Monday, June 29, 2009

Attendance Pipe Dreams

Hey, DK had a piece in the Post-Gazette on Sunday with Frank Coonelly discussing the payroll differences between the Pirates and Brew Crew.

There's a huge revenue gap between the two clubs, and according to the story: "Coonelly pointed out that Milwaukee has built up its product to the point that it has a $50 million advantage over the Pirates in local revenue, thanks almost entirely to having drawn 3 million fans last year to the Pirates' 1.6 million."

First, let's disabuse anyone from thinking that the Pirates will draw three million folk. Pittsburgh has drawn over 2,000,000 fans only three times in its history, and two of those times were 1990-91 at Three Rivers, the last time they had some players on the field.

The Pirates biggest year was 2001, when PNC Park opened. They averaged 30,834 fans per game, with a total gate of 2,435,867. (Pirate attendance through the years, from Baseball Almanac.)

The seating alone precludes Pittsburgh from drawing 3,000,000 fans. Miller Park holds 43,000, so they have to sell 86% of their seats to draw 3,000,000. PNC has 38,362 seats, and would need a 97% sell rate to draw three million people, virually a sellout crowd of 37,083 every game.

The Bucs best year, 2001, saw them selling 80% of the seats over the course of the season. And PNC is the smallest ballyard in MLB next to Fenway Park.

Ticket prices are about a wash, with Milwaukee getting $18.11 per ducat and Pittsburgh $17.08 ($22.01 is the MLB average). Still, a bigger yard and an extra buck per ticket sold does translate into a few more benjamins rolling into the Brewer coffers.

You may also recall the brouhaha over the stadium referendum back in the day; it was actually defeated locally until the State came through with a plan.

As a result, the Pirates got advertising and concession revenues in exchange for park maintenance; the Brewers also got the lucrative parking rights for 13,000 spaces around Miller Park.

So let's set some realistic goals. If the Pirates improve their product to the point where they can move 85% of their tickets, they would average 32,607 warm booties per game and have an attendance of 2.6M. That would increase ticket revenue, at today's rates, by $17M dollars, plus the associated revenues the increased foot traffic would bring in souvenirs, hot dog sales, advertising, etc.

And improving the team is the key. Forbes Field had its best attendance far and away in 1960; TRS's best years were in 1990-92, and 1988, when they finally came out of the doldrums to finish second.

The Pirates haven't developed any particular cachet among the fan base to guarantee attendance; they need to field competitive teams if they expect to just open the gates and be flooded with fans, ala the Steelers and Pens.

Our take on the attendance question? First, don't fixate on what other teams draw. If the Pirates put a respectable team on the field, a realistic goal over time would be to sell 75% of the park, which translates to 28,772 fans per game/2,330,500 over the season. The stadium size and market almost guarantee that the Pirates will never draw the MLB average, which was 2.7M last year, over 33,000 per game.

Though they don't divulge their numbers, in 2007 they sold the equivalent of 9,000 full season plans. It's thought to be lower now, because of the post All-Star drop off in sales (as you recall, you needed a season-ticket plan to get All-Star seats in 2006, and they sold over 11,000 packages that season). Still, that's roughly 700,000 seats, and that's not a lot.

They have to continue and expand their season, corporate, and group sale efforts. The MLB average, so far as we can ferret out, is about 15,000 season tickets, so they have a ways to go. Ideally, you'd like half your tickets to be pre-sold.

Do this with the understanding that your ceiling is 2,500,000 in attendance for all intents and purposes. The Pirates are brilliant with in-game promotions, but will have to mine other revenue streams like advertising and local media rights to close the financial abyss.

Next, they have to fight the urge to take the easy road out and jack up ticket prices as a quick fix. Hey, their prices are dirt cheap, and they certainly can be raised.

But don't scare away a skeptical public by trying to make up the revenue gap in one or two jumps. You can't erase 15 years of bad play and all the negative publicity, not just locally but across the nation, in one fell swoop.

Last, realize that sales in Pittsburgh correlate to a great degree with on-field performance. The suits, and Bob Nutting in particular, will have to spend money now to make money later.

Easy, hey?

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