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Bob Nutting Isn’t the Only One Who’s Cheap This Year

Photo by Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

No one in Pittsburgh sports at this time inspires the negative feelings that Bob Nutting does. He is hated and, generally speaking, the best words one has for him are lukewarm. This piece might be the nicest thing ever written about him because it gives him the mildest credit. It’s amazing because if you’ve ever met the man in person or seen him speak in public, you realize quickly that he’s one of the most milquetoast individuals to inspire such strong feelings. He’s the kind of person that you could literally lose in an empty room.

“Where’s Bob?” asks someone in the living room.
“Oh, there he is standing in front of that beige couch.”
Bob Nutting has a couple things working against him. First and foremost, Pittsburgh is the City of Champions. Anything less than the highest accolades a sport has to offer is disappointing to folks of the Steel City. The standards are high. He also has some very tough competition with other ownership groups vying for the love of the fans. The Rooney family is legitimately one of the best ownership groups in all of American sports. They’ve run inarguably the most successful NFL franchise since the 1970’s and they’re seen as pillars of the community. They really can do no wrong. On the other side of downtown, you have Mario Lemieux and the Penguins. At first glance, what’s not to love? You have a solid candidate for the second best hockey player of all time and a local legend with two championship rings as a player and three as an owner. That’s enough rings as an owner to give him leeway to wear sports jackets like this when they clinch championships. They have been incredibly successful, but where were they in the early 2000’s when the only people that showed up at Pens games were college students who paid $9 to sit 20 rows back from center ice? Truth is, Lemieux and company didn’t sink oodles of money into a team that was struggling to win until two of the four best players in the world fell into their lap in the draft. I would never have called him a bad owner, but until 2005 I wouldn’t have called him a good one either.
Bob Nutting is a below average owner in a city where average is unacceptable. He could and probably should spend a little bit more to support the team, but it’s not the outrageous sum of money that a lot of fans think he’s holding back. When Kevin looks at the Forbes numbers annually here at TPOP, we see that they’re usually short in payroll by about $20 million dollars. At the end of the day that’s two average players in free agency, a couple of good ones acquired through trades or one overpaid former star free agent. At $8 million per fWAR, that gives the team an extra 2.5 fWAR per season. It may have saved them from one wild card appearance, but it’s not going to turn around the last two seasons. In the end the money, that gap in what is spent versus what could be spent, won’t make too much of a difference.
I’ve heard Bob Nutting described as a terrible owner, but I reserve that title for another class entirely. In baseball you have Jeffery Loria who single handedly ruined baseball in Montreal and who’s doing his best to ruin it in Southern Florida. Likewise, you have the Wilpons who treated the Mets like their personal piggy bank and handed their investments over to Bernie Madoff. Now, they’re operating on a medium market budget in the Big Apple. No matter where you have Browns in Ohio, they suck. I’m speaking in this case of the ownership of the Bengals. The Fords in Detroit also come to mind. At the opposite end of the spectrum you have owners who spend, spend, spend, but won’t stay out of their own way letting the experts do their jobs. Washington Native Americans have won two playoff games since Dan Snyder took over the organization. Jerry Jones in Dallas has three playoff wins since the Cowboys last Super Bowl in 1996, in no small part thanks to his meddling. You have to own the club to last 20+ years as GM with a record like that. Nutting has hired Frank Coonelly as president and at least publicly has stayed out of his way.
Which brings me to my real point today. While Bob Nutting may not be supporting the team the way he could, neither have the fans. Attendance has reached truly disappointing levels this year. Sure, the team was below .500 and seemingly out of contention for much of the season, but so were the Reds and the Bucs have managed to outdraw them by less than a 1,000 fans per game. The Pirates haven’t been as bad as their attendance indicates and currently they rank third from the bottom behind the Reds and Marlins. The Pirates had the 5th lowest opening day payroll in the NL according to CBSsports. Nutting may not be spending to his fullest ability to support the club but neither are the fans.
Sure, this is the first time in a while where the Pirates’ opening day payroll ranking was better than their attendance, but really the support for this team hasn’t been all that impressive. Season attendance rank peaked at 15th in the all of the majors in 2015, the year they posted the second best record in baseball. The thought has always been payroll would increase when attendance did. Ultimately, both have increased, though the former not proportionally relative to the rest of the league. That said, attendance has never really outstripped it by that much. Neither their payroll nor the support has been impressive.
And I fully admit to being part of the guilty party. My first game of the season was this past weekend against the Cardinals. Of course, I’m clearly not the only absent one. I absolutely should have gone to more games so far this year and really, I guess I’m disappointed that I haven’t. To be clear, I’ve been a lousy fan. At the same time, though, I’m not complaining about the ownership. My issue is laziness rather than spite.
I’m a firm believer that fandom of a sports club should be completely irrational and completely unconditional, which is why I get irritated when people say things like “I’ll start coming to the game when ownership supports the team.” I dislike people being fair weather fans even more. If you don’t stick by your team win or lose, you’re not very good at being a fan. It is the team’s job to try to win, but it’s also your job to show up. If you don’t and not enough other people do, you shouldn’t have much to say. In truth, they’ve done enough to win even if it hasn’t necessarily translated to a major championship just yet. Sure, Bob Nutting could do more, but so could the fans.

Steve is a naturalized yinzer hailing originally from just north of Allentown, PA. He came to Pittsburgh to attend Duquesne University and decided to stick around after graduation. Steve is best known for his contributions to Duquesne hoops community as the owner of the Duquesne Dukes forum on Yuku and as the former editor of We Wear the Ring on the Fansided network. He is an avid Pirates fan, home cook and policy nerd. He is the co-founder of the Point of Pittsburgh. Easily irritated by people who misuse the word regress.

13 Comments on Bob Nutting Isn’t the Only One Who’s Cheap This Year

  1. Not being in any way a “Nutting is cheap” Yinzer, but I think many fans watched as a 98 win team in 2015 was not improved on, but actually performed cost cutting moves and expected us to buy it. Hey kids, we’re going to dump Charlie Morton to the Phils and then don’t worry abut 60% of the starting rotation being Jeff Locke, Jon Niese and 95 year old Ryan Vogelsong. They could have signed an Ian Kennedy type but nope. They all knew that Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon were going to be up by June 30 and each win 12 games! That’s what they sold us on and a lot of fans started tuning out at that point.

  2. Tom Hoffman // August 22, 2017 at 11:08 AM //

    With revenues increasing $30M this year and opening day payroll dropping $10M (I realize Kang was a part of that), their % of revenue as payroll fell to around 35% from already a paltry low 40s. If they aimed for 50% as a benchmark, that represents an additional $30-35M of opening day payroll, not $20M.

    Done enough to win? I bet there are at least 5 combinations of 10 different moves you can name off the top of your head in the last 3 years they could have done to make this team better that could fit inside of $30M per year.

    The Pirates have long been in the top half of profit margin of major league teams (#8 in gross margin last year on a bottom 10 payroll). They have one the highest margins, they have a top half gross and bottom 5-8 operating expenses every year. The Pirates are a brilliantly performing asset in the Nutting empire, its a great business, but it is clearly not an effort bent on winning a championship (or even a division).

    Ticket prices have also climbed significantly since 2011. My full season plan doubled in cost during this time period, meaning other plans had even higher increases. Honestly, after the last two seasons of not seeing much effort from ownership (Clint and Neil get some leeway as they work with what they are dealt), I’m certainly not pouring that money into this team next year when ownership demonstrates no greater interest than being a perennial ‘in the conversation’ team.

  3. The support WAS there in 2015!!! More than Cleveland or many other cities. What did they do? Made the following year a “bridge year”!!!! After 98 wins!!!! This team has taken the fans for granted for years. They could be closer to contention this year by acquiring Jay Bruce or Granderson. But NOOOOOO! How about if they had signed J.A. Happ 2 years ago? Sorry, this franchise has shown to the fans they just want to be competitive to get the suckers to keep coming. They have not made a move since 1991 to show the fans they WANT to win!

  4. I agree with above comment that support was there in 2015, then management talks about a bridge year instead of trying to improve for 2016. Then it turns out the bridge year was a bridge to no where. Throw in management’s previous comments about not having a window and wanting to compete for championships year in and year out and why shouldn’t fans be more than disappointed by the 2016, 2017 and who knows about 2018. Toss in Marte and Kang issues (is Kang going to play again? is Marte’s reputation going to be recovered?) and it is easy to see fan interest declining. And it is declining when management should be working hard to maintain its base of fans and grow it so that tv and radio ratings can be high. Instead management provides a team that is poor fundamentally (the defense at begin of year was atrocious) has little power, and gets caught stealing at a higher rate than anyone else. It is like watching the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

    • Some support was there but not to the level it should of been.

      For sake of comparison lets compare the 2015 Pirates to the the 2011 Brewers. This is a 98 win team vs a 96 win team. Both were probably the best version that either city has seen in a long time.

      The Brewers drew a total of 3,071,373 good for 4th in the NL with a low of 22,861

      The Pirates drew 2,498,596 which was 9th in the NL. Their low was 11,777 and they had a total of 15 games (almost a fifth of the season) below the lowest attended game Milwaukee had in 2011.

      Pittsburgh actually has a bigger metro population than Milwaukee. There is no way anyone can look at that and say the support was there. The bottom line is Pittsburgh isn’t a baseball town and really that is ok.

      • I think the Brewers comparison is rather interesting in that the Brewers front office pushed all their chips in and went for a championship. The Pirates instead have perennially kept one foot on each side of the line, making incremental improvements to say they did something, managing salary to a bottom 5 % of revenue in the league, while doing paying lip service to winning a championship.

        • Steve DiMiceli // August 22, 2017 at 11:48 PM //

          “All in” is probably exaggeration, but they did make bigger bets than the Pirates for sure.

          Also, Lorenzo Cain has played in more World Series than Greinke and Sabathia combined.

  5. well the Pirates were heading in the right direction. attendance was 2256862 in 2013, 2442564 in 2014, 2498596 in 2015 and then dropped in 2016 and again this year. Doesn’t mean Pittsburgh is a baseball town but Bucs maximum attendance is probably going to be 2.6 or 2.7 million and 2015 is team attendance record. 8t h or 9th in league is probably as high as attendance can ever get.

  6. Steve DiMiceli // August 22, 2017 at 10:52 PM //

    Good comments all around but I thought I’d share my follow up thoughts:


    Realistically, you’re not going to improve on a 98 win team and no one is going to convince me that team wasn’t capable of winning the world series. Sure, I think maybe they were a little presumptive on Glasnow and clearly made a mistake with Niese especially since I don’t think he was ever seen as a bridge, but truthfully, the team’s underperforming star players, Cutch, Cole, Liriano, and to a lesser extent Watson, let them down more than the offseason failings. Signing someone like Kennedy may have improved the team marginally, but the truth is, the Pirates got as much value (fWar) from Taillon as the Royals did from Kennedy. Replace Glasnow with Kennedy and are you really going to improve a team enough to make the playoffs that finished 8 games out of the wild card and 25 games out of the division? I doubt it. Maybe they finish 6 and 23 back.


    Are they not paying Kang this year? I was unaware if they weren’t but I’ve been under the assumption that they are.

    I could absolutely name 5 moves that fit into that that $30-35 million range, even at $20 million especially with the benefit of hindsight, but it still probably doesn’t get you from 8 games out to the playoffs. They get you closer, but probably not over the top.


    Closer sure, but what does just be closer actually get you? .

    But they’ve made a lot of moves that show me they have an interest in winning. Spending so much in the draft over a four year period that MLB changed the rules. Extending some of their most important players even if they didn’t extend all of them. Signing Liriano and Nova to basically the same kind of contact as the one you bemoan them for not signing Happ. Sure, they have made many huge deals aside from Cutch and Marte’s extensions, but the front office has had the leeway to make some mistakes when trying some unconventional roster management. Some didn’t work out, but what did helped take them to three straight post season appearances.


    I do think the window is going to close, but heading into 2016, I firmly thought the organization had enough position players locked up and enough near major league pitching ready to reload internally. I think they took a risk on prospects, but I still don’t think it was a bad choice given what they new at the time. It still will likely get better, but the pieces haven’t fallen into place perfectly.

    David does a nice job responding to your thoughts on support in 2015 and he saved me time as I would’ve responded nearly identically, but don’t you think the 40,000 paid fans in Toronto should be equally disappointed or Kansas City and their 4,000 extra fans a game.

  7. While the Pirates had down years that had a big impact on 2016 (Cutch, Cervelli, Liriano, Cole) there were some surprises too. S-Rod, Freese and Joyce on offense.

    The biggest disappointment was the pitching and going into the season relying on Locke, Niese and Vogelsong was a huge gamble that didn’t pay off. It just looked like even if Cole and Liriano would have matched their 2015 seasons that the pitching staff was going to be weaker than 2015 team.

  8. George Newman // August 31, 2017 at 9:44 PM //

    These arguments are ridiculous. Nutting has made a fortune on paper as the value of the team has increased, mainly due to the MLB TV package. When he sells his profit will be in the $ hundreds of millions. As owner you either manage to win or you do not. Perhaps the best indication is the perpetual weakness of the Pirates’ bench players. Also the team is just sloppy and always has been. Nutting seems to accept mediocrity.

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