As World Cup fervor sweeps the U.S., Pittsburgh is still recovering from the soccer blues



If World Cup fever were an actual illness, Pittsburgh wouldn’t even need to visit a doctor.

Interest in soccer continues to grow — there is a palpable buzz about the World Cup — but the sport remains a niche in the Pittsburgh market, where enthusiasm for soccer fails to rival that of other cities on the East Coast.

“As Pittsburgh continues to change as a city, I think this is one of the areas that will develop and change over the course of time,” said University of Pittsburgh women’s soccer coach Greg Miller.

“We might be — on this side of the state or this part of the country — a little behind versus a lot of other areas, but it’s definitely growing. Maybe not as much as other places, but I definitely think there’s growth.”

Make no mistake, the city is interested in soccer. It’s just not that interested. While local television ratings for the U.S.’s 2-1 win over Ghana on Monday exceeded ratings for the final round of the U.S. Open golf championship Sunday, they were dwarfed by viewership figures in other markets in the U.S.

The U.S.-Ghana match on ESPN drew a 4.5 rating in the Pittsburgh television market, meaning 4.5 percent of all TV-owning homes in the market were tuned in. That ranked 49th out of the 56 largest TV markets in the United States, according to ESPN.

The nation’s best markets for the United States’ victory were Washington, D.C. (11.8), New York (10.2), Hartford, Conn. (10.1), and Boston (10). Nationally, the game earned a 6.3 rating, with East Coast cities leading the way.

Though the sport is more popular elsewhere than it is here, soccer is still an underdog throughout the country. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released earlier this month, just 28 percent of Americans considered themselves soccer fans, which is actually down from 31 percent in 1994 ahead of the United States’ World Cup hosting gig.

Game five of the NBA Finals on Sunday night earned better ratings in Pittsburgh (5.4) than the U.S.-Ghana soccer match, but the professional basketball tournament benefited from a prime time slot on a weekend. The U.S.-Ghana match kicked off at 6 p.m., and the next U.S. match — today against Portugal — also will start at 6 p.m.

Despite an influx of immigrants who move to the area for opportunities in Pittsburgh’s vibrant medical and educational communities, the city does not attract many immigrants from soccer hotbeds, such as Latin America or the Middle East.

Lower ratings mean fewer sponsorship and marketing opportunities for local businesses. While the Olympics motivated many companies to tailor advertising messages to the Winter Games, the World Cup isn’t having the same effect.

Instead, Pittsburghers direct their eyeballs, and their dollars, elsewhere.

Here, it’s the local teams that drive the television ratings. The Steelers lead the way, averaging a 38.2 rating in the market during the 2013 football season, according to Sports Business Daily. The Pirates drew an average 8.0 rating on Root Sports throughout the 2013 baseball season, and the Penguins finished 2013-14 with the best local TV ratings of any National Hockey League team at 7.6 on Root, according to the network.

The city’s professional soccer team is struggling to find the same support.

Attendance for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds dropped in the minor-league team’‍s second year playing at $10.2 million Highmark Stadium in Station Square. Through six home games this season — four of which the Riverhounds disclosed attendance for — the average dropped to 2,661. The team averaged 3,500 fans in 14 home games last year.

Before building Highmark Stadium, the team averaged about 1,000 fans per home games played at local high school football stadiums.

The stadium, with spectacular views across the Monongahela River, lost some of its novelty in its second year of operation. Plus, after a successful 2013 campaign, the Riverhounds are 1-7-5 this year, winless at home.

The partnerships that own the team and the stadium filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization protection in March, saddled with debt from stadium construction.

The team did not respond to requests for comment, but after filing for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, CEO Jason Kutney said the team was “fighting … to make sure that Pittsburgh is a proper soccer city.”

In some places, it already looks like one.

Try watching a Riverhounds game with the Steel Army at Highmark Stadium. Show up Saturday mornings to watch Barclays Premier League matches at Piper’s Pub on the South Side or join the Steel City chapter of the American Outlaws fan club during a U.S. Men’s National Team game at the Claddagh Irish Pub in South Side Works. You might have a hard time believing the sport is slow to catch on in the Pittsburgh market.

Those in soccer circles say the sport is vibrant in the area, and it continues to grow.

Pitt men’s soccer coach Joe Luxbacher said it often takes time to develop interest in an unfamiliar sport. Coaches today know a lot more about the game than they did 40 years ago, when youth soccer started to gain popularity in the U.S. And parents today have more interest in the sport than their parents did — likely because they played it as kids themselves.

“You can’t take 10 steps forward at once,” Mr. Luxbacher said. “It’s definitely here to stay.”

He points to the success of Pitt’s youth soccer camps and the popularity of other youth programs as evidence.

About 50,000 kids are enrolled in PA West Soccer, an organization that administers league and club play for youth and adults.

When the organization started about 40 years ago, about 1,600 kids were enrolled, executive director Tim McCoy said. Within 10 years, that number was up to 20,000. Within 25 years, it was close to 35,000.

Here, as is the case nationwide, youth soccer participation challenges Little League baseball and midget football.

The sport will get a big boost in the region later this summer when AC Milan and Manchester City, two of Europe’s best professional teams, play an exhibition game in July at Heinz Field.

And with Pitt’s recent move to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the city will play host to even more high-quality teams. The ACC is considered the best college soccer conference in the country.

“Soccer, it’s taken hold,” Mr. Luxbacher said. “We’ve heard that song before, but it really is. Pittsburgh is a part.”


Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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