Pirates, Indians struggle with lack of attendance
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A recent online poll asked fans to name their favorite park in Major League Baseball. Progressive Field in Cleveland, known as Jacobs Field until this season, was voted No. 1 in the Sports Illustrated survey, while PNC Park finished No. 3.
The March ratings were based on 10 categories -- affordability, food, team quality, tradition, atmosphere, fan IQ, hospitality, promotions, traffic and neighborhood.
Fortunately for both the Pirates and the Indians, attendance figures were not part of the criteria. Otherwise, both franchises would have plummeted on the list.
Despite winning 93 games in 2005 and 96 a year ago en route to a berth in the American League Championship Series, the Indians have struggled to put fans in the seats.
So have the Pirates, who are hoping to avoid their 16th consecutive losing season, which would tie the Philadelphia Phillies' major-league record for futility, set from 1933-48.
The Indians rank 22nd among 30 teams in attendance through 34 home dates through Thursday, with an average of 24,974 per game. The Pirates are 29th after 35 home games, averaging 16,748.
"I understand the frustration that our fans feel because we haven't won in quite some time," said Pirates president Frank Coonelly, who took over the team's day-to-day operations last September.
The Indians have a payroll close to $80 million -- $30 million higher than the Pirates, who last appeared in postseason play in 1992.
"I have a greater ability to sympathize with their challenges, given our situation," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. "But the more you focus on the negative, such as not drawing fans, the more you validate them as excuses.
"The [New York] Yankees have a payroll of over $200 million, but we have the same criteria the Yankees do. The number of wins, the number of losses -- that's it. No fan is going to say the Indians did a good job for the payroll they have. They're going to say that either we won or we didn't."
"Is it disappointing to sit at mid-week games and see only 10,000, 11,000 or 12,000 people? Yes," Coonelly said. "But April and early May in the Northeast, particularly with the questionable weather and the kids in school, you're going to have those types of crowds.
"My biggest hurdle is changing a perception of many here that the Pirates simply can't compete under the economic system. There is a lot of evidence to say we can, but people here have gotten used to believing we can't."
The Pirates, who have 19 home games this month, have sold out their three-game series with the Yankees June 24-26. It will be New York's first trip to Pittsburgh since the 1960 World Series.
Cleveland's Progressive Field opened during the strike-shortened 1994 season. In 1995, the Indians became the toughest ticket in town.
From mid-June 1995 to early April 2001, the Indians sold out a major-league record 455 consecutive games. They attracted 19,324,248 fans during that stretch, won six division titles and played in two World Series. The Indians have managed just 64 sellouts since that incredible run ended in a stadium that holds 43,545.
"We had a convergence of conditions in the mid-90s that will probably never be here again," Shapiro said. "You've got to understand, we had a new ballpark and that already artificially bumps attendance. We had no football team in town -- the Browns were gone for a few years -- and the basketball team was not very good. LeBron [James] wasn't here yet. And I think maybe the biggest thing of all was the fact we hadn't won in baseball for 40 years."
The Indians rode that wave through the 2001 season. Things started falling apart in 2002, when Shapiro traded ace Bartolo Colon and allowed popular slugger Jim Thome to sign with the Phillies as a free agent. Two years later, Shapiro declined to pick up the option on Gold Glove shortstop Omar Vizquel's contract.
"Right at that same time the team was maturing, it needed to be turned over," Shapiro said. "We accomplished that, but I think a side effect was the dramatic impact it had on our fan base emotionally. It traumatized them. They felt violated. The players they had come to root for over an eight-year period were gone."
Vic Gregovits, a Pittsburgh native who graduated from Bishop Boyle High School and Robert Morris University, has worked in ticket sales for both the Pirates and Indians. He knows the predicaments both franchises are facing better than most.
During his first stint with Cleveland from 1990-96, he served as the director of ticket sales. He helped the team set franchise records for both season and group sales while moving from aging Municipal Stadium to the new ballpark.
Gregovits returned home in 1997 to serve as the vice president of marketing and broadcasting for the Pirates. With him at the helm, the franchise set an all-time attendance record -- 2,436,139 -- in 2001, their inaugural year at PNC Park.
He rejoined the Indians as senior vice president of sales and marketing in November 2004 and admits the aura of Cleveland's ballpark is gone after 15 years.
"We've got core baseball fans and we continue to have them, but we have to continue to grow," he said. "What we had in the '90s was a great entertainment scene where people were saying, 'Hey, what are you doing Friday night?' They may not have been baseball fans, but it was the place to be, the place to be seen."
The Indians, who haven't finished higher than 21st in overall attendance since the 2003 season, have budgeted 2.5 million fans this year. The Pirates, who have ranked 26th or worst in attendance each of the previous five years, aren't offering any projections.
"If we are consistently competing for championships, I would believe PNC Park would be near full capacity," Coonelly said.
Empty seatsHere's a look at the bottom of Major League Baseball in attendance:
First Published June 15, 2008 12:00 am