In The Lead: Pittsburgh sports crowd goes mild

Penguins fans show the way to Steelers and Pirates when it comes to filling up seats

The City of Champions has turned into the city of mediocre attendance.

While the Penguins rank among the top of National Hockey League franchises in average attendance and have celebrated more than 300 consecutive sellout crowds, the Pirates and Steelers haven't enjoyed the same success. The Pirates are finally starting to see bigger crowds after they snapped a 20-year drought without a winning baseball season, while the Steelers' recent struggles have led to thinner crowds and smaller returns.

Still, despite some sluggish attendance figures, Bob Heere, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina's College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management, said Pittsburghers fare quite well in supporting their home teams.

"You can also get an indication of how strong a community is in its support of its sports teams, particularly when its teams are not doing well," Mr. Heere said.

A pair of substandard years from the Steelers has left some open seats at Heinz Field, the 65,500-seat stadium on Pittsburgh's North Shore where the football team plays its home games.

On average, Heinz Field was 88.2 percent full in 2013, placing the Steelers 28th out of 32 NFL teams in relative attendance. Only the St. Louis Rams (87.2 percent), Miami Dolphins (85.5 percent), Washington Redskins (84.2 percent) and Oakland Raiders (80 percent) did worse.

The Steelers averaged 57,311 fans per game this past season, their lowest mark since Heinz Field opened in 2001. It was just the second season in Heinz Field history where average attendance dropped below 60,000. When the Steelers finished 6-10 in 2003, the team averaged 59,698 fans per home game.

Attendance has been dropping the past couple years, despite a longtime waiting list for season tickets, as the Steelers have struggled on the field. After packing the stadium to 97 percent and 97.1 percent capacity in 2011 and 2010, respectively, the team filled 94.1 percent of its stadium in 2012.

The commonality, of course, is the win-loss record.

The Steelers were a playoff team in 2010 and 2011. They finished 8-8 in 2012 and 2013, missing the postseason both years.

But even in their best years, the Steelers never finished near the top of the NFL in average relative attendance, which measures crowds in relation to stadium size. The Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts and the Philadelphia Eagles consistently rank near the top, filling their stadium beyond the fire marshall's recommendation.

That puts the Steelers at a significant revenue disadvantage. Though the team owns one of the most recognizable brands in professional sports, the Steelers' lagging attendance costs millions annually.

In 2013, the Steelers brought in $300 million in revenue. One year earlier, seven teams earned more than $300 million, including one — the New England Patriots — that brought in more than $400 million and another — the Dallas Cowboys — that brought in more than $500 million.

The Steelers are currently in a court battle with Sports and Exhibition Authority to add 3,000 seats to Heinz Field, one of the smallest stadiums in the NFL. But that won't help fill the seats already there.

The football team can do that simply by stopping the losses from piling up.

"That does ultimately hurt attendance, even for the most loyal franchises, with maybe the possible exception of the Chicago Cubs," Mr. Heere said. "Other than that, there are rules that you need to win to actually do well in attendance."

The Cubs seem to relish their identity as the "Lovable Losers," or at least their fans do. The baseball franchise filled famed Wrigley Field to 79.3 percent capacity last season, despite finishing 31 games out of first place with the second-worst record in the National League.

But even the Cubs, who have gone more than 100 years without a World Series championship, might struggle going 20 years without a winning season. And, for a while, the Pirates struggled to fill PNC Park, often called one of the most beautiful ballparks in the major leagues.

The baseball team averaged less than 60 percent capacity for most of the past decade.

"That's pretty good considering how awful that franchise has been over the past 20 years," Mr. Heere said.

But the Pirates snapped that losing drought last season and made the playoffs. And the fans responded.

The Pirates averaged 73.5 percent capacity at PNC Park in 2013, ranking them 15th out of 30 Major League Baseball franchises. Average capacity numbers tend to be lower in baseball than the NFL because baseball teams have 81 regular-season home games, not eight.

As a result of the surge in attendance, Pirates team revenue climbed over $200 million for the first time in franchise history, according to Forbes.

Not too long ago, the Penguins were facing their own attendance issues. Before players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin joined the roster, the franchise often struggled to get 10,000 fans at what was then Mellon Arena.

In the 2003-04 season, the Penguins finished last in the NHL in average attendance.

But a competitive team, a Stanley Cup and a brand new arena has put the Penguins near the top of the NHL in average attendance. The team has averaged crowds that surpass Consol Energy Center's listed capacity every year since it opened in 2010.

The Penguins rank sixth in the NHL in the 2012-13 season with $107 million in revenue, according to Forbes, which also ranked the franchise as the eighth most valuable in the league.

Mr. Heere said while he believes Pittsburgh fans do a good job in showing up for their teams, where they really excel is in other areas.

Local TV ratings for the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins are often among the best in the country. And fans continue to show up at bars, either to toast another win or drown their sorrows during and after a loss.

"It's more than just showing up at games," Mr. Heere said. "It's wearing their merchandise, watching games at bars, talking at the water cooler."

— Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1969 or on Twitter @msanserino.

The Post-Gazette’s special section “In The Lead” will come out Thursday, May 15. 

First Published May 13, 2014 12:00 AM

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