Why you don't support a real baseball team...There was a big debate here in Pittsburgh last week about the state of the Pirates. Pittsburgh is and always will be a football town first - hell there's a TV commersial for a local news station advertising "News from your mobile phone", and the choices to read about are "News", "Steelers", "Weather", "Sports" - but for many years from the 60's through the 80's, they were a very respectable baseball franchise. So what the hell happened?
This week, fans around Pittsburgh planned a walkout during the June 30th game against the Washington Nationals - not exactly a National League powerhouse themselves. First mistake - if you're planning a ceremonial walkout on a game, try to do it on a night when the park is going to be full to see a halfway decent baseball team. As expected, the protest didn't have nearly the impact it was planned for, as only about 1,500 people out of a crowd of 27,000 actually left.
I've been spoiled as a sports fan, growing up with the Red Sox, Patriots, C's & B's. No matter what, one of them was always competetive. In the 80's, it was the Celtics and to a lesser extens, the Bruins and Patriots. The 90's were slow for the first half, but blossomed with Super Bowl XXXII and the beginning of the Pedro Era in Fenway. Now, the Red Sox and Patriots are perennial contenders, and the Celtics look like they're finally trying again.
But around Pittsburgh, it's the Steelers. Maybe the Penguins. But the Pirates are riding a 14-season losing streak, and staring straight at #15. And the thing is, the fans have a legitimate gripe. The problem is that no one seems willing to do anything about it.
In 2006, the Pirates generated $137M in revenue, not counting revenue sharing from within the league (in a perfect case of irony... the photo used for the Pirates' team page on the Forbes list linked above is actually of Ryan Howard... he of Philadelphia Phillies glory. Goes to show just how relevant the Pirates are). They opened a gorgeous new ballpark in 2001, paid for with city funding and owned entirely by the City of Pittsburgh. Yet their product still stinks. The team prefers to draw fans to the stadium with the promise of bobble-heads, worthless "collectible" team coins, and the monthly fireworks display (which is pretty good, I must admit) rather than investing in the product on the field.
And sadly, it's working. Baseball in Pittsburgh is no longer relevant even within the city limits. PNC Park has become just a place to go while waiting for the latest update on Steelers' training camp. Last year the team generated $31M from gate revenues, while only spending $53 on team payroll. This season's Opening Day Payroll was slightly under $39M, and that includes just over $5.5M being paid to players no longer with the team. In contrast, the Red Sox are paying $140M+ in payroll, and they are the best team in baseball. The Yankees are paying out more to players no longer on their roster than any single Pirate will make this season.
The Pirates generated the 4th lowest winning percentage in '06 while ranking #3 in overall profits - thanks largely to hosting the All-Star Game. And yet, even with no end in sight to the winning woes, fans continue to head to PNC for a game because the tickets are cheap, parking is abundant (hard to believe in this city), and the team keeps handing out freebies.
In fact, at every single home game this season, there is some sort of giveaway or entertainment promotion planned. It's an effective ploy to get fans in the seats, but why not spend some of that money toward signing a free agent or two? This season's "big signings" were Tony Armas and Dan Kolb. Last season it was Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz. Yikes.
I can't fault the ownership for realizing long ago that they didn't need to put a top quality product on the field to continue to rake in money hand over fist. That's just good business sense. But if you're going to treat the team like nothing more than a cash cow, why not just tell the fans? It's clear that of the 20,000 or so people in attendance on an average night at PNC Park, 75% or more of them are just there for the atmosphere, probably couldn't tell you the difference between Jason Bay and Chesapeake Bay, and will continue to show up and buy concessions and souveniers whether the team wins 95 games or 65.
Just let the real baseball fans go support a different team in peace. Because until everyone wakes up, not just 1,500 or so fans in a poorly thought-out protest, and realizes that this isn't going to change without a serious statement, the Pirates' ownership has no reason to do anything differently. One fan summed it up beautifully on a TV interview - "We paid $25 for these seats... why would we get up and walk out?" $25 for very good seats to a Major Laague ballgame - even if the product on the field is closer to a Quadruple-A team. Fans don't expect to pay a lot for their seats (The average ticket price at Fenway is exactly three times that of PNC Park; $51 to $17), they can't expect to get a lot of return on their investments. Hell, $25 in Boston won't even cover parking within six blocks of Fenway, unless you already own a parking spot (at about $200 a month...)
On that note, enjoy the 4th. I'm thinking about going to a Pirates' game to see fireworks, get a bobblehead, and see some band called "Big & Rich". Whatever.