Just a decade ago, it was difficult to say where the Indianapolis Indians were headed. With season-long attendance for the AAA farm club settling around 550,000 in 2003, the shine seemed to have worn off of their new downtown stadium, which opened in 1996.
In 2009, when attendance dipped to 549,552—110,000 below its high-water mark 11 years earlier—it appeared that the sinking economy might drag the team down with it. More than a few local sports fans wondered if this was the beginning of a downward spiral that would sink the Tribe into the depths of irrelevance as the team’s major-league neighbors rose to new levels of popularity.
The team’s 1998 record attendance of 659,237 seemed long ago and far away. But with just four games remaining in this season, that record is tantalizingly close.
Through 66 home dates, the Indians attendance stands at 617,598, an average of 9,357 per game. The team is almost certain to break last year’s attendance mark of 637,579, which led all of Minor League Baseball and was a 13-year high for the franchise.
The Indians surely would lead MiLB in attendance again this year if not for a new stadium that opened in Charlotte this year. The Indians should easily finish second among 243 minor league teams.
If the Indians can tally 41,640—or average 10,410—over the next four home games, they will set their all-time attendance record.
“We’re going to celebrate the 2014 season whether we break the record or not,” said Indians General Manager Cal Burleson. “There’s plenty to celebrate.”
Just because Burleson and his staff are already thinking of the post-season celebration doesn’t mean he and his staff are sitting around with their feet on their desks this week.
“We intend to finish strong,” he said. “We have some good promotions lined up this week and we’re going to run hard all the way to the finish.”
The Indians’ last home stretch runs tonight through Saturday. Tonight will be Bark in the Park, where a select number of fans can bring their dogs to the game. Thursday is Value Night where fans can buy a ticket, get a T-shirt, hot dog and unlimited glasses of soda for $20. Friday and Saturday nights will feature fireworks after the game.
All this is almost enough to make fans forget the Indians were eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday night.
And it’s almost enough to cloud the memory of where this franchise was just a few short years ago. It’s not that the Indians weren’t profitable at the turn of the 2000s. The team—thanks largely to the fact that its Major League Baseball affiliate pays player salaries—has been profitable every year for decades. But with the rising popularity of the city’s other pro teams, it seemed like the Tribe had a tougher case to make to casual fans.
Then the team, and its sales and marketing department in particular, shifted into a higher gear.
A marketing agency was hired—first Hirons & Co. and now Borshoff. Promotions were kicked up a notch, and amenities were added to Victory Field including the picnic area just beyond right field and The Cove bar just beyond left field, in addition to video boards, Wi-Fi infrastructure and major upgrades to both gift shops.
Right as the economy started to tank in 2008, the Indians began making a major push for 600,000 in total attendance.
It was a slow climb, with attendance edging to 569,969 in 2010, 580,082 in 2011 and 595,043 in 2012.
“We have a mission of offering affordable, family-friendly fun, and I like to think our commitment to that mission has won us support from a growing number of fans,” Burleson said.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, the Indians’ current MLB affiliate,have fueled the fire, sending a number of top prospects through Indy, including 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen.
Much credit, Burleson added, goes toward the team’s veteran front office staff, including Randy Lewandowski, who has been with the team since 1996 and is now assistant general manager.
“It’s all about execution,” he said. “We have a number of people who have been here for a number of years, and we’re simply getting better at how we perform our jobs, and that’s showing up at the turnstile.”
But can the attendance bar be set any higher?
“Absolutely,” answered Burleson. “It’s our objective to continue to advance.”
UPDATE: With a standing-room-only crowd of 15,250 at its home finale Aug. 30, the AAA farm club for the Pittsburgh Pirates brought its season-long attendance to 660,289 fans—beating the previous record of 659,237 set in 1998.