Far fewer fans went to PNC Park to root, root, root for the home team in 2018, and the problem goes beyond last year’s Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole trades.
The Pirates finished the year with an announced attendance of 1,465,316 over 78 home dates (two double-headers and a cancelled rain out against the Miami Marlins account for the other three days lost). That is the third lowest in baseball, ahead of only the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays. Of perhaps greater concern, this is the lowest attendance in PNC Park’s history.
The 2018 Pirates- a team that is likely going to finish with its fourth winning season in 25 years- were outdrawn by those terrible mid-00s teams that had nothing to offer besides fireworks, bobbleheads and...more fireworks. You would have to go back to 1996 to find a Bucco team that drew less than this year’s squad. 1996 wasn’t exactly a great year in Pirate history, either. Baseball was still recovering from the work stoppage two years prior, manager Jim Leyland walked out on the last four years on his contract and rumors had been swirling around for quite some time that the franchise would be relocated after they were sold. This year’s drama was trading away two players. Apathy set in much more quickly this time around.
And that apathy translated to 454,131 fewer fans buying a ticket compared to 2017. That’s the third largest drop in franchise history. Here are the changes in attendance compared to the previous year since Three Rivers Stadium first full year in 1971:
The only two larger drops are pretty easy to explain. The 1981 season was shortened by a strike in the middle of the campaign. There were 60 fewer games that year, and fans weren’t too excited to go to the ballpark once the players came back. The second biggest drop was in 2002. PNC Park opened the year prior, so attendance regressed back down to roughly what it was in 2000. Losing the allure of the new park and MLB taking a hit attendance wise league wide because of talks of contraction and work stoppage lead to the drop.
But this drop is not an isolated incident. There was a decline of roughly 330 thousand fans last year and 250 thousand in 2016. Attendance has dropped over a million fans in just a three year stretch. That’s the first time that has ever happened in franchise history.
Let’s look at the month by month trend the last four years and see if we can find a pattern.
The first four months of 2016 are surprisingly similar to the record setting pace in 2015. They did better in April and a little worse in May, but the two months were basically a wash. June was a step back, but July was as good as the best months in 2015. The divide comes after the trade deadline, drawing about 4,000 fewer fans per game in August and 6,500 in September. That was the first time in years the Pirates sold at the deadline and were out of the playoff picture at the end of the season, so the decline is expected and justifiable.
The 2017 team drew about 3,500-4,500 fans fewer in April, June, August and September than the 2016 team. The two outlier months from that rule- May and July- average out to a roughly 3,500 fan drop, too.
2018 got off to a weird start. April was one of the coldest months in Pirates history, and it did take a toll on attendance. The weekday series during the second homestand usually does not draw well for any team, but the Pirates failed to hit 9,000 in announced attendance in any game during their series with the Rockies. (Having been there, I would guess more people were paid to be there- ushers, concessions, media, players, coaches, etc.- than not). Between that, the fallout of the McCutchen and Gerrit Cole trades and talk of a tanking, people just didn’t come to the ballpark.
When it warmed up and fans realized this was an ok team, attendance jumped up. Once again, each month drew about 3,000-4,500 fewer fans than the 2017 team. The one exception is September, but again, with the team out of playoff contention by that point, the drop makes sense.
The 2016-2018 Pirates were all roughly .500 teams for most of the season that crept into the playoff picture for a bit in July before ultimately collapsing, and each team drew about 3,000-4,500 fewer fans than the season prior in the key months. While dealing McCutchen and Cole certainly hurt ticket sales, its impact seemed to have been in April mostly. After that, attendance declined at the same pace as it did last season.
How much of that decline is season ticket sales? This isn’t an exact science, but I have a theory. The lowest attendance this season was 8,855 on Sep. 4. That’s right in line with the previously mentioned Colorado series. People could have bought single tickets for these game, but hardly anybody went. If I had to take an educated guess on how many full and partial season ticket plans the Pirates sold this year, I would say it’s right around that figure.
The lowest attendance the 2017 Pirates had (omitting the Little League Classic that was not played at PNC Park) was 11,027 for an April contest with the Cardinals. The 2016 Pirates bottomed out at 14,890 on Apr. 6. If we assume that most of the people who had a ticket for those games got it through some sort of season plan, then the drop in attendance the last two seasons may be due more to alienating fans who loved the team enough to buy extended plans rather than the portion of the fanbase who buy single game tickets. A string of three playoff berths certainly helped sell those plans, and reverting back to a little worse than average the next two years may have scared them away.
Trading Cole and McCutchen likely took a hit on season ticket sales, but perhaps no more so than a losing season in 2016 did. Unlike the 2016 and 2017 teams, who were trying to reclaim former glory while on the decline, the 2018 squad is a definitive step forward, regardless of if they get win number 81 or not. That should hopefully at least stop the free fall in tickets sold, but the only sure way to put more butts in seats is to win. Not “go roughly .500 and hang around in the wild card race for four months” winning, but “playoff” winning. With a few pieces, the 2019 Pirates could do that.