Once again, the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by hometown hero LeBron James, have an opportunity to break one of the most famous championship droughts in the history of sports. Since 1964, Cleveland has been left yearning for a professional sports championship.
Didn’t you hear? They just made a documentary about it!
While Cleveland’s years of heartache are once again front and center, it got us thinking about the reality that Cleveland… could… might…
Let’s do something dangerous, let’s place ourselves into the mind of a Cleveland sports fan. Recognizing that any championship would suffice, let’s examine which team’s victory would mean the most to diehard Cleveland fans if they were the franchise to break the Curse of Cleveland.
We have to start by apologizing to the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters, who are about to play in the AHL’s Calder Cup Finals at the same time the Cavs take on the Warriors in the NBA Finals. Although many would say the Browns in recent times have at best resembled a semi-professional outfit, we’re not counting the minor-league hockey team on our list. Let’s go from No. 3 to No. 1 to determine which professional sports franchise would mean more to Cleveland fans right here and right now.
3. Cleveland Indians
Last Championship: 1948
Last World Series Appearance: 1997
Other Near-Misses: Lost 1954 World Series to New York Giants (famous for Willie Mays’ catch). Lost the 1995 World Series to Atlanta in 6 games. Lost in 2007 ALCS after being up 3-1 over the Boston Red Sox.
For many of the previous decades, the Indians would rank higher on this list. However, it seems as if the glory days of the 1990s at then-Jacobs Field have faded in conjunction with the rise of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. In short, it just doesn’t seem that Cleveland is big enough for both the Indians and the Cavs to draw in fans at a sustainable rate.
Sure, the odd season like 2007 will come, when both the Cavs and Indians have success and the city can get behind the teams in short bursts. But since the Cleveland Indians’ famous sellout streak when the club sold out a then-record 455 straight games from 1995 to 2001, the Indians have made a slow fade from the city’s conscience. Currently, the Indians rank dead last in MLB attendance at just over 15,000 fans per game. 15,000. In a stadium that, despite being just over 20 years old now, is still a wonderful place to enjoy a game.
Can you blame the weather? Can you blame the economy? Can you blame the success of the Cavs? No. Because this isn’t a new problem. In 2015, the Indians were 29th in attendance, better only than Tampa Bay. In 2014, they also finished 29th. In 2013, they were 28th… are you starting to see a pattern? In 2010… dead last again. Not since 2008 have the Indians averaged more than 25,000 fans per game, the year after their last real postseason birth… and no, the one game playoff in 2013 doesn’t count. That’s an attendance struggle which has lasted before, during, and after LeBron’s decision to leave the Cavs, who reside next door to now-Progressive Field.
Since the glory days of the 1990s, the Indians lead Cleveland in one category above all others: Apathy. There’s no doubt that the ’97 World Series and Jose Mesa hurt just as much as The Drive, The Fumble, and The Decision. But since then, trust between the team and its fans has eroded. And why should fans care, or trust, that their team’s ownership will do what is necessary to field a winning team? The only shocking thing about this year’s Indians is that their current rotation stalwarts like Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar haven’t been traded for pennies on the dollar like C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee were in the past.
Not only have the Indians lacked a power bat or potential star since flashes in the pan like Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, but their ownership has shown no willingness to be aggressive to field a winning team. Constantly, the Indians scrape the bottom of the free agent barrel in the hopes of finding the cheapest fix possible. And on the few occasions the team has spent money, it’s gone to long-term disasters like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.
Truthfully, fans haven’t really recovered, or had reason to come back to the ballpark on a consistent basis, since the trades of Sabathia and Lee in 2008 and 2009. Both pitchers were coming off of Cy Young Award-winning seasons and neither could be kept in Cleveland to weather the slightest bit of adversity. If that is the attitude of the organization, why should fans brave the cold, or pay hundreds of dollars for a family of four to enjoy a night at the ballpark?
Even under Terry Francona, the Indians have been consistently slow starters who are out of the pennant race before the 4th of July, and scrape enough wins coming home to end the season. With a fan base being slowly driven into submission, it would take a sustained run of success for Cleveland fans to give the Indians the benefit of the doubt, or the level of support, that would make a championship mean more to the city than the Cavs or Browns.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Championship: Well… never
Last NBA Finals Appearance: Lost in 2015 to Golden State Warriors in six games.
Other Near-Misses: Lost in 1976 Eastern Conference Finals to the Celtics. Swept in four games by the Spurs in 2007 NBA Finals. Lost 2009 Eastern Conference Finals to Orlando, despite 66 regular season wins.
There’s one reason that the Cavs rank higher on this list than the Indians: LeBron James. The Indians have more history than the Cavs, have had more success as a franchise, and have more of a connection with the city of Cleveland. But as the Indians have fallen in the eyes of the city, the Cavs have been ready to take their place with LeBron James leading the way.
It’s hard to quantify the effect one athlete can have on a team and a city. In fact, present generations may never really be able to grasp how LeBron James has affected the present and future of the Cavaliers franchise and downtown Cleveland as a whole. But one thing is for certain, no other basketball player could make the same impact LeBron James has made. It is the unique combination of James’ singular star power and his roots in Northeast Ohio that has been a perfect combination for team and city to thrive as one.
The love story between LeBron and Cleveland has even overcome the messy divorce of The Decision to find each other once again on the precipice of immortality. Of course, LeBron continues to essentially hold the Cavaliers hostage with his unique contractual structure that will basically allow him to leave the Cavs at a moment’s notice. But there’s no way he would do that AGAIN, right?
Until there’s reason to believe otherwise, Cleveland sports fans have to take LeBron at his word that he came home because at heart, the things that make LeBron tick are the same as the motivations most hard-working folks have in Northeast Ohio. Whether LeBron wins a championship with the Cavs or not, as long as he stays true to that calling and doesn’t again abandon his hometown team, he will have a special place in the hearts of Cleveland fans forever. It’s this story of the prodigal son returning to make things right that would cause a Cavs championship to be so much more powerful than an Indians World Series.
So why aren’t the Cavs No. 1 on our list? Perhaps it does have something to do with this Sword of Damocles being held over the franchise’s head, that James could leave at any point he isn’t satisfied with the franchise. After all, many during The Decision and its aftermath took great pains to say LeBron wasn’t from Cleveland. LeBron had only one home: Akron. And unless there’s suddenly going to be the Akron/Cleveland Cavaliers, there is a chance LeBron could again break the hearts of Cleveland sports fans.
But that possibility isn’t the only reason the Cavs come in at No. 2. There’s an even more powerful story of redemption in the city waiting to be told.
1. Cleveland Browns
Last Championship: 1964
Last Super Bowl Appearance: Still waiting.
Other Near-Misses: Seriously? Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble. The Move.
Just watch the Believeland documentary and it’s easy to see that the Browns are head and shoulders above the Cavs and Indians in the hearts and minds of Cleveland sports fans. Sure, we’ve talked about the heartache and near-misses of both the NBA and MLB teams. But even the documentary shows those two franchises are mere supporting actors to the star of the show: the Browns. It’s the Cleveland Browns that constantly take center stage. From the early retirement of Jim Brown to the sucktitude of the new Browns, they are constantly at the forefront of the city.
The Browns are the love that the city of Cleveland just can’t quit, no matter how much pain the relationship brings. From new quarterbacks to new owners to new uniforms, the Browns have done everything they can to keep traditional fans away. And don’t forget the losing, the only thing the new Browns have done reliably since they’ve come back into existence. Since the Browns returned in 1999, they are 87-185 with one 10-win season in that span, and even that wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs in 2007.
And yes, on most NFL Sundays, Browns home games have plenty of good seats available. But the Browns still ranked 20th last year in attendance, ahead of teams like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Cincinnati. The old saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Well, Browns fans have actually experienced that in a way that runs much deeper than even LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach.
It’s one thing for a player, even a hometown hero, to turn his back on a team and city. Players come and go. Someday, there will be another NBA player from Northeast Ohio who quickly joins the game’s elite. That player may even play for the Cavs some day.
But it’s another thing entirely for an entire franchise to just disappear into thin air.
The Browns had a history and a connection to the city of Cleveland. The Browns were Cleveland. Their successes, their struggles and their disappointments matched the ebbs and flows of a city that has been through a long and uneven evolution, seeking to find itself as it’s fallen from the heights of the industrial age to navigating a brave new world. Cleveland is a football town, period. Sports talk radio in Cleveland will talk LeBron, they’ll acknowledge the existence of the Indians, but they will always be obsessed with the Browns, because their listeners — the people of Cleveland — demand it.
Despite the heartaches of the past fading from memory, and too long ago for a newer generation of fans to fully appreciate, the heartache and pessimism of even young Cleveland Browns fans is almost inherited from birth. It’s a badge of honor to be a Browns fan because you are a part of something bigger than being a fan of a normal professional sports team. Much like a family name is passed down from generation to generation, Browns fandom and all that comes with it is innate in Northeast Ohio. For these reasons, that is why a Browns championship would mean more to the city of Cleveland than any other.
But they would certainly settle for the Cavs defeating the Warriors.