Optimism vs. Reality is the real contest when small pro teams take the field

Sitting inside a restaurant off a central Pennsylvania highway in 2008, Matt Shaner saw his future.

Airing on one of the restaurant’s televisions was an interview with Jon Bon Jovi. But it wasn’t Bon Jovi’s rock-star life that Shaner wanted. It was what Bon Jovi was talking about: his Arena Football League team, the Philadelphia Soul, which won the league’s championship that season.

“A light bulb went off,” Shaner said.

Over the next few years, that bulb flickered. He partnered with former Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann and they forged a deal with the Penguins to use Mellon Arena for a new team. Then, the recession struck hard, and money in the AFL dried up so much that the league suspended operations for the 2009 season.

By 2010, though, Shaner’s dream had come to fruition. Along with Swann, he brought arena football back to Pittsburgh with a team they named the Power, a commitment that prompted Shaner to uproot his life in State College, Pa., and move his family to Sewickley.

Since then, he has seen success — the Power has made the AFL playoffs for the first time in this franchise’s history — but also struggles. It’s an experience common to many teams and ventures in Pittsburgh who do not fall into a major pro league.

It’s a trend best displayed by the Power, which overhauled its roster in the past offseason not only to improve the team, but also to boost attendance and help secure its future in the city. It also is seen with the Riverhounds, a minor league soccer team that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March.

Nevertheless, a few other teams such as the Pennsylvania Rebellion of National Pro Fastpitch softball and the Steel City Yellow Jackets of the American Basketball Association moved into the area this year.

Though hope springs eternal for such teams, the challenges are daunting.

“For smaller leagues, especially in minor league-type versions of bigger league sports, it really has become extremely hard,” said Michael Leeds of Temple University’s Fox School of Business and Management.


In 1990, Bob Gries was chasing the same dream Shaner did 18 years later.

Gries was a successful young businessman, armed with the ambition to make his mark in something that extended beyond his day job.

Opportunity in the form of an arena football team, this one called the Gladiators, brought him to Pittsburgh. He was hopeful about his newest venture, a franchise that was coming off its second ArenaBowl appearance in its three-year history.

A year later, though, Gries and the Gladiators were gone. After the 1990 season, he moved the team to Tampa Bay, where it exists today as the AFL’s longest-operating franchise.

The departure was spurred by many factors, but the primary one was a lack of attention.. Even in a city as sports-crazed as Pittsburgh, the Gladiators had to fight for attention with one of football’s marquee organizations in the Steelers and a season that overlapped with the Pirates, who had a 21-win improvement and won the National League East Division that season.

“It was a tough year,” Gries said. “After the end of the year, I decided that I didn’t want to give up on it, but I decided I needed to move and go somewhere and get a fresh start.”

The Gladiators’ brief stint in Pittsburgh hardly was unique. The city has been home to pro sports since the 19th century, but, in an era in which the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins reigned supreme in the country’s most visible pro sports leagues, other sports franchises often failed.

The Pittsburgh Condors, the 1967 American Basketball Association champions, were folded by the league five years later. The Pittsburgh Maulers of the United States Football League attracted reasonable fan support for their only season (1984), but the franchise voluntarily went under after the USFL announced it was switching to a fall schedule. Others such as the Pittsburgh Spirit and Pittsburgh Triangles tried to carve out niches in indoor soccer and team tennis, respectively, but neither lasted longer than eight years.

The challenges Gries faced as an AFL owner then still exist. The Steelers have all the cache and profitability that comes with winning six Super Bowl titles. The Pirates have improved after two decades of losing, allowing a scarred city to reconnect with its baseball team. The Penguins are buoyed by a decade of consistent success with a star player widely considered to be the best in the sport.

With all those other options, people make choices. In a city that had a median household income of $38,029 at the time of the 2010 census, potential customers have limited funds for nonessentials such as sporting events, which hurts the newer teams.

“People tend to have fairly inelastic entertainment budgets,” said Peter von Allmen, chair of the economics department at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “They have a certain amount of money they allocate toward entertainment, so, when new entertainment options come up, they have to compete with everything that’s already out there.”

Even being the city’s lone team in a particular sport doesn’t guarantee anything.

If people want to watch high-level soccer, they have an ever-increasing variety of top European club matches they can watch on TV without going to a Riverhounds game. Though the Yellow Jackets will be Pittsburgh’s only pro basketball team, NBA games are on television virtually every night of the season and, if, fans want to watch pro basketball in person, they can travel two hours to Cleveland to see LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

“It used to be the case that, if you were in Toledo [Ohio] and you had a minor league team and there was a big-league team in Cleveland, then you weren’t going to go see it, so you saw the best team locally,” Leeds said. “That was good enough. But with the advent of television, it’s become very easy on a regular basis to see the big-league version. So why bother to see a lesser product when you can see the big product?”


The idea seemed like a small one to Jason Kutney at the time.

While surveying designs on the yet-to-be-completed Highmark Stadium late one night, the Riverhounds CEO thought of an improvement he could make to the proposed grandstand. Instead of making every seat blue, as was originally planned, why not make most gray and strategically place blue seats to spell out ‘Hounds’?

His plan was an exclamation point on what he was hoping would be a declaration, one embodied by a brand-new stadium on the banks of the Monongahela River. Those seats would shout to the thousands of people who pass it each day that the Riverhounds — after years of bouncing around minor league baseball and high school football stadiums — were a part of the city’s sports scene.

“We’ve put ourselves on the map, so to speak,” Kutney said. “We’ve put ourselves in a position, like it or hate it, where we’re here in front of everyone’s eyes.”

Building a stadium was admittedly a gamble. The costs associated with it drove the Riverhounds into bankruptcy, but it was necessary if the team was to be relevant.

Part of that pressure to survive comes from competition, but it also exists because of the demographics.

Of cities with teams in at least three major pro leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL), Pittsburgh has the smallest population. For as much passion as there is about sports in the area, only so much of it exists.

“What happens is the market can become oversaturated in terms of sports and entertainment possibilities,” said Rodney Paul of Syracuse University’s Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. “The more teams you have, the more difficult it is to be able to draw from.”

Pennsylvania also ranks fifth among U.S. states in the percentage of people who have lived in the same house for the past year, according to the 2010 census. Statistically speaking, people who live here stay here, making the city’s most popular teams that much further engrained in the area’s identity.

With that comes a certain sentimentality. Local sports fans grew up closely following the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins, going to games with their mothers and fathers, celebrating the triumphs and agonizing over the losses. From those experiences come memories, the kind that lie at the core of fandom.

For new teams starting from scratch, that is impossible to replicate and almost equally difficult to combat.

“The Riverhounds are not your grandfather’s team,” Kutney said. “There are advantages and disadvantages to that. The Steelers and Pirates are truly your grandfather’s team. We’re not even your father’s team.”


Sitting on a bar stool at a downtown restaurant, Antjuan Washington speaks with the fervor of a man spellbound by a dream.

The history of pro basketball in Pittsburgh is littered with teams that began with the same hopes only to fold after a few years. But still, the co-owner of the Yellow Jackets — who will play games at CCAC-Allegheny beginning in November — believes in his vision.

“Realistically, there’s not a limit to what I could project for a pro basketball team in Pittsburgh,” said Washington, a rapper and concert promoter who goes by the stage name Tjuan Benafactor.

Given the track record of teams outside of the major leagues, it might be surprising that such optimism exists. After all, what prompts typically level-headed businessmen and women to embark on ventures that have a low rate of success?

So often, the answer ties back to the essence of sports.

“Hope springs eternal with entrepreneurs,” Paul said. “Sports is a dream for so many people. It’s a matter of so few get to play it at the professional level or even a high level of college, but it’s something that’s in the dreams of so many people that being part of that business is really alluring.”

For the teams that have been here or have just arrived, there are encouraging signs.

After going 9-27 the previous two seasons, the Power is 14-3 with one regular-season game remaining. At 5,973 fans per game, attendance has only improved by about 100 people this year, but that wasn’t a statistic expected to change overnight. The Power’s lease to Consol Energy Center, which goes for at least another two years, is dependent on the team averaging 6,000 fans per game.

“We feel we’ll be here for a very long time,” Shaner said. “How many years I couldn’t tell you, but a very long time.”

For all the financial difficulties that Highmark Stadium brought to the Riverhounds, they finally got the high-end facility they so long desired. Though the fight to emerge out of bankruptcy is taxing, Kutney is hopeful the team will come out of the process stronger and better. The organization and its role in Pittsburgh’s soccer community is, he said, “worth fighting for.”

Other current minor league teams include the Pittsburgh Passion, a women’s football team founded in 2002, which will play for the Independent Women’s Football League championship Saturday in Rock Hill, S.C., and the Rebellion, a women’s fastpitch softball team playing its first season in Washington.

National Pro Fastpitch commissioner Cheri Kempf believes in the Rebellion’s ownership group, the same one that owns the Washington Wild Things, and its experience with a minor league baseball team. It’s the kind of thing that differentiates them from less experienced owners who have contributed to the league’s high turnover with teams.

It’s an attitude that is laden with hope. But whether it will last, given the history of such enterprises in Pittsburgh, remains to be seen.

“I’m reminded of a saying — I’m trying to think of it precisely — but it’s something like, ‘The divorcee who remarries is a triumph of hope over experience,’ ” Leeds said. “People think they know something everybody before them didn’t know and that they’re going to succeed where everyone else has failed. Usually, everyone else has failed for a very good reason.”

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

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