Thursday, August 30, 2012

Does Attendance = Belief?

In the article "Fans Send Mixed Message" by The NY Times, writer Hillel Kutler questions whether the Pittsburgh fans believe in their team, and used the attendance for the Cardinal series (53,590) as the main argument. Well, there's a little more to it than the draw for a weekday series, even if it is the big matchup of the week.

Let's start with the Pirate season ticket base. They have around 5,000 full packages sold. That's it; the rest have to be lured in by performance or promotion. They do have a pretty fair partial ticket plan, for 40, 20 or 10 games. But as you can imagine, they're purchased for weekend games and special promotional events like fireworks, bands, t-shirts, bobbleheads, etc. And the jury is out on the Pirates first-year variable game day pricing for single game tickets, based on opponent attractiveness. It hasn't hurt weekend sales, but you have to wonder if it's a brake on ticket sales for a weekday series like this.

We know the FO would like warm fannies in the seats, but they have cornered the market on couch potatoes. Fifteen of the twenty highest rated Pirates telecasts on Root Sports/FSN Pittsburgh have been aired this season. In fact, the Pirates' TV ratings surpassed those of the Penguins, whose 2011-12 viewing numbers were the best of any NHL or NBA team. That interest will eventually, if the product remains attractive, translate into more spins of the PNC turnstiles.

The past 25 years places the Pirate baseline for attendance at 20-25,000.

For all the years Forbes Field existed (1910-70), the magical 1960 campaign was the only season it went over 20,000 in average attendance. Three Rivers Stadium had just two seasons when attendance reached 25,000 (1990-91). During their seventies powerhouse Lumber Company years, the team never drew 20,000, topping out at 17,000+ in 1979, although they did hit 20,000 the next year on the strength of that club.

PNC Park started off with a bang, drawing 30,000 in its first season. That was during a run of ten 20,000+ seasons between it and TRS, ending in 2009-10 with a pair of dismal teams and the North American record for losing seasons. Even then it dropped to just over 19,000, thanks to die-hard fans and some great marketing, putting glossy lipstick on a pig. Last year, the glimmer of hope that broke through the clouds for a few glorious months brought almost 24,000 fans to the ball yard on average.

The team is bringing in almost 27,000 per game this season, 70% of PNC capacity and on the road to a 2,000,000 fan year+, which has been done just three times in club history (1990-91, 2001).  Remember that the Penguins drew a record gate last year, averaging 18,566. Now the two teams aren't comparable (the hockey guys have a five-season string of sellouts and a brutal ticket cost), but it's the club the Bucs get compared to the most often. And the Pirates beat them in both TV ratings and live attendance, despite the undeniable fact that the NHL club has offered a far superior product for quite a while.

And that's where the belief comes into play. The fans have supported a national laughingstock for years. They had their hopes dashed with a summer crash last year that the 1929 stock market couldn't match. And their boys of summer rolled into this series after losing 5-of-6. There's a lost generation  that has no concept of a playoff race's ebb and flow, much less Pirate participation in a stretch run. Forget school starting and that the papers are headlining Steeler camp news (X Hurt! Y Reports! Z Cut!) ahead of the latest Pirate game story. All Pittsburgh fans need is a reason to believe.

Give them that reason. The fans will start leaving their living rooms and bar stools and the park will rock every night as long as hope can stay alive - and this year, it finally may.

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