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Robinson: Extra seats too much of a good thing?

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 10:32 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
A worker drags a hose through the seats at Heinz Field along the North Shore on Tuesday evening.

Jim Kelly led Buffalo to four consecutive Super Bowls during the early 1990s, a stretch in which Pittsburgh never won a playoff game, yet the Steelers never wanted to be the Bills.

They wanted to be the team that went to Super Bowls and won them, not lost them repeatedly. They wanted to be a team that players saw as a coveted destination rather than a dead end. They wanted to be as model franchise, rather than one that always seemed to operate from an outmoded plan.

Most of all, the Steelers didn't want to be a franchise that constantly worried one bad season might shrivel its fan base and cause its tickets to go from unavailable to unwanted.

So, when Heinz Field was in the planning stages in the late 1990s, Dan Rooney made certain it wasn't overly large for the market. Despite a lengthy waiting list for season tickets, the capacity was set at 65,000 (now 65,050), or only about 5,000 more than Three Rivers Stadium held.

Specifically, Rooney said the Steelers wanted to avoid being in a too-large stadium such as Buffalo's 80,024-seat Rich Stadium (now Ralph Wilson Stadium).

Even after Buffalo's stadium was skinnied down to its current capacity of 73,079 by the installation of larger seats and more luxury seating, the Bills are having trouble filling it. They played to an average home crowd of 64,950 last season, and they have averaged 62,694 (in 2011) since playing to 99.9 percent capacity in 2003.

So with the Steelers possibly staring at their first extended on-field slump since the 1990s, are they misjudging their fans' loyalty by pushing for a 3,000-seat expansion they hope will be completed by as early as 2014?

This season, their attendance — not the tickets sold — has dropped to an average of 61,818 (95.1 percent of capacity), which is down nearly 1,600 per game from 63,485 in 2009. There will be five more home games — none of them eagerly anticipated — before the season ends Dec. 29.

The proposed $30 million expansion project would raise Heinz Field's capacity to roughly 68,050, or about the same as Lincoln Financial Field (68,532) in much-larger Philadelphia.

Despite winning the Super Bowl in 2008, the Steelers ranked only 28th in attendance. And even with the additional seats, Heinz Field would be only the 20th-largest NFL stadium; currently, it's 26th.

Despite the Steelers' 10-14 record over the past two seasons, their tickets remain in strong demand, and they've sold out every home game since 1972. They still have tens of thousands of fans on their season-ticket waiting list, one that stretches back nearly 18 years.

If you signed up for season tickets in August 1995, you should be expecting a call from the Steelers in the relatively near future. Everyone else? You're still on standby.

For now, the Steelers shouldn't be worried if their fans fail to show up by the thousands for the Bills. The time for concern will arrive when those fans stop caring — and stop buying tickets.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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