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Pitt not attracting as many fans as it would like

| Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2002

It is Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field. The temperature is 80 degrees with no signs of rain. The opponent for the Pitt Panthers is nationally ranked Texas A&M.

A perfect setting for a college game. Right?

You would think so, but the crowd for that Sept. 7 matchup against the Aggies did not reflect such a vibe. About 37,000 people showed up at the Panthers' 65,000-seat home venue, leaving the place looking pretty empty.

The attendance was announced at 45,489, but that number is based on tickets sold, not on the amount of times the turnstile spins.

Texas A&M was considered the marquee team on the Panthers' schedule this season, with Big East Conference member Boston College running second. Both the Panthers and Aggies, ranked No. 21 at the time, were 1-0 at kickoff, and it was an opportunity for Pitt fans to witness either a coming-out party for their team, or, at the very least, a highly regarded opponent playing on their home turf.

Those things weren't appealing enough. Most stayed home — or went shopping, or trimmed hedges, or did whatever folks do when the Panthers are playing in Pittsburgh. The team lost 14-12.

Pitt is averaging 39,862 fans per game after contests with Ohio, Texas A&M and Rutgers, according to NCAA statistics, but that number is based on head-count. The true average is probably in the 27-32,000 range.

The Panthers rank No. 55 out of 115 teams in the NCAA in average attendance and are sixth out of eight in the Big East, ahead of Temple and Rutgers.

Athletic director Steve Pederson continues to try to sell a product that, apparently, isn't stimulating enough to the consumer.

"One of the things I've heard people say is, if you schedule this or that opponent, you'll get good crowds," Pederson said. "The fact is, people come to see you play when you're good; that's what really sells tickets. I never believed that the opponent should sell tickets anyway. Tickets should be sold because people want to see our good college team. A good opponent just enhances things. We just need to have success and everything will take care of itself."

Are the Panthers close?

"I think we're getting there," said Pederson, who is looking for better numbers Saturday when Pitt (3-1) plays host to Mid-American Conference power Toledo (3-1) at 1:30 p.m. "I think the defense on this year's team has played great and I think the offense is coming around. <#201> I think the pieces are in place for our entire program to win big consistently and sellout. Those things weren't in place five years ago."

Pederson said he sees a day in the not-too-distant future when Pitt games will bring in the same type of crowds that the Steelers do on Sundays at Heinz Field. He sees crowds fighting for tickets as they did when it came time to purchasing seats for the nationally ranked Panthers basketball team, which had a school-best record of 29-6 last year and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

There are no tickets available for the upcoming basketball season at the 12,500-seat Petersen Events Center, which sold out last month. It is the first time in nearly two decades that season tickets to basketball games have been sold out.

The overriding factor• Winning.

"I'm not going to be happy until we sellout football, too," Pederson said. "Right now, our season-ticket number (for football) is at a record high. Student ticket numbers are at record highs. At the first three games, we haven't had everybody using their seats, but we hope they'll come out Saturday."

The biggest factor in keeping fans out of Heinz Field is that they aren't completely sold on a Pitt program that was at the bottom of the barrel in college football just six years ago during Johnny Majors' second stint here.

The Panthers finished 4-7 in 1996, the year before current coach Walt Harris' arrival,and lost games to Ohio State, Miami and Syracuse by an aggregate score of 172-7.

The scars are fading, but they're still there.

"People say that Pittsburgh loves winners," Pederson said. "Well, everybody loves winners, it doesn't matter where you are. Winning teams are exciting and they draw fans. And, so we need to have that success and that will get us over the top."

In Majors' final season, Pitt averaged 30,795 fans at Pitt Stadium. The following year, with Harris in charge, the number jumped to 39,710 as Pitt finished 6-6 and earned a bowl bid (Liberty) for the first time in eight years.

Pitt has finished with records of 2-9, 5-6, 7-5 and 7-5 the past four years and has made bowl appearances in 2000 and 2001. Attendance averaged 40,734 in 1998, 41,138 in 1999 (the final season at Pitt Stadium), 40,868 in 2000 at Three Rivers Stadium and 48,915 last season in the inaugural campaign at Heinz Field.

This season's average of 39,862 is the lowest since Harris' first year. The Rutgers game had an announced attendance of 32,519 Saturday, but it was about 5-7,000 less than that.

Pederson expected better, but he isn't fazed by it. He still thinks a breakthrough is imminent. He also has no plans to fill the place up with giveaways and the like.

What you see is what you'll get.

"We're not going to do that," he said. "When I got here, there was an awful lot of weak promotions where I would say they were papering the house. I'm not willing to do that. The people sitting in those stands bought those tickets, and we appreciate them. And the one thing I don't want to get lost in this is the people coming every week; I don't want the empty seats to override the ones who are there because they're special people and we appreciate what they're doing."

But the goal is to bring more in. Pederson has worked at places such as Nebraska and Ohio State in the past, and he's witnessed crowds of 75-85,000 shaking the rafters and sending a buzz through the air.

Pitt is nowhere close to that level. That's not to say that the crowds of 25-30,000 aren't into it, it's just that 35,000 more fans would make a big difference, just like it does at places like Nebraska and Ohio State.

"There's talk that there's not as much competition (for fans) at those places as there is here," Pederson said. "So I'm sure that helps them out. But the fact that for 25 years Tom Osborne won 10 games a year probably overrides everything else (at Nebraska). It's back to the same thing: the more you win, the more support you get."

"I think the crowds will eventually come," said sophomore nose tackle Vince Crochunis. "The challenge is we have professional teams here in the city. We have the Pirates and Steelers. After our game against Rutgers, it was Pokey Reese Bobble Head night at PNC Park. It's hard to ask people to go from here to there and pay for two tickets. That's part of it. But I'll tell you the truth, I don't care if there's only 50 people watching me play. I'm still going to get psyched up if they're pulling for my team and me. I'll take what we get."

  • Notes : J.J. Horne moved from linebacker to strong safety to back up starter Ty Gilliard. Senior Shane Leichty, another backup at strong safety, has been hampered by a wrist injury. Linebacker Mike Jemison missed practice for undisclosed reasons. Tight end Darryl Weston was out with a headache.

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