Pirates merchandise sells briskly as fans flock back in wake of success

| Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Jim Coen waited a long time for the Bucs to have a winning season.

In the more than 15 years Coen has been selling hats, jerseys and T-shirts from Pittsburgh sports teams in the Strip District, Pirates merchandise never came close to matching sales of the city's hockey and football teams.

But this year, Coen said, "I've had to pull Penguins stuff to make room for the Pirates for the first time."

Sales this summer at Coen's store, Yinzers in the Burgh, on Penn Avenue, double or triple what they were last year, depending on the week, he said.

"It's a combination of things, but the Pirates are a big, big factor in that," he said.

Winning probably helps.

The Pirates on Monday night took a winning record into their first home stand since the All-Star break, threatening to end the streak of 18 consecutive losing seasons. Fans are responding by packing games at PNC Park as the Bucs take on division rivals and vie for first place.

Sales increased 40 percent to 45 percent this year at Hometowne Sports, which has three stores in the Pittsburgh region, because of renewed interest in Pirates merchandise, owner Linda Meyer said.

A steady stream of fans yesterday browsed Hometowne's offerings at its Station Square store. Its other stores are at Century III Mall in West Mifflin and Tanger Outlets in South Strabane.

Among them was Catherine Goliat, a student at West Virginia University who grew up in Pittsburgh. Goliat hadn't been to a Bucs game or purchased team garb in several years, she said. But before heading to last night's game against the Cincinnati Reds, Goliat was looking for a T-shirt.

Steve Van Velzor was part of a group of four parents and five children from Springfield, Ohio, shopping at Hometowne for hats and T-shirts before the game.

"They brought back the excitement," Van Velzor said of the Pirates. "We're filling up with the gear to go to the game."

Retailers aren't the only businesses seeing a uptick because of the team's standing.

Ratings have spiked at Root Sports Pittsburgh, which broadcasts Pirates games. Year-to-date, ratings are up 36 percent over the same time last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. They're up 46 percent compared to the same month last year.

"The Pirates' success on the field has translated to a significant increase in the TV game ratings on Root Sports this season," said Shawn McClintock, senior vice president and general manager of the DirecTV Inc. subsidiary. "The Pirates' game against the Cubs (on July 9) was the highest rated MLB game of the day and that kind of ratings spike can be directly linked to the play on the field and the flourishing fan support."

Not surprisingly, Bucs fans are filling seats at PNC Park.

Through the first 45 games this season, home attendance was up 17 percent compared with the same point last year. Home games attracted more than 1 million people.

Yet the team isn't getting more money from sales of licensed Pirates merchandise.

The Pirates' share of all Major League Baseball merchandise sales increased this year to 1.57 percent of the market, up from 1.25 percent last year at this time, said Matt Powell, analyst with SportsONESource, a Charlotte, N.C.-based company that tracks sales.

But, Powell said, teams evenly split revenue from merchandise sales, which are down 6 percent so far this year.

"This is really a discretionary purchase," Powell said, noting that discretionary purchases have fallen in the tough economy. "They're probably getting less royalty payments."

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