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Madden: Pirates attendance an age-old problem

Saturday, April 19, 2003

The Pirates once utilized the following advertising jingle: "Let's go see the Bucs! What are you waiting for? Let's go see the Bucs!"

Well? What exactly are you waiting for?

The Pirates averaged 29,534 fans per game in 2001, PNC Park's inaugural year. They averaged 23,877 last season. This season, they were averaging a meager 18,059 going into the game last night against the Chicago Cubs. The Pirates have an improving team that works hard. Yet attendance remains sparse.

There will be better crowds, usually when fireworks are involved. But the Pirates are clearly going to sustain a dramatic drop in attendance for a second consecutive season.

The reality of the situation is this: The idea that Pittsburgh is even vaguely interested in supporting Major League Baseball is a myth, and PNC Park should have never been built.

The aforementioned myth has been propped up and promulgated by an extremely old population base that likes the idea of big-league baseball and might enjoy reminiscing about it, but can't be bothered to pop in their false teeth and go to a game.

Pittsburgh would have been better off building a new hockey rink. Lack of interest in baseball could mean a totally empty state-of-the-art baseball park on the North Side someday. Lack of interest in hockey would mean a state-of-the-art arena to host concerts, tractor pulls, the circus, wrestling, etc.

The best part about this column is that I can't be proven wrong. The figures speak for themselves.

Only 6,000-plus people were in the stands for the Pirates' third home game of the season. It was an afternoon game, true, but it was a beautiful day, and the Pirates were 5-3 at the time. Explain that.

You can blame the locals for not attending Pirates games, but you can't blame them for the construction of PNC Park. The new stadiums were both voted down, but the politicos went ahead and built them anyway, which is fine. When you elect politicians, you give them the right to spend your tax dollars as they see fit. Most of you aren't smart enough to handle matters of high finance.

The politicos are old, too. Old enough to remember when baseball was the biggest deal in town, which it decidedly isn't anymore. But those memories made them build PNC Park.

Pittsburgh's lack of interest in baseball obviously predates PNC Park. The stands at Three Rivers Stadium weren't full when the Pirates played in three National League Championship Series in the early '90s.

Here's another Pittsburgh sports myth: You don't have to win to charm a Pittsburgh sports fan. All you've got to do is work hard.

That's rubbish. The current Pirates might be inconsistent hitters and they boot the ball all over the field in a fashion Liverpool FC is envious of, but they give maximum effort on a daily basis. That work ethic starts with their manager, Lloyd McClendon, trickles down through their stars, Brian Giles and Jason Kendall, and is embraced by the rest of the team. And by a lot of empty seats.

Here's the reality of Pittsburgh sports: You don't have to win to charm a Pittsburgh sports fan. All you've got to do is be the Stillers. Also, you had better win most of the time.

Pirates attendance isn't going to get dramatically better. Almost every game features a promotion or a giveaway, which means the impact thereof will often be greatly watered down.

Lack of demand spurs greater lack of demand. If the Pirates aren't a hot ticket today, they're going to be an even cooler ticket tomorrow.

Too many home games are on TV. Why go to the park when you can sit at home and watch? That's especially true if you have already attended a game at PNC Park. It is beautiful. But once you've seen it, you've seen it.

Low attendance means low revenue. Low revenue means less money to develop young talent and sign free agents. That means bad baseball. Which means the whole cycle repeats.

For smaller-market baseball clubs, poor attendance directly affects team quality. Pittsburgh hasn't been -- and won't be -- an exception.

As always, I have a solution: A lot more of yinz need to go to games. They sell beer, don't forget.

I also have some alternate uses for PNC Park should the Pirates fold or move.

Level PNC Park, use empty space for more Stillers tailgating.

Install ice-making equipment and roof at PNC Park, thus converting it to a new rink for the Penguins. Should the Penguins fold or move, level new rink, use empty space for more Stillers tailgating.

Use playing surface for a nine-hole pitch-and-putt course in the spring and summer. Use playing surface for parking during the fall and winter, thus providing more space for Stillers tailgating.

Convert PNC Park to a soccer stadium. Play soccer games on Sundays during the fall and winter, thus setting up rumble between soccer hooligans and tailgating Stillers fans. Should soccer team fold or move, level soccer stadium, use empty space for more Stillers tailgating.

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

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