If an outsider were to look at the city of Cleveland and ask the question, “What kind of sports town is this?”, without a moment's hesitation, most Clevelanders would say that it is a “football town”. Cleveland is painted in brown and orange every gameday, especially home games. Even when the NFL season isn’t happening, the city still finds a way to show support for the Cleveland Browns. By far and away, this city is a “football town” first, but to say Cleveland is strictly a “football town” would be incorrect. This city is a sports town.
When the Cleveland Guardians, formally known as the Cleveland Indians, were a perennial power from the early 90s to the mid 2000’s, it was nearly impossible to purchase a seat for a game at what was known then as Jacobs Field (now known as Progressive Field). From June 12, 1995, through April 4, 2001 the Indians sold out 455 straight home games (not including playoff games).
During the 90s, the team made two trips to the World Series. First was the run in 1995 when the team came up short against the Atlanta Braves. Then, there was the heartbreak in 1997 against the then-Florida Marlins.
As the team made a push for their first World Series title since 1948 during the ‘95 and ‘97 seasons, the city of Cleveland came to the ballpark in full support. They wanted to see the team not only break their own championship drought, but also the city’s championship drought. The last time Cleveland celebrated a championship was 1964 when the Cleveland Browns brought home the NFL Championship.
In 2007, the Tribe looked poised to break their championship drought again. In the regular season, the team went 96-66, tying the Boston Red Sox for not just the best record in the American League, but also the best record in Major League Baseball.
As the ‘07 season progressed, Jacobs Field looked more and more like a can of sardines. Everybody was trying to get down to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario to see this very special team. Clevelanders wanted to see Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Ryan Garko, Casey Blake, Jake Westbrook, CC Sabathia, Jhonny Peralta, Asdrubal Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and countless others.
As Cleveland got closer and closer to a World Series appearance, and each ballgame passed, Jacobs Field and downtown Cleveland became crazier and crazier. Ultimately the team’s bid to get back to the World Series for the first time since 1997 was cut short by the Red Sox in a seven-game ALCS, in which the team blew a 3-1 lead.
Speaking of playoff runs in 2007, the Cleveland Cavaliers had one of their own. Theirs had a more surprising ending as they made it all the way to the NBA Finals, a feat nobody expected them to accomplish with the youth of their team. The young Cavaliers ran into a buzzsaw in the NBA Finals, getting swept by the veteran San Antonio Spurs.
Similar to what happened with the Tribe in 2007, the city of Cleveland started coming to what was then known as the Quicken Loans Arena (The Q) in waves. The city realized that there was something different about this Cleveland Cavaliers team. They kept being shown on national television in high-profile matchups.
Once the playoffs began, you couldn’t find an empty seat anywhere in the Q. The Cavs would put on watch parties inside the Q when they were on the road, and when the team was at home, they still had watch parties outside of the arena. When the TV broadcast would show the people in attendance at the watch parties, it looked like a zoo, with everybody crammed in trying to see the big screen.
When LeBron James announced that he was coming back to the Cavs in the summer of 2014, Cleveland went berzerk. I was in attendance for his return game against the New York Knicks. The only other time I’ve seen Cleveland be that crazy was for the championship banner-raising game the following season, which coincided with Game 1 of the 2016 World Series between the Indians and Cubs. Thus, downtown Cleveland was metaphorically on fire.
The Cavaliers made it to the NBA Finals in four consecutive years from 2015-2018. I went to a few watch parties during that period of time, including Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. Although the games weren’t actually happening in Cleveland, the watch parties sure made it feel like they were.
The Indians had their own playoff run from 2016 to 2018. They reached the World Series in 2016 against the Chicago Cubs. Once the playoffs rolled around, you couldn’t find an open seat at Progressive Field. Like how the Cavs did watch parties on a big screen in the Gateway District, the Indians did the same thing. It was the same atmosphere as during the Cavs playoff games.
The Lake Erie Monsters, now called the Cleveland Monsters, gave Cleveland its second championship in 2016 (Stipe Miocic brought home the first). As the Monsters, the AHL affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets, progressed further and further into the Calder Cup Playoffs, the crowds at the Q grew by the game. It culminated with the Monsters hoisting the Calder Cup in Game 4 of the Calder Cup Finals against the Hershey Bears, the AHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals, in front of 19,665 fans (Don’t tell me Cleveland doesn’t love hockey; I wish Cleveland had the “Big 4”.) For the fans who couldn’t get a ticket, they could attend a fan fest that was happening outside of the Q. I had the opportunity to attend the Monsters championship rally, and it was a sea of people.
When the UFC came to town for its first and only appearance at UFC 203 on September 10, 2016, it was for Cleveland native Stipe Miocic to defend his Heavyweight Championship for the first time. By the time the main event came around, where Stipe was defending his title against Alistair Overeem, nobody was sitting down, the fans screaming and cheering in support of the part-time firefighter
It makes sense why people say Cleveland is a “football town” first. Even when the Browns aren’t having the best season, fans are still coming out to FirstEnergy Stadium thinking the Browns have a chance. However, Cleveland should be called a “sports town”. It would be hard to find a city that supports its team and athletes more than Cleveland.