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Robinson: Steelers keep firm grip on local audience

| Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 9:20 p.m.

The Pirates, led by National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, broke a 20-year losing streak with a fairy tale-like 94-win season and were one win away from playing in the National League Championship Series. The Penguins, led by hockey's best player in Sidney Crosby, own the Eastern Conference's best record for the second season in a row and were one round away from playing for the Stanley Cup.

The Steelers, by contrast, are coming off twin 8-8 seasons as they journey into an offseason in which they are salary cap-challenged and could lose five starters to free agency. Uncharacteristically, they had a high number of no-shows for their three December home games.

So are the Steelers now the No. 3 game in town, sinking appreciably in popularity and losing ground and younger spectators to the Penguins and Pirates, both of whom have more attractive stars to watch?

Are you kidding?

Despite losing 16 percent of their local TV audience over the past two seasons, the kind of falloff almost every franchise experiences during a downturn, the Steelers' TV ratings were the NFL's sixth-highest in 2013. Every one of their games, be it in sunny September or temperature-dipping December, turns out an Academy Awards-sized audience.

How strong is the Steelers' grip on the Pittsburgh populace? Even during a season in which they didn't win until October, their ratings were four times those of the Raiders, three times those of Jets, two times those of the Falcons and Buccaneers. And they got higher as the season went along.

Over the past three seasons, only the Saints and the Packers have higher local TV ratings — and the Steelers made the playoffs only once.

As a result, Forbes Magazine now estimates the Steelers to be worthmore than the Pirates and Penguins combined. Pittsburgh is one of only three cities with three major league teams — Houston and Tampa/St. Petersburg are the others — in which the NFL franchise is worth more than the other two teams combined.

Forbes values the Steelers at $1.118 billion, the Penguins at $480 million, the Pirates at $479 million. The Penguins — and this is interesting — are the only USA-based NHL team that is worth more than that city's MLB team.

While Heinz Field isn't aesthetically pleasing or nationally praise-worthy like PNC Park, it has had an enormous positive effect on the Steelers' bottom line and on-field results.

Of the 26 NFL and MLB teams that opened new stadiums since 1997, the Steelers have enjoyed the second-best jolt based on wins and the amount the stadium cost.

Forbes calculated that only the Redskins benefited more (their winning percentage jumped by 72 percent immediately after they opened FedEx Field); the Patriots have had slightly better on-field success than the Steelers, but Gillette Stadium ($325 million) was pricier than Heinz Field ($281 million).

In the 13 seasons since Heinz opened in 2001, only the Patriots and Colts have won more games than the Steelers. In the preceding 13 seasons (1988-2000), the Steelers were 21st in winning percentage.

Maybe this illustrates why the Steelers are worth twice as much — they have twice as many league championships (two) as the Penguins (one) and Pirates (none) combined since Heinz Field opened.

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

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