It might not be much consolation for Clevelanders right now, but the Indians might be one of the biggest beneficiaries of LeBron James' shocking decision to join the Miami Heat. For seven seasons, James and the Cavaliers dominated the local sports scene, soaking up a higher percentage of the region's sports dollar than ever before in the process. In a few years time, some of that money may now find its way back to the Indians, who need it.
Knowing what they had in a once in a lifetime player such as James, the Cavaliers consistently raised prices during the last decade, which did little to impact a consistently high attendance rate. In March, amidst a 65-game sellout streak at Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavaliers even went so far as to raise prices for the upcoming season. The NBA season is shorter than that of MLB, but 41 regular season home dates plus a month (or more) of playoff mania, at higher prices, year after year, is a large burden to bear for any market.
As such, for much of the last decade the Indians have struggled attendance-wise. In the last three years, as the Indians declined on the field, what had been a mediocre attendance profile crumbled. The Indians fell to 22nd in per game attendance in 2008 (the year after an ALCS berth), then to 26th in 2009, and finally all the way down to 30th in 2010. The Indians are drawing just 16,230 fans per game this season, a terrifyingly low number.
To be sure, if the Indians were not one of the worst teams in baseball, the crowds would be larger. Nevertheless, there isn't strong evidence that the Cavaliers and Indians can both draw well, at the same time, with any consistency. (In part, the matter is purely hypothetical, because the Cavs and Tribe have never been elite teams at the same time.) Cleveland's metro area is just the 26th largest in the United States, is losing population, and has been in varying shades of economic distress for quite some time.
Home to all three of the big professional sports, Cleveland is one of the more over-extended sports markets in the country. Essentially, Cleveland is Kansas City (29th largest metro), with an NBA team. When you consider how expensive supporting the Cavaliers has been, it's easy to see how the Indians have emerged as a full-fledged "small market" team in MLB.
This isn't to diminish the passion or dedication of the people of Cleveland, who are also loyally supporting the Browns, who have a new taxpayer funded stadium and all the usual NFL requirements (PSLs, etc.). In the pre-LeBron days, the consensus was that the pecking order of Cleveland sports was 1) Browns, 2) Indians, then a gap, then, 3) Cavaliers. Financially, the Indians would greatly benefit from a return to this arrangement.