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Imagining A Pittsburgh Without The Pirates

Could there really be a day when the Pirates leave Pittsburgh?

When I look back, it still feels to me like PNC Park just opened. I moved to Pittsburgh in 1999 and saw maybe one or two Pirates game in Three Rivers. Growing up near Philly, it had that generic 1960’s/70’s combo stadium feel I could have gotten in a number of other cities at the time. I loved baseball, but had absolutely no interest in what the stadium or the Pirates really had to offer at the time.

By 2001 when the new park opened its doors, Western Pennsylvania had already begun creeping into my blood. Despite how awful the Bucs were at the time, they were probably the first Pittsburgh team I became a fan of, and their new home turf certainly didn’t scare me away from games. Everything about PNC Park was stunning and it had the superior game experience Camden Yards or Jacobs Field I heard when I was a kid. Not only did I get to see a baseball game, even if it was a bad baseball game, I got to see it in one of the premier venues with the skyline of the city I was growing to love and will forever identify as my home.

As the years did pass, I finally was treated to some first class baseball to match the view including the 2013 Wild Card game that made every sporting event I watched until about 2017 feel less exciting. It’s one of the best stadiums in all of the majors even to this day, and it certainly will crush every other venue in the International League after 2030.

I consider myself a fairly pragmatic person, but unfortunately, I’m beginning to see the Pirates franchise heading down a path that would see them relocate when their lease ends at PNC Park. Many times, teams skip town over not getting a new stadium. Even in ten years I don’t see the venue as an issue for the Pirates. It’s large enough, has plenty of corporate seats, and still has all the amenities that many newer stadiums have. The problem lies in the antagonism between fans and the team’s ownership. The toxic relationship plus a couple of other factors have me envisioning a baseball-less future for Western Pennsylvania.

A caveat before I move on. It’s not my intention to pick a side or assign blame in this piece. I have issues with both ownership and with the fans response to ownership. I’m also not trying to explain how we remedy the situation and save the franchise either. My aim is to simply highlight the path I think the franchise is heading down and explain why signs point in the direction they do.

After poking just over the 30,000 tickets sold per game threshold in the playoff years 2014 and 2015 seasons, the Pirates on field performance took a turn for the much worse in 2016. Thanks to strong season ticket sales boosted by back to back to back Wildcard seasons, attendance remained relatively strong that year. Fans were angry that the front office didn’t spend to upgrade the team after they posted the second best record in baseball in 2015. Season ticket sales sank and another shaky performance in 2017 lead to a decrease in attendance of roughly 5,000 fans per game. This triggered a payroll decrease that included jettisoning team stars Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. Fans protested by staying home in 2018 with the Pirates drawing almost 12,000 fewer fans per game. The per game average of 18,786 was the third worst in baseball. This came despite the Pirates adding aggressively at the trade deadline and the team posting an above .500 season.

After another unremarkable offseason, attendance could decline further still. The Bucs and fans are now caught in a downward spiral. The gate revenues decrease, which leads to a drop in payroll. The drop in payroll then leads to more animosity and fewer fans showing up which in turn leads to another payroll decrease. Naturally, tickets sales aren’t the only stream of revenue for the Pirates, but you can still see how this trend doesn’t lead to a sustainable business model.

Demographic decline could also strain the franchise’s future. More than any other sport, baseball has typically aligned to the largest markets in terms of population. Milwaukee is much smaller than most MLB cities, but there aren’t any outliers in baseball like Buffalo, Green Bay, or Salt Lake City like you see in the other major sports leagues. The Pittsburgh metropolitan area has show a slight decrease in its population since the last census and has dropped to the to 26th in the nation. By 2030 when the Bucs’ lease runs out, rapidly growing Las Vegas, Sacramento and Austin will likely shoot past it. Meanwhile, baseball-less markets that passed Pittsburgh by in the 2010 census like Charlotte, Orlando and San Antonio could have more than 500,000 more residents by 2030. That’s not even considering Canadian or even Mexican cities. Some of those markets will likely get a franchise in the next round of expansion as 32 teams could be on the horizon. Most won’t and they’d be candidates for relocation if the Pirates business model broke down here.

Major League Baseball has largely given the Pirates ownership a pass, but they likely realize their limited leverage with over a decade left on the PNC Park lease. That could change if the situation doesn’t improve and the franchises long term health looks less viable over the next five or six years. At the moment, the franchise isn’t failing financially, and the league still has bigger fish to fry in Tampa. Of course, I can see things getting worse. I wouldn’t expect the current ownership group to trigger a move on their own nor do I expect them to willingly sell to another group with the intent of moving the franchise. If the league eventually does have to step in, I could see it getting ugly, fast.

The Pirates have been in Pittsburgh for over 130 years, placing them among the most historic continuous professional sports franchises in the world. To imagine that run won’t extend beyond 150 years is a little depressing. I don’t foresee the relationship between fans and owners improving nor do I expect the current ownership group to sell. Pittsburgh’s not getting any bigger while a number of other cities continue to grow and grow rapidly. While I expect Major League Baseball to say publicly they’ll do everything they can to keep baseball in Pittsburgh, I could see them discussing how much better the organization could do in a number of other places if push comes to shove. We’re a long way off from any changes happening, and the Pirates will play here for at least another eleven years. A lot can change, but if current trends continue, I just don’t feel great about the Buccos future in the Pittsburgh.

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17 Comments on Imagining A Pittsburgh Without The Pirates

  1. I don’t live in Pittsburgh and never have, but I’ve been a Pirates fan since 1975 when I was about 6. I remember when the Pirates were pushing for a new park in the 90s and the team was bad. I thought that was really ballsy of them considering they of course wanted a lot of public money to pay for it. At the time (this was pre-Nationals), moving northern Virginia was every team’s threat when they said they would move without a new park. I was around 30 at the time and thought the Pirates should just move then. I was fine with 1887-2000 being their history and after that I would just pick a new team or just root for players. PNC probably never should have been built. I don’t think the situation is as dire as you say though. I feel like MLB will have to address the discrepancy in revenues among teams more aggressively at some point. There are only so many towns for struggling franchises to move to. I don’t see the Pirates moving anytime soon. Have you ever BEEN to Sacramento?

  2. Everything that ive been thinking as a native pittsburgher and big baseball fan. Spot on. The pens have “bought” generations of good will. Soon is the operative word. 11 years is a long time and I’d handicap them only at 5:1 that they’d move in 2030. That number should be 1000:1.

  3. Nutting drew first blood by not increasing the team payroll after the playoff years. If you show good faith in keeping the team competitive the fans will be there. Nutting had to go. Nutting needs to sell to someone or some group that keeps the team in Pittsburgh.

    • Steve DiMiceli // March 22, 2019 at 1:27 PM // Reply

      Again, the purpose of this piece isn’t to take sides nor is that the purpose of this reply. However, the Pirates did increase payroll by over 10% in 2016 and nearly doubled it from 2012 to 2016 according to Cot’s opening day numbers. They still spent less than TPOP has generally projected they could have spent. I do think your perspective is the perception. A more accurate statement, however, would be that they didn’t add major pieces and that a number of the players they did add were not effective.

  4. What Debbie Downer of an article. I can’t even think of a Pittsburgh without the Pirates. I’d hope, no matter how contentious, that MLB would step in and force the Nuttings to sell to an owner or group of owners who would commit to keeping the team in Pittsburgh.

    I don’t think that you’re article takes into account the fact that both the Rangers and Astros would take umbrage with MLB trying to plant a team in Austin. Charlotte and Las Vegas both seem likely targets and Tampa’s seeming indifference to the presence of their team might make them a candidate to be moved long before 2030. Likewise if the stadium issue with the A’s doesn’t get resolved, I look to see them move to Vegas to join the Raiders. Given that neither Miami nor Tampa have thrived as major league markets, I really don’t see Orlando, despite its population growth, getting a major league franchise. There is just too much other competition for a family’s entertainment dollar to make Orlando an attractive baseball venue. Could just be my wishful thinking, but I believe that somebody like Mark Cuban or Ron Burkle will buy the team when MLB forces the Nuttings to sell if they won’t renew their lease with the City of Pittsburgh.

    • Steve DiMiceli // March 22, 2019 at 1:17 PM // Reply


      It wasn’t a fun one for me to write either I promise you that.

      Also, the cities I listed aren’t places I think the team will locate but rather to highlight how Pittsburgh is slipping down the ranks. A few of those choices are bad for the reasons you stated.

      • Bob Stover // March 22, 2019 at 1:26 PM // Reply

        I was trying to point out how Charlotte and Vegas will likely both get teams, either by moving the Rays and expansion, before the Pirates lease expires; eliminating those cities from Nuttings wish list of places to go. Florida supports three NFL franchises and even more college football programs with great enthusiasm, but baseball has just never thrive there. I remember when MLB blocked the Giants from moving to Tampa back in the ’80’s and then put the expansion Rays there, and it just hasn’t worked.

        By the way, I too am a native Philly guy who lived in Pittsburgh for 35 years before moving back here in 2007. I consider Pittsburgh my home.

        • Steve DiMiceli // March 22, 2019 at 1:33 PM // Reply

          I do think there is a strong possibility that the some international markets or could look a little more enticing in the next decade.

          I grew up in the Lehigh Valley, but we’d go to about 3-5 games at the Vet every year. I love Philly though. I think it’s an incredibly underrated city.

          • Bob Stover // March 24, 2019 at 10:35 AM //

            I think the only international markets that may, and I emphasize may, be viable, due to travel time and time zone concerns are in Vancouver or Montreal, and perhaps in Mexico City. I do not see MLB undertaking a European experiment similar to what the NFL has tried.

            I agree that Philadelphia is vastly underrated. It is a great city of culturally diverse neighborhoods that you would never see in Pittsburgh. There are so many great restaurants and bars to explore. You can’t beat the historical sites of our Nationhood.

            One place that Philadelphia comes up short is the skyline. Pittsburgh has, in IMO, the most beautiful and architecturally significant skyline in America.

  5. I read this article on 3/22 in Bonita Springs Florida. My wife and I drove the 100 plus miles north to Bradenton yesterday to see our first ever spring game. I am 62 years old and saw my first Pirates game at Forbes Field in 1962. I was born and raised in Anderson, Indiana and still reside there. My dad became a Fan due to their AAA affiliation with Indianapolis in the1950 ?s. We make the trip to Pittsburgh at least twice a season to take in a series of games, and I watch from home religiously. Pittsburgh and the Pirates are Tradition. Please don ?t allow this to happen!

  6. SalemPirate // March 23, 2019 at 8:32 AM // Reply

    Nutting has it sweet in Pittsburgh. He will never want to relocate.

    The Pirates will not face a city not willing to renew a lease. The PBC holds all the cards. What leverage does the city have? None.

    Let the Pirates move. Nutting can fatten his wallet elsewhere. The fans can live w/o the Bucs. It’s been 40 years w/o a championship. If the team is relocated, I’d like to think an expansion team could land in the steel city.
    A nutting less expansion team would possibly more interesting than a franchise mired in perpetual mediocrity.

  7. Norm Cubellis // March 23, 2019 at 10:14 AM // Reply

    A good article. I originally lived in the Pittsburgh area and have rooted for the Bucs for many many years. I live in Indy and was very happy when our city became the AAA franchise of the Pirates. I still attend 1-2 games a year at PNC and make spring training games in Bradenton. I greatly dislike the Pirates business model, however I think Nutting will make some changes since they have bottomed out. He doesn’t want his “net” dropping any more and that will indeed happen this year as attendance drops some more. I think last years trades for Archer and Kela were indications of management recognizing a need for some change. There are some decent young guys coming which will help keep payroll down but give Huntington a chance to reach for some additional talent. They will remain competitive which is their goal, as opposed to the goal of many fans that they stretch and go “all in”. As long as they remain competitive, the MLB moguls will be happy.

  8. Scott Mangold // March 23, 2019 at 1:13 PM // Reply

    Imagine Pittsburgh without the Pirates. It’s easy if you try.

  9. Patricia Bodnar // March 23, 2019 at 6:36 PM // Reply

    How could you even write/think that!! My friends (16 year old) and I would get into the Pirate games at Forbes Field after the 5th inning for free, and drive home after the game without our parents’ ever knowing!! This is what kids did in the 1960’s..alot better than most are doing now..don’t ever take the Pirates away..and I haven’t lived in Pittsburgh since 1969..

  10. Russell c Simon // March 23, 2019 at 11:32 PM // Reply

    I don’t see this happening, Pittsburgh isn’t a bad baseball town at all. I hope that Mark Cuban would buy them he would have a competitive team on the field with a World Series in the future. I live in Florida now and the Rays are the Worst drawing team there is despite having a decent team almost every year.

  11. Put some real talent in the field and the fans will come watch the games. Who wants to come see Melkey Cabrera or many if these utility players cast off from other teams? Think when was the last time they had a real hone run threat in Pittsburgh? Small ball is ok when you good at it but they are not. Ke Brian Hayes is a good you got talent that was just sent down, WHY No position player will make the all Star team even Marte has not produced because of doping last season and playing only 80 games. It’s time for a new owner to cone in and put a real product on the field. Watching these guys is like watching high school kids play only difference the price if admission.

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