How can Pirates win back fans? Transparency and 'the process'
The Pirates had an attendance problem before the unpopular trades last week that jettisoned Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.
After setting a franchise record by drawing 2.49 million fans to PNC Park in 2015, the Pirates drew 2.25 million in 2016 and 1.92 million last year.
This year, things probably will be worse. There is an online petition calling for owner Bob Nutting to sell the team. There is talk of a boycott demonstration outside of PNC Park on the day of the home opener. Many fans insist they will go to fewer games, if any, this season.
What can the Pirates do to win back their fan base? Ron Dick, an associate professor of sports marketing at Duquesne University, thinks he knows the answer.
Trust the process.
“We're getting mixed messages from the (Pirates),” Dick said. “One minute we're told, ‘We're going to win as many games as we can in 2018.' Then they go out and trade their best player and best pitcher.
“They need to get in a room, all of them — the sales and marketing people, the general manager and the owner — and say, ‘Let's be transparent. Let's just say what we're going to do, be consistent in the branding of our product, and go from there.' It really is that simple.”
Before he started at Duquesne in 2006, Dick held marketing posts for 15 years with the New Jersey Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. He also was a consultant for the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Knicks.
Dick knows how hard it is to try to sell tickets for an underachieving team.
“The Pirates are going to keep doing the giveaways, the fireworks, the concerts,” Dick said. “That's the marketing strategy. That's the part you can control. You can't always control the product.”
Trading McCutchen caused the biggest stir among fans.
McCutchen already signed a team-friendly contract and said he wanted to end his career in Pittsburgh. The former league MVP built a home here. He named his son Steel.
When he becomes a free agent after this season, McCutchen might be able to fetch a three-year, $60 million contract. That's a place the budget-conscious Pirates are not willing to go.
“They're not going to offer anybody $60 million,” Dick said. “They're just not. If they're not going to give it to Cutch, who are they going to give it to? No one. So, just tell us that. Say that. It works in Philly.”
An avid sports fan, Dick keeps tabs on the 76ers. He was struck by the method used by that team's former GM Stan Hinkie, who, in 2013, implored Philly fans to keep going to games and “trust the process” amid a stretch of awful seasons.
“The Sixers kept saying, ‘The process, the process, the process …' Let's not use the t-word — tank — but let's lose a lot, get a lottery pick and then we'll reload,” Dick said. “And the Sixers are losing, losing, losing, even though they keep on getting (high draft) picks, and everybody just says, ‘Trust the process.' ”
It became a mantra. Fans flocked to games and sports bars wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan. Sixers players dropped it into their postgame interviews.
Hinkie stepped down in April 2016 when he intuited that ownership had lost faith in him. Folks in Philadelphia still talk about trusting the process, though.
A clever slogan and transparency from the front office might not be enough to help the Pirates. Dick noted the team's slip in the NL Central standings happened at the same time ticket prices increased.
Over the past five years, Dick said, prices for some seats at PNC Park increased 400 percent. The addition of dynamic pricing created 11 different price points — and a confused consumer usually ends up keeping his wallet closed.
“They overpriced at the exact time the team started to decline,” Dick said. “Having lived in a lot of different cities, I can say Pittsburgh is a price-sensitive market. These people will shop for bargains.”
Dick doesn't believe it's coincidental that the Pirates nudged some ticket prices down by 3 percent this year.
The passage of time and nostalgic images from spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla., might subdue some an revolt. More anger will dissipate if the Pirates get off to a hot start in the first month of the regular season.
“But if they get off to a slow start, I think this ugliness will continue,” Dick said. “Them getting off to a fast start is very important because of all this looming negativity. People are really going to be watching closely how these trades work out.”