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Madden: Pirates have it all wrong -- again

Saturday, March 30, 2002

This week, the Pirates published a full-page ad in the Post-Gazette touting their promotional days/nights for the 2002 season and picturing several of their giveaways. There was no significant mention of the team or the sport it plays, and absolutely no reference to any Pirates players save those who would be immortalized bobblehead style.

Season-ticket sales are reportedly down 40 percent. The home opener isn't sold out.

The Pirates are one year removed from the debut of PNC Park, the landmark that would save baseball in Pittsburgh. And it's already clear that "PNC" will wind up being an acronym for "Probably No Customers" on many nights this season. The grand attraction of the park's Outback Steakhouse aside -- "Look, Jethro! You can look right there out that window and watch the ballgame!" -- the Pirates' franchise obviously is in trouble once again, and it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Part of the problem, as that advertising indicates, is that the Pirates have absolutely no idea how to promote baseball. Either that, or they're ashamed of their moribund team.

PNC Park's curiosity value is dead, and you can only do so many giveaways before everyone pretty much has everything. Now it's time to sell baseball, and the Pirates can't do it. Of course, raising ticket prices after losing 100 games put them in a pretty deep public relations hole.

It's still hard to believe the Pirates did that. The arrogance of that move still stings the senses all these months later. Instead of an apology for bad play, the Pirates issued the financial equivalent of an upraised middle finger to everyone who bought a ticket last season.

The Pirates had some cost overruns on PNC Park. That's their tough luck. Having to watch the worst team in baseball was the fans' tough luck. But the Pirates felt compelled to take their own ill fortune and foist it upon the consumers via the ticket-price increase, and the Pirates are currently paying the price because the fans aren't. It's one thing to be focused on the bottom line. It's another thing to do so in a manner that is cold and stupid, in a manner that chases away spectators and revenue.

You can tell Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy got his money from family, not work. When you don't know anything about earning a dollar, you don't know anything about spending an earned dollar. If McClatchy did, he never would have raised ticket prices after a 100-loss season.

As for promoting baseball ... there's a good chance the Pirates are once again going to stink. No matter. That's when a good PR campaign emphasizes personalities and tells stories. You can make anyone interesting via a slick advertising slogan.

For example: "They said no quality free agent would ever want to come to Pittsburgh. But before the Pirates chose him -- Pokey Reese chose the Pirates!" Never mind that Reese might well turn out to be Derek Bell Part Deux, and that he came to Pittsburgh mostly because no other team wanted him. By the time the great unwashed figures out the truth, maybe a few tickets have been sold and the citizens are ready for the next lie, er, shrewd ad campaign.

How about: "For Jason Kendall, this 2002 season is a big thumbs-up!" This, of course, plays on the fact that Kendall's 2001 season was kiboshed by a chronically injured thumb and that the problem has since been surgically corrected. It also plays on the strong likelihood that by June, Kendall will be willing to hitchhike out of town just to get away from the horror of playing for the Pirates.

Here's one for the kids: "Jimmy Anderson -- he's not fat, he's phat!" With any luck, he'll be both. But I know which one I'm betting on.

The dual sizzle of PNC Park and promotions is gone. The steak that is Pirates baseball is pretty tough to chew. So the Pirates have got to come up with a new kind of sizzle. Forget about winning. The Pirates won't do that for a long time.

The Pirates couldn't even dump Derek Bell right.

Bell performed his "Operation Shutdown" soliloquy March 17, but the Pirates held onto Bell until yesterday despite having no good reason to do so. Had Bell been canned March 18 when his inflammatory comments hit the fan and infuriated Pittsburgh, the Pirates would have appeared to do something mandated by the public. By waiting 12 days to tell Bell to hit the bricks, hey, better late than never, but the Pirates came off as a wishy-washy organization that couldn't even grasp the obvious. I bet a lot of yinzers decided to not buy tickets in those 12 days.

It's time to make a few predictions. The Pirates will win 67 games. The Pirates will draw 1.9 million fans. McClatchy will raise ticket prices a buck per seat next season. That's right, a hat trick of disaster. If there's a labor stoppage, all bets are off.

And if there's a labor stoppage, here's hoping it's a long one.


Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

Sunday, March 31, 2002

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