I haven’t seen the City of Pittsburgh this demoralized about the state of the Pirates since the tail end of the 2010 season. That was when the Pirates were on their way to a 57-105 record and finally ended their bold experiment of letting a Westworld android, model name of “John Russell”, manage the team for 3 seasons.
It’s hard to get a pulse on the state of Pirate fans if you live in Florida, but since I live here in Pittsburgh my day job affords me the chance to interact with a wide variety of people in different socioeconomic circles. Whether it’s construction workers, electricians, and plumbers telling me they’re done watching the Pirates, thus showing the downfall of the Pirates’ ratings on AT&T Sportsnet, or the lawyers, principals of engineering firms, and doctors saying their firms are not renewing season tickets, thus stripping away part of the season ticket renewal backbone at the core of Pirate attendance, the City of Pittsburgh is fed up.
Neighbors in my neighborhood either didn’t take their kids to any games this year or to maybe only one or two. This is representative of the other time demands that occupy families nowadays — if you’re not getting good return on your entertainment dollars, you’re going to look elsewhere. It’s not that hard of a concept.
So if both the local TV ratings and season ticket numbers at PNC Park are eroding quicker than the Jersey shoreline, what are the Pirates to do?
What they should do is have owner Bob Nutting, flanked by President Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington, hold a press conference stating that he’s concerned about the direction of the franchise and pledge to increase the 2018 team payroll to a number befitting their revenues. If you presume that 2017 revenues, due to lower attendance figures, may drop to $255M (an estimated $10M loss in revenue from 2016), then payroll should be between $115M and $127.5M (45 to 50% of revenue).
As of now, the Pirates have $61M of payroll commitments to 9 players (presuming Kang is here next year; if not, that drops to $58M and 8 players). Coupled with a very rough back-of-the-envelope $20M in arbitration to 4 players, that gives them a potential of $81M to 13 players right off the hop, not accounting for trades.
Although raising the payroll, at a minimum, by $20M over 2017’s doesn’t sound like a lot, that enables the Pirates to have $34M to make moves, instead of $14M if they were to freeze payroll around $95M again. The first thing it would enable the Pirates to do is bring back and keep Andrew McCutchen on his option, for a net increase of $13.5M over his $1M buyout. The remaining $21M or so could go a long way to fortifying the bench and bullpen. I will beat this horse under the flesh is flayed off — the bones of a 2018 playoff team are here. There’s talent all through the lineup but it needs support players and better off-the-field offseason decisions by players.
The Pirates need to gin up enthusiasm for this franchise again, as the goodwill generated from the 2013-15 playoff teams has vaporized into the nascent autumn air. With the next AT&T Sportsnet TV contract looming and fans disguising themselves as blue seats at PNC Park, this can get very ugly financially very quickly.
Unfortunately, the Pirates are extremely tone-deaf when it comes to their fans and the texture of the situations that surround them. Bob Nutting is a slave to the bottom line and will see falling revenues and do the most Occam’s Razor thing he knows — cut payroll. It’s counterintuitive to spend more money when revenues are dropping, but sometimes you have to spend money to make money. The business product is the 25-man roster that occupies PNC Park. The product needs a new update and people will buy into it again.
I fear that the Pirates’ ownership is willing to play the fiddle while PNC Park metaphorically burns. I can’t understand why Clint Hurdle would want to re-up for 4 more years of frustration unless he got certain spending assurances, but I’m bracing for an offseason of tearing down instead of building on to the skeleton.