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AD Pederson, Panthers seeking sellouts

Upon returning to Pitt, athletic director Steve Pederson inherited a football program with All-American candidates on both sides of the ball and the promise of success after its season-ending upset of West Virginia.

The Panthers boosted their season-ticket sales by 11,000.

Now, a year later, Pitt is pushing to sell out Heinz Field for a team devoid of bona fide superstars — after the graduation of middle linebacker Scott McKillop and early entry to the NFL by tailback LeSean McCoy — but coming off its first nine-win season in more than a quarter century.

To do so, Pitt is offering season-ticket packages ranging from $82 to $280 that increase prices by only $10 despite adding a seventh home game to the schedule this fall. Five of the visitors to Heinz Field earned bowl berths last season, including non-conference opponents Navy and Notre Dame.

"There's 'real' momentum and, obviously, an excellent team," Pederson said. "I kind of view this as an opportunity to see a bunch of new, young stars step up. In some ways, it's even more intriguing to see who the new stars are going to be. ... That's what's exciting."

Pitt announced its non-conference schedule and season-ticket prices Monday, as well as new initiatives for the annual Blue-Gold Game. The Panthers will open at home against Youngstown State on Sept. 5, play at Buffalo on Sept. 12, play host to Navy on Sept. 19, at North Carolina State on Sept. 26 and receive the first visit since 2005 from Notre Dame on Nov. 14.

Pitt also will play host to Big East foes Connecticut, Cincinnati, Syracuse and South Florida, and will visit Rutgers, Louisville and West Virginia. The conference schedule, however, has yet to be released.

Pederson said it's his preference to play West Virginia again the day after Thanksgiving before an ABC national television audience, especially after the crowd of 63,019 was the Big East's biggest draw of the season.

"That's our hope, that we can keep it there," Pederson said. "That's obviously a great national slot, and I thought we benefited from that last year. That's a great national audience."

Pitt made a dramatic improvement in season-ticket sales, from 30,000 in 2007 to 41,000 in 08, and from 33,316 to 49,352 in average home attendance. Now, it wants to sell its capacity of available season tickets, which ranges from 52,000-55,000 in the 65,050-seat stadium.

"When we look back at 2008, it was really an exciting year: Our average attendance at Heinz Field increased by 60 percent, our season-ticket sales increased by 50 percent, our student season-ticket sales increased by 100 percent and we sold nearly double the amount of season parking passes than the year prior," said Chris Ferris, Pitt associate athletic director for marketing and promotions. "Our fans were incredible and really helped our team win on the field and made dramatic steps in taking our program forward in the stands."

What Pitt doesn't yet have is a household name like McCoy or McKillop. To counteract that, it is attempting to improve the name recognition by increasing fan interaction with the team.

To that end, Pitt will replace its pre-scrimmage autograph session with a Spring Football Festival before the Blue-Gold Game April 11 at Heinz Field. Admission is free and gates open at noon. From 12:30-1:30 p.m., Panthers players will conduct a free clinic for children 12-and-under, while the coaching staff will hold a "chalk-talk" session.

"I always say that the greatest thing we have going here is great people, whether it's our coaches on staff or our student-athletes. We're very proud of them and I love any interaction anybody has with them," Pederson said. "When you stand in line to get an autograph, you might get a brief interaction with one, maybe two players. The thought of a whole grouping of young children down on the field, working with one of our players ... I think, is special."

More bang for the buck

A look at 2009 Pitt football season ticket prices (with Panther Club donation in parentheses), which increased only slightly despite adding a seventh game to the schedule:

Section: Price

Upper end zone: $82

Lower end zone/upper sideline: $109

Lower sideline/upper sideline: $154

Panther Red: $154 ($50)

Panther Blue: $154 ($75)

Panther Gold: $154 ($100)

North Club: $280 ($250)

Club: $280 ($250/$500)

For more information, call 412-648-PITT or go to www.pittsburghpanthers.com

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