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.