But the really bad news is that they compiled those attendance figures in the wake of a playoff season with a team that was on the fringes of contention until the last week of the season.  What happens the next time they tear the roster down and ask us to suffer through a series of 90-loss seasons?

As it happens, the current lease expires in 2023, about the time Kluber, Brantley, and Santana will be nearing the end of their illustrious careers, the stage where salary peaks and performance tanks, assuming we can still afford them by then.  By then, unless things change dramatically, it will have been fifteen years since the last time they drew two million.  If it turns out that the next downturn is going on around that time and attendance is even worse than now, is it necessarily a slam dunk that the Dolans won’t seek greener pastures?  The Dolans are businessmen – they didn’t invest three hundred million solely out of civic pride.  They have as much right as anyone to maximize their return.  At some point in the future it will become politically feasible and financially prudent to begin exerting pressure for a new stadium, and the best way to do that is to have an alternative to create leverage.  Clevelanders know all too well that once that dance starts, there’s no telling how it ends.

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Probably not, to be honest.  Baseball seems to do better than the other sports at preventing franchises from moving until every option has been exhausted, and revenue sharing and TV money will probably keep the Indians from losing boatloads of money.  But the number of teams with payrolls above $100 million grows every year, and it’s tough to imagine the Indians keeping up with that crowd under the current circumstances.  Inevitably they will point at the stadium, because that’s how it’s done, and when the current lease expires they will exercise their five-year option instead of a long-term deal, and there will be vague references to Charlotte or Las Vegas, and there will be years of feasibility studies and task forces and rumors that will make being a fan a lot less fun.

Or maybe they’ll sell enough chicken and waffles that they can trade for Giancarlo Stanton.

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