Smizik: Franchises heading opposite ways

With almost perfect symmetry, Penguins rise and Pirates tumble

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When it comes to the Penguins, there's no such things as just "news" -- only "good news" and usually "great news."

Has there ever been a team so mired in defeat that went on such a two-year roll?

It began with the signing of the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its union in the spring of 2005 that put the team on almost-even financial footing with the big markets. It spiked upward a day later with the winning of the Sidney Crosby lottery and all that goes with having the best player in the world. From there it rolled to the signing of Evgeni Malkin and the drafting of Jordan Staal and their remarkable first seasons that contributed to the totally unexpected 2006-07 success when the team accumulated 105 points. And finally to the agreement to build a new arena that will house a team worthy of such a facility, and then word that because of a frenzy of buying the club stopped selling season tickets when the number reached the equivalent of a record 13,500 full packages.

The Penguins are set -- for next season and for many more. It is impossible to predict whether they will win a Stanley Cup. It's not impossible to predict they will contend for many. It's a potentially outstanding team with what appears to be a highly competent general manager in charge that's preparing to move into a fabulous new building.

In short, the Penguins are the team that has been doing almost everything right. As opposed to the Pirates, the team that has been doing almost everything wrong.

The Pirates are in stark contrast to the Penguins. Their future does not include contention for a championship or a bonanza of season-ticket sales or a thick set of young talent ready to rescue the franchise.

Where the Pirates do share something in common with the Penguins is they, too, have no such thing as just "news." Except in the case of the Pirates it's usually "bad news" and "worse news."

Here's what might be the worse news of all for the Pirates.

They're slowly becoming irrelevant. They haven't reached that point yet and, in fact, still can stir a surprising amount of passion in their ever-dwindling fan base.

But that fan base isn't getting any younger. Almost in lockstep with the downward trend in attendance is an upward trend in the age of people attending the games. Fourteen, going on 15, consecutive losing seasons has an erosive effect and nowhere more so than on young fans. They want a winner, not bobbleheads. They want a reason to feel proud about their hometown team, not a nice night at the ball yard.

The Penguins are giving all that and more to a young fan base, and that group is flocking to hockey and deserting the Pirates and baseball. It wouldn't be fair to say the Pirates have lost a generation of fans, but they've lost touch with much of that generation and are in danger of doing so with another.

When readers e-mail to express their complaints about the Pirates, invariably they talk about how long they've been a fan, and it's not 10 years or even 15. They talk about the first time they went to a game, and it's not 1995 or even 1985. They talk about their heroes growing up, and it's not Brian Giles or even Andy Van Slyke.

The Pirates are serving an older demographic. The Penguins are gobbling up the younger demographic. It's not out of the question to say the Penguins appeal to the younger demographic even more than the Steelers.

And they want to continue. A lot of professional sports franchises would not have cut off season-ticket sales at 13,500. The Penguins wisely did so because they don't want to exclude the young fan who can't afford even a partial plan. The Penguins still want to sell individual tickets, they still want the student-rush plan.

It's smart business.

The Pirates still draw well enough, averaging a little more than 21,000 a game. That helps generate a healthy profit, but those numbers also are toward the bottom of MLB. The Pirates have the fourth-worst attendance in baseball, ahead of only the two Florida franchises and Kansas City. This is the fourth consecutive season the Pirates have ranked 27th, but they could be falling. Kansas City and the Florida Marlins, two of the teams behind them, are showing healthy increases this year.

In the hierarchy of Pittsburgh pro teams, the Steelers are a clear first. The Penguins are second, gaining some ground on the Steelers but never likely to catch them, while at the same time they're sprinting away from the Pirates.

The good news, for the Penguins, and the bad news, for the Pirates, continues.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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