Power heads into 3rd season seeking boost in attendance, victories
From the 23rd floor of 1 PPG Place, Downtown, Power owner Matt Shaner can sit in a conference room, look out an expansive picture window and see the area sports landscape.
Straight ahead and to the right are Heinz Field and PNC Park. To the left, next to the Monongahela River, sits $10.2 million Highmark Stadium, where the Riverhounds — another seeker of sports fans' entertainment dollars — will play this season.
After two checkered years in the Arena Football League, Shaner's franchise continues to try to wedge itself among the city's teams, seeking relevance, victories and bargain-hunting fans.
Now, with labor peace achieved among players and AFL owners and coach Derek Stingley signed for the next two seasons, the Power can resume marketing a product that has received lukewarm support from ticket buyers.
“It is a key year,” Shaner said, taking a break from preparations for the opener at 6 p.m. Saturday at Consol Energy Center against the Utah Blaze.
“For the first couple of years, we were trying to introduce the product to the city of Pittsburgh, so the people knew that an arena football team existed. We think we have done that. Now it's marketing the event.”
Shaner hired sports marketing veteran Rob Goodman, who was previously assistant general manager at Consol Energy Center before the Penguins terminated their arrangement with SMG. Goodman realizes it's not easy to sell a team that is asking fans to go inside on warm spring and summer evenings and will compete with the Pirates on five of its final six home dates.
“We are a niche product,” he said. “We are not for everyone, but I believe what we are is an entertainment product. We need to make ourselves relevant and successful.”
On the field, the Power have yet to reach the AFL playoffs, falling off from a 9-9 first season in 2011 to 5-13 last year — including a forfeit victory in Cleveland when the home team went on strike. Shaner fired his entire team hours before the 2012 opener in Orlando, Fla., to prevent a similar work stoppage.
Attendance fell 43 percent last year from an average of 9,197 to 5,163. Shaner admits labor strife was part of the reason.
“This is a union town,” he said. “Union families are some of our core fans, police officers' families, firefighters' families, steelworkers' families. When you have labor problems, a lot of these folks aren't going to come out because they are union families, which is understandable.”
The franchise has a six-year contract with the Penguins and Consol. The catch: After the third season — this year — the team will need to have averaged more than 6,000 fans to trigger a three-year option for 2014-16.
Even with last year's problems, the team is averaging 7,180 fans over two seasons after drawing 13,904 for the 2011 opener. Only a 50 percent drop in attendance will jeopardize the contract, and Shaner said his goal is more than 10,000 per game.
Shaner said the Power have sponsorships from 30 area companies totaling more than $1 million in cash and trade. Some of the deals are worth six figures, he said, including a three-year arrangement with UPMC to provide health care for the players.
Much of those resources will be spent to lure fans. Goodman said 65 percent of the Power's fan base consists of families. There are giveaways at home games and indoor fireworks on opening night. Fans can sit in love seats and recliners near the playing field through a contest run by radio station WBZZ-FM (100.7).
The games will be telecast on ThisTV, which is available in 95 percent of the area's cable households, Goodman said. Tim Benz, morning show host on radio station WXDX-FM (105.9), and former Steelers player Craig Wolfley will handle play-by-play on TV. Trib columnist John Harris and Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor will call games on TribLive Radio.
Shaner and his partners, including his father, hotel entrepreneur Lance Shaner, and Steelers Hall of Famer Lynn Swann plan to weather the storm.
“Financially, last year was a tough year, but I wouldn't have gotten into this if I didn't have the resources to be able to afford the team for a long time,” Shaner said.