Note: I started this post yesterday, but did not find the time to complete it until now. During that time, several people beat me to the punch, including Dejan in today's Q & A. Check out these other posts, as they make some excellent points that I did not cover. Enjoy the following post, the majority of which was written on Thursday.
In Wednesday's Post-Gazette Q&A, Dejan Kovacevic called out Pirate fans. He could not understand why the attendance for Monday's game was only around 12,000, citing a "really fine pitching matchup" and "an absolutely spectacular night for baseball." In today's Q&A, fans that did not attend that game explained their reasons and Dejan responded. Reading these pieces got me thinking a bit.
Before I start, I think I should make a disclaimer. I totally understand why fans are upset with the Pirates’ ownership and management. This franchise has made absolutely no progress in the past 14 years. Those in charge either can not or will not do what is necessary to field a competitive team. That is very disheartening and frustrating as hell.
But what is the true cause of poor attendance at PNC Park? Many people would say that Pittsburgh is not a baseball town. Others claim that there are passionate fans in the shadows, just waiting for something positive to rally behind. The individuals that support the latter idea often refer to June 2005. The Pirates were on a roll and managed to reach .500 with a route over the Devil Rays. Enthusiasm was rampant, and the atmosphere at PNC Park was electric. Members of the media rationalized that it was the team’s poor performance that was holding back attendance. I believe that there is another reason. Pittsburgh residents often claim that they live in a great sports town. But is this true?
Let us start with the Pirates. I think we can all agree that the number of die-hard Bucco fans has dwindled throughout the years of ineptitude. In today’s Q & A, Dejan discusses the fact that the largest crowds at PNC Park are for promotions, such as bobbleheads and fireworks. These casual fans have been made the target audience by Pirates’ ownership. The pierogi race, the giveaways, Skyblast and other gimmicks are being promoted. It is all about the experience, not the game.
So maybe this just is not a baseball town. The Penguins were selling out the Mellon Arena all season and their future looks bright. But the enthusiasm was not there last year, despite a young franchise that was making progress. It was late in 2006 before “Penguins Fever” began spreading, and suddenly it was “cool” to spend an evening at the Igloo.
That brings us to the Steelers. Pittsburgh is known to be a football town, with a large following throughout the United States as well as the rest of the world. Of course, it is easy to be a Steeler fan. They are consistently one of the most competitive teams in the NFL and their five Super Bowl victories are tied for the most in history. But is “Steeler Nation” really full of die-hard fans? When the team loses, such as in 2006, interest wanes. Not a “14 straight losing season” amount, but it still fades. I was amazed at how quickly the excitement of a Super Bowl victory disappeared last season. My typical Monday conversation starter stayed the same all season, “How about that game?” By week 4, the typical response was, “Oh, I didn’t even watch it.” When the team is eliminated from playoff contention, there are thousands of empty seats at Heinz Field and Three Rivers Stadium before that.
So what is my point? Well part of the point of this post is that the majority of Pittsburgh sports fans are casual fans. They will quickly lose interest unless the team is in a playoff race or has a surplus of exciting young talent. After 14 years of being a laughingstock, these casual fans will need a reason to attend a game, one that is not baseball. My other reason for posting is out of frustration. This frustration comes from watching the PNC Park seats empty as the 8th inning begins. It makes me sick.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I understand that fans are upset with all the losing. Sometimes I start to feel physically ill while watching Pirates baseball. I am aware of the pain that the past 1½ decades has caused. However, I will leave you with an example that speaks volumes about Pirate fans. In 1991, the Pirates had a regular season record of 98-64, tops in Major League Baseball. It was the second consecutive season that the Bucs won the NL East. In Game 6 of the NLCS, the Pirates lost a heartbreaker to the Atlanta Braves, 1-0. Steve Avery tossed eight shutout innings, allowing only three hits. The attendance for this game was 54,508. The loss set up a Game 7 showdown, one of the most exciting occurrences in sports. The attendance for Game 7 was 46,932, well below capacity. The city of Pittsburgh gave up on the Pirates after that demoralizing loss. That is why I sometimes get a bit irritated when people blame the losing for their lack of interest. I understand the point. But will anything change when/if the team starts winning? Do they give out bobbleheads at postseason games? I honestly cannot remember.