closer look at Plan B
Today's installment looks at the projected 38,000-seat capacity of the proposed $228 million ballpark on the North Shore, which the Pirates have said is necessary for the survival of baseball here.
By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Q: What's the deal with capacity? Why 38,000?
A: From a practical standpoint, with the second smallest market in baseball, the Pirates looked at their population base - about 2.7 million in the Tri-State region - and their peak attendance year of 2.4 million fans all season in 1991. A park with 38,000 seats is big enough to attract enough paying customers to keep the franchise competitive, yet cozy enough to put the fans right on top of the action. A smaller park also holds down costs. From a sentimental standpoint, the park's capacity approximates the seating in old Forbes Field in Oakland - but without clunky chairs or steel beams blocking views of the field.
Q. But why have fewer seats than exist now in Three Rivers?
A. Size isn't everything. The new park will have a greater number of better seats, which means more satisfied customers per game, which means they'll be more likely to come back. The idea is to create an intimate setting for enjoying a baseball experience rather than requiring people to sit in the cold, cavernous concrete of a closed-in, multipurpose stadium. There's also the principle of supply and demand. If there are fewer seats, there will be heightened interest, and you'll have to do your ticket shopping earlier to guarantee getting a seat. There is almost no incentive now to buy advance baseball tickets for Three Rivers Stadium.
Q. Higher attendance with fewer seats? What's this, the new math?
A. Let's look at a working-class town seeking a renaissance when its steel industry collapsed: Cleveland. In the last three years of that city's old 73,000-seat Municipal Stadium, the Indians averaged about 19,000 fans per game - about 2,000 fewer fans per game than what the Pirates averaged last year.
But in the first three years at 44,000-seat Jacobs Field, which opened in 1994, the Indians averaged more than 40,000 fans per game. Going into this season, they had played in front of 211 straight sellouts. Indians tickets are in such hot demand that they must be bought months before the season opens, which gives the franchise a steady stream of revenue. That, in turn, allows the Indians management to pay the salaries needed to keep its top players. And Cleveland, like Baltimore, developed a high-quality team just as its new park opened.
Q. And this will automatically happen in Pittsburgh?
A. There are no guarantees, but thanks for not using the cliche: ``If you build it, they will come.'' The idea works like this. Under the Pirates' five-year team rebuilding effort, they hope to challenge for a championship in 2001 - the same year their ballpark opens - and before their young players are able to command huge contracts. Fans might buy a ticket once just for the novelty of a seeing a new ballpark; they won't come back if the team isn't very good or if the experience wasn't worth it. The Pirates figure that if they draw enough fans - say, 2.5 million a year, with an average ticket price of $15 - they'll have the money to keep their stars. (Do the names Bonilla, Bonds and Drabek ring a bell?)
Q. So this is why the Pirates need a new park?
A. In a nutshell, yes. They don't have the rich cable-TV contract of George Steinbrenner's Yankees, or the deep pockets of Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga. To stay competitive - no winning team spent less than $33 million on payroll last year - the Pirates see the ballpark as a money engine to finance a self-sustaining operation.
A good team puts fans in the seats, which then allows the ownership to pay its players well, which keeps good players on the field, etc. Hey, Kevin McClatchy didn't invent the Nineties. But Oriole Park at Camden Yards allows Baltimore to have a $70-million-a-year payroll this year, and Jacobs Field helps the Indians have a $60-million-a-year payroll for a team that has made it to two of the past three World Series. Besides, baseball was never meant to be played on artificial turf in an enclosed circular stadium.
Q. What's in it for me?
A. Excellent question. Very few people going through the turnstiles do so because they want to do their part to boost the region's economy and help Pittsburgh remain a major league city.
They want to be entertained - to sit in the sunshine,
smell the grass, root for their small-market heroes,
cheer a home run that lands in the Allegheny River, be
reminded of the days of their youth, introduce their own
kids to the experience or maybe enjoy a diversion from
their workaday world by watching a 19th-century pastoral
game that has a season running from spring through summer
to the fall. Maybe they can witness the rebirth of a
111-year-old franchise that has laid the groundwork for a
return to its glory days. The dream is part of the ticket
price, at no extra charge.