On-field woes hide tiny gains off the field for Power

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On a pleasant midsummer night, with the Pirates continuing their push for a National League division title less than 2 miles away, more than 7,000 people sat inside Consol Energy Center to watch the Power suffer the third-most-lopsided defeat in Arena Football League history.

In a home season plagued by disappointment and inconsistency, the 78-20 loss had one bright side: It was watched by the second-largest crowd this season.

The game was, in some ways, a microcosm of the Power -- an organization that has not found on-field success, but has strived to be a viable franchise in a city geared to major sports and in a league trying to gain lost traction after declaring bankruptcy four years ago.

"I believe that now, coming toward our fourth season, it is taking hold in the city," team owner Matt Shaner said. "People questioned it at first, but we're building a loyal fan base and the city is more accepting of us."

To an extent, there is a level of demonstrated local interest in the team and the sport.

During the 2013 season, the Power had a reported average attendance of 5,865, up 13.6 percent from last season. Only the Chicago Rush and New Orleans Voodoo had a lower average attendance than the Power this season.

While the attendance numbers might seem unimpressive, they help ensure that the Power will be able to keep what is likely its greatest asset: Consol Energy Center.

Based on a six-year agreement, which is broken into two three-year deals, the team can continue to use the arena if it averaged 6,000 fans over the first three years. In that span, the Power reported that the team averaged 6,742 fans per game.

Granted, there is typically a gap between the reported and actual attendance. According to the lone monthly income statement obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from the Sports & Exhibition Authority, the Power's June 2012 game against the Milwaukee Mustangs drew 2,575 fans, about 58 percent of the reported mark of 4,421.

Part of the low attendance figures can be attributed to the Power's forgettable on-field performance. Over the past three seasons, the team has finished no better than 9-9, going a combined 18-36 without a playoff appearance.

"As the owner, the buck stops with me," Shaner said. "I need to put together the best product possible, and we just need to win more football games."

Financially, signs have been slightly more encouraging.

Shaner noted that the team's two primary revenue streams come from ticket sales and sponsorships with companies such as UPMC, Marriott hotels and Mr. Rooter. In all, the franchise was around 2,000 season ticket holders this past season.

Patience, too, is a key in building the Power's brand. Unlike nine of the league's other 13 teams, the Power was not a franchise in 2008, the final season before the AFL temporarily shut down. Shaner noted that it can be "shocking" to a city when it is introduced to a new product, but he believes that the team has built a core base of 5,000 fans, a number he hopes will increase in the coming years and with more wins.

Nonetheless, the Power, like the league itself, must start to build an identity under a clear vision if it hopes to maintain any level of financial success.

"Realistically, the Arena Football League teams should and need to understand that the league is an entertainment product," said Scott Bukstein, an assistant program director and instructor in the University of Central Florida's College of Business Administration. "The focus of the teams needs to be on entertainment and the spectator experience."

To some degree, the Power has done that. With each of its games comes a free giveaway, and with low ticket prices (usually around $15 per person) and cheap concession options, the franchise has marketed itself as an affordable sporting alternative.

As for the team's future in Pittsburgh, AFL commissioner Jerry Kurz said the Power is "absolutely" not going anywhere.

The league has contracted each of the past two seasons, going from 18 teams in 2011 to 14 now, but Kurz said the lack of committed ownership was a factor in losing at least some of those teams.

With Consol Energy Center and an involved local ownership group headed by Shaner and former Steelers superstar Lynn Swann, the Power franchise appears safe.

"I don't know many people that come to our games that don't get hooked on the game because of the great play and the entertainment value," Kurz said.

"I see the Power being there as far as I can see in the future."

Challenges still remain for the Power and the league in both the economics and perception of the sport.

"Do I think it's a broken model? No, I don't think the model's broken," Bukstein said of the AFL. "But, right now, it's not sustainable due to some of the economic and financial issues."

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Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.


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