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Madden: Pirates run short of hope to sell to shrinking fan base

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

When you own a sports franchise, your primary product is not a seat to sit in, nor a team to watch, nor a T-shirt to wear, nor a beer to drink, nor a bobblehead doll to take home.

When you own a sports franchise, your primary product is hope. Hope that your beloved team will win tonight. If not tonight, then tomorrow. If not this year, then next year.

Hope is not all that hard to manufacture. The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908 and haven't been in one since 1945. Yet Cubs fans remained eternally convinced that this year could finally be the year, and, if not this year, then next year, etc.

Hope makes those rubes pack Wrigley Field on a regular basis, which is the whole goal of owning a sports franchise in the first place.

The Cubs' circumstances are better than most, given population base and tradition, but they have won fewer championships than almost any team. Yet the fans keep buying those tickets. And that hope.

The NFL system has elevated selling hope to an art form. The system provides legitimate hope to about 80 percent of the teams, and fact is always easier to sell than fiction.

Real football aficionados are growing weary of the almost random way champions are crowned, not to mention the lack of any truly superior teams. But casual fans fill the coffers, and all casual fans want is hope.

Almost any team can sell hope. The Penguins have endured two miserable seasons, but this "X Generation" ad campaign is frozen hope on a hockey stick.

Take an all-time great, a charismatic new coach and a bunch of eager young kids, combine them with the potential for a new arena and a favorable new labor agreement that could allow the Penguins to win again, and you have a fantasy that tastes like reality. Why? Because the fans want it to.

If you can't sell hope, you've mangled your franchise pretty badly. Which bring us to the Pirates.

Some say the Pirates have been through several rebuilding phases since winning the National League East three consecutive times from 1990-92.

But it's really been just one. The Pirates have never reached anything resembling a payoff year, not in theory nor in execution.

Since the rebuilding has never peaked, it's more accurate to say it has never ceased. Ergo, it's been one horribly long and unsuccessful rebuilding process.

By itself, that's tolerable, because that's baseball. The Pirates aren't supposed to win. Finishing above .500 occasionally would be nice. But I'm not even sure they're supposed to do that.

The Pirates, however, have denied themselves the privilege of selling hope by dumping on their fans every chance they get. The most egregious example was raising ticket prices after a 100-loss season in 2001. The most recent was the fire sale conducted in the weeks leading up to the recent trade deadline.

It gets even worse this week when the Pirates dump Brian Giles, one of their best players ever, after the trade deadline has come and gone.

A deal sending Giles and Jason Kendall to San Diego will be finagled via the waiver process. The Pirates will get almost nothing in return. Like you needed to be told that.

The trade deadline should have served as another deadline. As of 4 p.m. last Thursday, Pirates fans should not have had to deal with any more uncertainty and should not have to deal with the continued dismantling of their team. If you buy a ticket for a Pirates home game between now and season's end, you get to see Giles.

There is zero urgency to make that trade now. Make it in the off-season. If the Steelers are winning, chances are the great unwashed won't even notice Giles is gone until spring training. If then.

Here are the latest hot rumors on your Pirates:

Owner Kevin McClatchy is cutting back on payroll because one of his larger partners wants out. McClatchy is trying to clear the necessary capital to buy said investor's shares lest said investor flex his percentage to force McClatchy out of his cushy, high-profile job as cruise director on the Titanic.

McClatchy is cutting back on payroll because many of the luxury suites at PNC Park were leased for three years. Many of the advertising/sponsorship deals for PNC Park were likewise for three years. Time's up in more ways than one. Those suites and ads were sold based on the premise of having a winning team by now, and the Pirates didn't deliver.

The player to be named later in the Ramirez-and-Lofton-to-Chicago deal is pitcher Ernie Broglio.

After more than a decade of losing, the Pirates have lost their ability to sell hope. It no longer springs eternal in the human breast. Mighty Casey has struck out, and Jose Hernandez, too, and a whole bunch of other guys hit into double plays.

All the Pirates have left to sell is stupid. They should go sell it someplace else. When hope dies, the franchise invariably goes on life support. Or league support. Hello, Montreal!

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

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