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Browns attendance starts to reflect team's struggles

Plenty of seats were available in the Browns' final home game of the season. Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Cleveland Browns fans voiced their feelings about years of frustration with a protest march in arctic cold six days after a winless 2017 season ended.

They might have spoken louder during games.

For years, Browns fans showed up regardless of the product or record. In 2017, they didn’t. For the first time in a long time, the team’s attendance started to reflect the record.

The team’s eight-game average for 2017 was 63,883, the lowest since the team returned to the NFL in 1999 and the lowest since 1984, the season Sam Rutigliano was fired.

Even that average comes with a caveat, though.

The eight games includes the team’s “home” game in London, where 74,237 saw the Browns lose to the Vikings. Remove London and the Browns averaged 62,403, the third-lowest since 1980 and lower than 1995, the year the team’s move was announced.

The only two seasons with a worse average than 1980's were 1984 and 1982, when players strikes shortened the season to nine games.

The past two seasons, the Browns have two of the lowest five per-game attendance figures since 1980. And the average has dropped from 11th in the league in 2013 to 25th and 26th the past two seasons.

Per-game numbers can be deceiving, though, because some stadiums seat more than others. FirstEnergy Stadium had capacity of just more than 72,000 until 2014, when renovations reduce it to 67,895.

A better gauge for attendance is percentage of capacity.

Even there, the Browns have been hurting. They were 29th in the league at 85 percent in 2017 (considering the seven games in Cleveland) and 29th in the league at 87.9 percent in 2016.

There are a lot of venues and teams that would relish 85 percent capacity, but in terms of the NFL, the Browns were one of only four NFL teams below 90 percent in ’17 and one of five in ’16.

For the last home game this season -- a loss to Baltimore -- attendance was announced as 56,434. That was the lowest single-game attendance since the team returned in 1999 (though it followed a sellout a week earlier against Green Bay).

One other factor: Official attendance figures consider tickets sold, not people in the stands. In each of the past two seasons, as the losses mounted, fewer fans showed for games. The eyeball test optimistically put 40,000 in the seats for the finale. If no-shows were counted, average attendance would dip lower.

Since Jimmy Haslam bought the team, attendance is down almost 60,000 annually. WEWS-Channel 5 in Cleveland estimated that with an average ticket price of $75, the reduced attendance adds up to $4.4 million in lost revenue for the team and a $353,000 loss to the city of Cleveland in admissions taxes.

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Are fans turning away from the Browns? Decidedly not. The march showed they want something to root for, not that they don’t want to root.

It’s also hard to say that NFL teams are hurting when 17.2 million attended games in 2017 and four networks are bidding on the dreadful Thursday night games. The Browns at 85 capacity still drew a half-million people. It’s a wonder they don’t rank last in every measurable category with their recent on-field performance.

Chris McNeil, who organized the march and has had season tickets the past 10 years -- his family also had them in the ‘80s and ‘90s -- is not giving up his tickets.

“I thought about it,” McNeil said of not buying season tickets. “Then I get to the deadline, and between the team doing just enough to give me hope and a short memory for pain, I renew.

“The Browns' ticket office has basically institutionalized Stockholm Syndrome.”

He refers -- perhaps only partially symbolically -- to the syndrome in which a victim identifies with a captor. In this history, the Browns hold the fans captive to hope.

One fan, though, has decided he has had enough. Bill Brink has owned season tickets since 1980, and a year ago, he and his son Ted were portrayed on ESPN.com as representative of a fan base growing more and more frustrated.

He had season tickets in the original Dawg Pound. When the Browns returned in 1999, he bought six tickets in the new Dawg Pound (section 320) and four more in section 341, above the tunnel where the Browns run on the field.

Brink wondered every year if the season he gave up his tickets would be the year the Browns won. He kept his seats based, he said, on principle and nostalgia, living on hope and staying until the last play of every game -- and making sure his sons who attended with him stayed, as well.

But the winless season did him in.

“Part of me thinks, 'Gee, now we have [new general manager John] Dorsey,'” Brink said recently. “'Can we wait for the draft?'”

Renewals are due before the draft, though, and Brink feels his passion decreasing.

But like a true Browns fan, he also realizes he can always find a way to get to a game.

“I figure I’ve had them this long and they haven’t won, so now I think if I give up my seats, they’ll turn around and do well, which is what we all want,” he said.

This past season, he split the four tickets in the corner of the stadium but made sure he had all four for the home finale against Baltimore. He attended with his sons James and Ted and his stepson, Nick. The Browns lost, but like every game he attended with any of his sons, they were there for every play.

“I taught those boys you never leave early,” he said.

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Judging a team’s attendance can be a tricky notion because fans in seats usually correlate directly to wins. The team understands its fans’ frustration and anger, but it also firmly believes that the stadium will be sold out when the Browns win.

It’s not an unfair feeling.

The Browns, though, have reason to be concerned about the long term. The year of the move was 22 years ago, which means an entire generation has grown up in Cleveland with no NFL team or a really bad NFL team -- an NFL team that has become the joke of the nation when it comes to sports. The Browns have set the standard for futility and painful ways to lose.

Whether it means anything for the long term remains to be seen, but the fan base has only recently begun to waver.

From 1999 through 2008, tickets sold out of the capacity did not drop below 99 percent. From 2009 through 2013, it did not drop below 90 percent. In 2013, it was back to 97.4 percent.

But in the five full seasons since Haslam assumed ownership of the team, the Browns have won 18 games. In those years, percent of capacity has dropped from 97 percent to 85 percent.

“We know we haven't won enough, and we know our fans deserve better,” said Peter John-Baptiste, the team’s vice president for communications. “The decisions we've made recently on the football side are all about wins and better results.

“Another thing we know is the Cleveland Browns fans are an incredible group that shows immeasurable passion and loyalty. We understand winning drives attendance, and we haven't been near where we need to be in that the last three years.

“Everyone in the organization is doing everything they can to change that. What doesn't change is the Cleveland Browns' appreciation for every one of our fans.”

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The history of the Browns attendance has taken an intriguing path. The team averaged more than 60,000 per game only once in the Paul Brown/Otto Graham glory years in the ‘50s. Per-game attendance at cavernous Cleveland Stadium took off in the championship season of 1964, when the average was 78,476.

It stayed above 70,000 until 1974 and even topped 80,000 three times in that 10-year period.

The ‘70s saw a dip, but the hiring of Rutigliano and Brian Sipe’s leadership of the Kardias Kids brought a rebound, as did the Bernie Kosar era of the late ‘80s. The team was averaging over 70,000 in per-game attendance in eight of the nine years before Art Modell’s move, with the ninth at 69,948.

The bottom dropped out when the move was announced.

Now, the Browns follow two seasons with one win, and some fans have talked about the team being close to a tipping point where disappointment and disgust might drive fans away in droves.

Season-ticket renewals for 2018 are not due until March, and the team does not release season-ticket numbers, so there is no way to know the impact, if any, on 2018.

There is something about Browns fans, though.

Less than a month after an 0-16 season ended, the team reported that deposits for new season tickets are double what they were a year ago.