Perspectives: PNC Park Is Looking a Bit Lonely

Attendance at PNC Park has dwindled to remarkable lows — and there’s more to it than the win-loss record.
Pncpark

PNC PARK BEFORE THE BEGINNING OF THE 2018 SEASON | PHOTO BY RICHARD COOK

Last year, Pittsburgh Pirates management couldn’t have lured people to the ballpark if they tried; no one was allowed in the stands. This year, they certainly could try to attract fans — they’re just not.

The Pirates played their penultimate homestand of the 2021 season last week, often in front of an essentially empty ballpark. Thursday afternoon — the final workday matchup of the season — the announced attendance for a soporific 1-0 loss to Cincinnati was 9,102. Don’t trust that figure, though; that’s the number of tickets sold, not the number of human beings in the confines of the ballpark.

While I neglected to actually count the people I could see (though I probably could’ve), a rough estimate would put the number in the seats at about 2,500. That could be generous, but I think it’s a safe figure. In any case, the true figure wouldn’t touch 9,000 even if you included the players, the concession workers and the people driving those little carts back and forth between the park and the casino.

The majority of those sold tickets were sitting on StubHub, awaiting fans who could not even be drawn in by bargain-basement admission. (I bought two for a total of $21.80 — including fees.)

September baseball has always been a hard sell in Pittsburgh; unless the Pirates are in playoff contention, the mind of the city turns firmly to football as soon as training camp opens. Yes, the 2021 Pirates are likely to lose 100 games, and they’ve traded or cut nearly every player with any name recognition. But even if the team was hovering around .500 and had retained the service of its few veterans, there probably wouldn’t have been a robust crowd for a mid-September, weekday afternoon game.

That apathy could change. But it would mean a fundamental change in how Pirates management approaches running — and, just as importantly, marketing — a ballclub.

For decades, Pirates brass has demonstrated a profound disinterest in the experience of fans in attendance. This is evident at nearly every level of the business.

The team could, for instance, sign recognizable veterans or flashy, if ultimately inconsequential, players just to give the fans something to watch. In the middle of the season, Albert Pujols signed with the Dodgers for less than $600,000; the Pirates certainly had that much money lying around, since their total payroll is around the value of a smallish used car lot. You could hire a hall of famer in his final years simply in the name of giving fans a reason to come to the ballpark — but because it doesn’t fit the only-pay-when-we-might-win philosophy of the club, that never happens.

(Before you email me: Yes, I know that Pujols would much sooner retire than come to Pittsburgh, but the principle of the thing stands.)

In a more simple directive, you could actually … you know, try to win the games. At this point in a hopeless campaign, most Pirates games are run like a Spring Training outing; a handful of regular players are paired with backups attempting to prove their worth, while pitchers rotate in and out a few innings at a time. It’s certainly useful to evaluate players — but that’s precisely why we have Spring Training. We don’t need to do it in September. If the game is going into the record books, try to win it.

The issue extends most notably, though, to the way the game is presented in the park. After years of attending Pirates baseball exclusively, I had a chance to see a game in Cleveland this summer. Before the first pitch, a video played setting up the pitching matchup and stakes of the game, not unlike the videos shown before every Penguins home game.

Imagine that — telling the fans what to watch for in the actual game, instead of playing game-show quiz segments and hyping up the pierogi race.

When I attended that game in Cleveland, it was of no great consequence; neither the home team nor the visiting Detroit Tigers looked to be playoff bound. Yet the fans reacted loudly throughout the game, in a way that fans at PNC Park never do, because the team treated it like a game of consequence. This happens in NBA arenas before every matchup; a 20-win team can be playing an 80-win team, but to the fans present, it’s treated like an anticipated showdown.

A renewed focus on baseball in the baseball stadium would not correct the Pirates’ attendance woes overnight; that would also take competitive play. (And it would help if Nutting would cash in some of that snow-tube money and actually sign some players, but that’s a worn-out topic.) Still, some relatively minor changes could help convince fans that they’re attending an actual sporting contest and not an inconsequential athletic sideshow to hot dogs and a nice view of the skyline.

A funny thing happened at the end of that Thursday afternoon contest. The Pirates were down 1-0 going into the bottom of the ninth, but — for the first time I can remember — the scoreboard folks didn’t bother to play the hype video. You know the video I mean: If the Pirates are down by a slim margin going into the final frame, they usually show a clip from one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels to get the crowd rallied for a comeback.

Thursday: No Keira Knightley. No “Hoist the Colours.”

I guess they didn’t think 2,500 fans were worth rallying. Either that, or they’re so determined to cut payroll that they actually sent Disney’s licensing fee back to the minors.

Categories: Perspectives