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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Although attendance figures for many major-league teams are dipping into the red, the Pirates are running slightly ahead last year's pace.

At the All-Star break, the traditional halfway point of the season, the Pirates are one of just 10 teams that have drawn more fans than last season.

Through 39 home games, attendance at PNC Park is up 2.4 percent. That bucks the trend throughout baseball, where the sour national economy has dragged down overall attendance by about 6 percent.

Pirates chief marketing officer Lou DePaoli expects the team's solid numbers to carry through the end of July, setting up a make-or-break stretch in the final two months of the season.

"We're pleased," DePaoili said Tuesday. "We've gotten off to a really nice start. Our goal coming into the season was, at worst, to match last year's attendance — or preferably to grow.

"I don't think many people would have expected us to be up at this point. We're halfway through the year, and we're actually right there. Now, we've got to close strong in the second half."

The Pirates have drawn 720,947 fans. Their average of 18,485 ranks 28th out of 30 clubs in the majors.

The Pirates have the lowest ticket prices in the majors and have not raised them in seven years. A price hike is possible — but not likely — in 2010.

"We're starting to look at that now," DePaoli said. "The prices have to go up at some point. I'm generally aggressive when it comes to that, but you have to be realistic. We're in one of those precarious situations where if you get aggressive, it can really backfire on you."

The Pirates got plenty of fan backlash in 2002, the second year at PNC Park, when ticket prices rose after a 100-loss season.

According to a national Associated Press-Knowledge Networks poll, 63 percent of fans think the cost of a game is baseball's biggest problem. Moreso than the lingering steroids scandal, the recession is keeping many ballpark seats vacant.

"For us, even though our attendance is up, we are seeing people buy less-expensive tickets," DePaoli said. "We're moving a lot more of our lower-priced inventory. Someone who used to buy a $27 seat now buys a $24 or a $20 (seat). They're still coming, but they're looking for deals."

Like most teams, the Pirates offer several discounted ticket packages. They also have "value-added" promotions, such as ticket deals which include a free hat, t-shirt or concessions.

"Some teams don't have to do much of that," DePaoli said. "Others are way more aggressive than we are. What we've tried to do is not so much discount as much (encourage) the value-added plans.

"It's not like, 'Here's a $20 ticket for five bucks.' We're trying to maintain the price integrity but also make the fans feel like they're getting something for their money."

On an average night, PNC Park is slightly more than half-empty. But shortstop Jack Wilson said the players are struck more by large, rollicking crowds than by smaller gatherings of fans.

"You notice it when there's a sellout, if it's fireworks night or if a (popular) team is in town," Wilson said. "But otherwise, if it's not a full house, you don't really notice it. You just play."

On May 29, attendance at PNC Park was down 22 percent from last year, a difference of about 4,400 fans per game. However, things began to rebound May 30 with a sellout for the season's first Skyblast fireworks show.

Two of the three mid-June games against the Detroit Tigers and former Pirates manager Jim Leyland drew crowds in excess of 27,000.

After a disappointing turnout of 19,109 for a Tuesday night game against the Cleveland, attendance swelled for the next five interleague games against the Indians and Kansas City Royals.

The Pirates have 42 remaining home games, more than any team in the majors. Three games — Saturday vs. San Francisco, Aug. 8 vs. St. Louis and Sept. 26 vs. Los Angeles — already are close to being sold out. All three games feature postgame fireworks.

DePaoli expects a heavy turnout for the six-game homestand that begins Friday. If that happens, he said, the Pirates could finish July as much as 3 percent ahead of last season's pace.

There are many variables which could affect what happens with attendance in August and September. Wilson and second baseman Freddy Sanchez, both very popular with the fan base, are on the trading block. A long losing skid, which could push the team out of the NL Central race and clinch a record 17th straight losing season, also would deter attendance.

MLB 2009 attendance

Team: G — Total — Avg

1. Yankees: 42 — 1,901,454 — 45,272

2. Phillies: 45 — 1,978,406 — 43,964

3. Dodgers: 41 — 1,776,562 — 43,330

4. Angels: 45 — 1,832,941 — 40,732

5. Cardinals: 45 — 1,770,110 — 40,229

6. Cubs: 45 — 1,800,895 — 40,019

7. Mets: 45 — 1,764,447 — 39,209

8. Brewers: 46 — 1,753,531 — 38,120

9. Red Sox: 45 — 1,702,517 — 37,833

10. Giants: 46 — 1,585,485 — 34,467

11. Tigers: 40 — 1,235,007 — 30,875

12. Rockies: 42 — 1,262,142 — 30,051

13. Astros: 47 — 1,383,284 — 29,431

14. Braves: 42 — 1,190,157 — 28,337

15. Twins: 48 — 1,357,757 — 28,286

16. Rangers: 44 — 1,201,747 — 27,312

17. Mariners: 43 — 1,174,111 — 27,304

18. White Sox: 43 — 1,123,678 — 26,132

19. Diamondbacks: 50 — 1,275,321 — 25,506

20. Reds: 40 — 996,782 — 24,919

21. Padres: 43 — 1,067,976 — 24,836

22. Orioles: 47 — 1,141,425 — 24,285

23. Royals: 46 — 1,090,135 — 23,698

24. Nationals: 41 — 951,746 — 23,213

25. Rays: 45 — 1,036,712 — 23,038

26. Blue Jays: 43 — 982,117 — 22,839

27. Indians: 44 — 975,836 — 22,178

28. Pirates: 39 — 720,947 — 18,485

29. A's: 40 — 725,096 — 18,127

30. Marlins: 45 — 815,282 — 18,117

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