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.