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Trib editorial: Pirates owner ignores fans' anger at his peril

| Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, 8:51 a.m.
Pirates owner Bob Nutting discusses the team's performance during an interview with the Tribune-Review  last month at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates owner Bob Nutting discusses the team's performance during an interview with the Tribune-Review last month at PNC Park.

Like any business owner, Bob Nutting has the right to run the Pittsburgh Pirates as he sees fit. But he ignores his customers at his peril, particularly their messages sent online and via their feet and entertainment dollars.

When the Bucs ended their streak of 20 losing seasons and earned the first of three consecutive postseason berths in 2013, fans' hopes were high. But that on-field momentum was lost when payroll dipped again after topping $100 million for the first time in 2016. Fans reacted predictably to sub-.500 seasons in 2016 and 2017: Local-TV ratings fell by 45 percent, PNC Park attendance by 23 percent.

Now, trading away ace pitcher Gerrit Cole and outfielder Andrew McCutchen — five-time All-Star, former MVP, longtime face of the franchise — has confirmed for angry fans what they've maintained for years: that Mr. Nutting, despite his statements to the contrary, is far more concerned with the Pirates' bottom line than with their won-lost record.

Comparing the Pirates to the Penguins and Steelers is apples and oranges because Major League Baseball lacks something the NHL and NFL have: a salary cap. In other words, no MLB barrier prevents Nutting from spending as much as he wants to upgrade on-field talent.

Nor is there any real question that Nutting could spend more on payroll if he wanted to. As the 2012 season began, CNBC ranked him as MLB's 10th richest owner, with his family's net worth estimated at $1.1 billion. As the 2015 season began, Forbes estimated the Pirates franchise was worth $900 million; the team claimed Forbes' figures were “not close” to the actual numbers. But there's no arguing with Forbes' observation that under Nutting's ownership, “payroll has barely increased relative to baseball's other 29 teams.”

Nutting seems averse to spending more of his own money to acquire and retain better players, but not to other people's money benefiting his endeavors, such as the $6.5 million that the state spent to upgrade Laurel Mountain Ski Resort, which it leased to Nutting, who also controls the Seven Springs and Hidden Valley ski areas. And don't forget the millions of tax dollars that helped build the Pirates' ballpark.

With Mr. Cole and Mr. McCutchen gone, angry Pirates fans are demanding that MLB force Nutting to sell the franchise to someone who'll spend enough on payroll to compete. Tens of thousands of them have signed a Change.org petition to that effect. It's unlikely to succeed, but no business can afford to ignore its customers indefinitely.

Pirates fans' patience with “small market” excuses and Nutting's talk of “single-minded focus” on championships is wearing thin indeed. Payroll doesn't guarantee performance, but the Bucs' latest moves give little reason to hope for a winning 2018 record, much less another playoff berth. And further declines in TV ratings and attendance will only strengthen the case that Nutting is ill-suited to own the team.

The question is whether those trends will dent the Bucs' bottom line enough for Nutting to rethink his approach, whether by boosting payroll or selling the franchise — and, if he doesn't change course, how much longer fans will support the Pirates sufficiently to make Major League Baseball a business that Bob Nutting still wants to be in.

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