Pitt basketball hippest, hottest ticket in town

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The first message of the morning the Monday before last was an intriguing one, even among the burgeoning list of requests constantly left on the Petersen Events Center voice mail of Pitt's director of ticket operations.

Hi, this is Troy Polamalu from the Steelers. I was wondering if I could buy four tickets to the Washington game ...

On the anniversary of the Steelers' Super Bowl XL conquest and the eve of heading for a week in Hawaii, this Pro Bowl safety was thinking Pitt basketball.

Hoops certainly is hip around Oakland nowadays.

Bill Cowher made his way to several Panthers men's games the past few years, and his Steelers coaching successor, Mike Tomlin, attended the Louisville game last night. Steelers kicker Jeff Reed and long snapper Greg Warren are constant courtside companions. Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, Mel Blount, Mark Malone, Kordell Stewart, Joey Porter, Hines Ward and other past and present Steelers similarly have taken in Pitt games. Visiting NFLers include Rams quarterback Marc Bulger of Central Catholic and West Virginia, Jets tailback Kevan Barlow of Peabody and Pitt, and Green Bay Packers coach and Greenfield native Mike McCarthy.

Dallas Mavericks owner and Mt. Lebanon High grad Mark Cuban also was to be in attendance last night. Denver coach George Karl of Penn Hills, former 76ers owner Pat Croce and WNBA Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer likewise have come to games.

Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield is a Panther Club booster and a season-ticket holder in the club seats, and noted former Pirates sausage-thumper Randall Simon once attended.

The celebrity factor isn't merely limited to the sports realm, though.

For $500, Alex Trebek of "Jeopardy!," the answer is: They all have been spotted at games in the homecourt's five-year history, many of them alongside Curtis Aiken in that ex-Panthers guard's sideline seats.

The question: Who are the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, current Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, Gov. Ed Rendell, gubernatorial candidate and ex-Steeler Lynn Swann, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, Pirates CEO Kevin McClatchy and Alex Trebek?

"It certainly is a hot ticket," said Aiken, a FSN Pittsburgh analyst and CEO of a minority e-commerce business. Besides his pricey sideline seats, Aiken also has a couple of other season tickets sprinkled around the arena. "It's unbelievable how many calls I get for tickets. And more so than ever this year.

"I'll tell you a funny story. When Bob O'Connor got inaugurated [in January 2006], it just so happens Pitt was playing Notre Dame the following day. Here he is, the biggest moment of his life, and he says, 'Can I go to the game with you?' Even in the midst of his inauguration -- he got inaugurated a half-hour earlier -- he's thinking about going to Pitt-Notre Dame with me."

As Pitt athletic director Jeff Long said of his facility, "It has become the place to be in the cold, winter months in Pittsburgh."

Well, some college-aged kid named Crosby and sellout crowds of 17,000-plus at Mellon Arena might strongly disagree. Yet the steady procession of patrons to Oakland, in a pro-sports city that seemed to tire of basketball a generation ago, is impressive still.

It isn't merely because people want to be seen or rub elbows with stars that Pitt basketball is a box-office smash, what with 86 consecutive sellouts and 10,000-plus seats -- excluding the 1,400 students, band, visitors and media -- sold with a Panther Club donation attached.

The reasons folks flock to Oakland on game nights are numerous: the new arena, the amenities, the entertainment. Perhaps foremost is the product on the floor, the seventh-ranked Panthers who entered last night's game 22-3 this season and 137-33 since moving down the hill from Fitzgerald Field House.

"This is a city that likes winners," said Larry Feick, a professor of business administration for Pitt's Katz Graduate School of Business and a season-ticket holder dating to the days inside the 6,700-seat Fitzgerald Field House. "But also I think it has to do with the way they win. It's a team that focuses on defense and team play. ... If you watch them, during the national anthem, they lock shoulders, and that still gives me goose bumps. All of that resonates with the city. They have captured the imagination."

It adds up to a harmonic convergence that brings a sellout crowd of 12,508. Or more. Reed Patterson, the Pitt ticket director with the oft-filled voice mail, said the turnstile count for last season's West Virginia home game numbered 12,614. "How many could we have sold that night? At least 15,000."

"And it's not just sold out," Feick said. "It's much more expensive, too."

Since the place opened, standard ticket prices have risen from $250 per seat to $345 this season. But the level of giving has jumped from mostly zero to the requirement of a $300 minimum donation to secure two good seats (for a $990 total, nearly double the 2002-03 cost) and a $750 minimum donation for four seats (for a $2,130 total). Two years ago, Pitt launched a program that re-seats season-ticket buyers based on booster levels, spawning a lawsuit that, in a settlement, allowed 650 people to retain their seats at their pre-program donation rate until 2010.

"It's almost like [Pitt administrators] want to turn you upside down and shake the change out of you; they're unbelievably shameless," said John Stember, the lawyer -- and a 35-year season-ticket holder -- who brought the suit. "I wish I didn't like [Pitt basketball] so much. It's kind of an addiction.

"When I moved here," Stember added of 1972, when he came to Pitt law school, "it was kind of a cult sport, like hockey. Now it's a night out. You have a whole different kind of fan going."

Pitt's Long offered of the donation-backed plan: "People thought that was going to kill the enthusiasm for the arena and for Pitt basketball. That hasn't happened. Our fans have stepped up for the program by making their donations. We went from, like, 18 percent of the arena [donating] to close to 100 percent."

Demand, as happened at other colleges across the country, helped to supply athletic-department coffers.

Figures are difficult to unearth, but Patterson believes there are only 10 or so college teams that can boast sold-out basketball arenas tied 100 percent to annual donations.

Despite the crush, Pitt tickets remain available, one lonely seat at a time. Patterson said he regularly sells on game days a hundred or so single seats either returned or left over, often going to families willing to separate. Online ticket brokers advertise seats as well.

"There are not a whole lot of places around the country that I know of who can say they're doing what Pittsburgh is," said Josh Rosen, the assistant managing editor of the Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Daily.

Funny, but it certainly isn't the same sell in South Carolina, where the similarly 5-year-old Colonial Center has witnessed nearly 6,000 of its 18,000 seats go unoccupied nightly and in Los Angeles, where Southern California's new Galen Center has a half-empty arena of 10,258 seats for the No. 22-ranked Trojans.

Speaking of Polamalu's alma mater, Long said of one of the newest Pitt followers: "We got to get Troy to join the Panther Club. He can support the Trojans, but he can support the Panthers while he's in town, too."

matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Dallas Mavericks owner and Mt. Lebanon native Mark Cuban watches the Pitt game courtside last night at the Petersen Events Center.
Click photo for larger image.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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