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Kovacevic: Anyone want to be part of this?

| Thursday, June 27, 2013, 11:26 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer makes a play next to Brandon Inge before a sparse crowd in May at PNC Park.

If they'd built the Taj Mahal to house two-ball juggling acts, all this might have made sense.

It might have made sense that PNC Park, almost universally acclaimed as the planet's prettiest baseball facility, could have become a Cathedral of the Damned. Home to the worst franchise in sports. Host to one relevant event — an All-Star Game — in its dozen-year existence. That happy place Pittsburghers fill up only for huge helpings of bobbleheads, bad bands, Zambelli fireworks and zany game-show interludes.

Well, that ends right now.

Or at least it should.

This season, at long last, is exactly why those dignitaries stuck shovels in the North Shore dirt in the spring of 1999 and, for better or worse depending on your economic leaning, dug $270 million deep into the tax coffers to get it done.

And if you ask me, this season — no, this series and this Friday night game between the Pirates and Brewers — represents the onus finally flipping onto Pittsburghers to do their part.

Look, personally, I couldn't care less if PNC Park is packed or empty on this night or any other. The only party that profits is the Pirates.

I'm merely pointing out that this is how it was supposed to work.

PNC was designed with the smallest seating capacity of all the new stadiums toward an aim of creating what sports executives call “ticket tension,” meaning the public feels more urgency to buy in advance fearing a sellout. Once the tension heightens, the tickets are bought up and — theoretically, anyway — player payroll rises, too.

So far this season, even with payroll at a team record $70 million and stirring team performance, it hasn't worked at all. Through 38 home dates, nearly half the schedule, the Pirates have only four sellouts and are averaging crowds of 23,203, or 61 percent of capacity. That average ranks 23rd out of Major League Baseball's 30 teams, and it's down 1,652 from the same point last year.

For further perspective, you don't have to look far.

The Cardinals, tied with the Pirates for the majors' best record at 48-30, rank No. 3 in attendance with an average of 41,558 at Busch Stadium. And if you think market size is a factor, think again. The St. Louis metropolitan region ranks No. 19 compared to Pittsburgh's No. 22, according to the Census' 2013 figures.

The Reds, currently the third wheel in this wonderful Central Division race, rank No. 15 in attendance with an average of 30,750 at Great American Ballpark. Cincinnati's metro size ranks 28th.

Even the Brewers, in the midst of a miserable summer, rank No. 13 in attendance with an average of 31,449 at Miller Park. Milwaukee's metro size is among pro sports' smallest at 39th.

To an extent, I get it.

The Cardinals, Reds and Brewers all opened this season with larger season-ticket bases. That's critically important. The Pirates won't reveal the exact size of their base, but it's believed to be in the range of 10,000 full-season equivalents. That's a lot of extra tickets to sell.

I also get that 20 years of losing capped by two Epic Collapses tend to be mildly discouraging, to be kind.

I also get that we're spoiled as a sports town. The Steelers have been contenders for the better part of four decades. The Penguins have been blessed with some of the NHL's top talent for three decades.

At the same time, what the Pirates have done this summer hasn't exactly sneaked up on anyone. It's been going on for months. That's offered ample opportunity to add to group sales, even partial-plan season tickets that are still available for as cheap as $250 for 30 games.

I'll save you the math: That's $8.33 per game, pretty much what you pay for a movie and popcorn.

If you want field-level seats, those will set you back all of $12.33.

For the opening game this weekend, with Gerrit Cole pitching, thousands of individual tickets could still be had online for as little as $12 as of Thursday night.

What's the wait?

Late Wednesday night, during the Pirates' flight home from Seattle, A.J. Burnett's always colorful Twitter account included the following exchange:

@740JZD: “PNC Park better be packed this whole weekend!”

@wudeydo34: “Right! Why shouldn't it?”

The latter was Burnett. And as hot-button an issue as baseball attendance can be for Pittsburghers, nary a disputing syllable was tweeted in return.

That's because he's right.

We're talking first place.

Best record in baseball.

Six-game winning streak.

Prized prospect throwing 100-mph heat against a hated nemesis.

If not now, then when?

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