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Pirates find themselves in a tough market in '04

Joe Rutter
| Sunday, Aug. 31, 2003

The person on the Pirates payroll with the toughest job next season won't be general manager Dave Littlefield, who finally will have the financial flexibility he has sought for two seasons.

The toughest job won't go to manager Lloyd McClendon, either. Even though McClendon could field a team that has only two starters left from this year's opening day lineup, he'll have it easy compared to Mike Berry.

Berry is the man hired Friday to replace Vic Gregovits as the Pirates' vice president in charge of marketing and ticket sales.

Needless to say, Berry has his work cut out for him. How does he market and sell a product that, to the ticket-buying public, elicits thoughts and anger and -- worse -- apathy?

Fan frustration has reached a zenith this year, what with the negative reaction to the trades that have sent Mike Williams, Scott Sauerbeck, Jeff Suppan, Randall Simon, Aramis Ramirez, Brian Giles and Kenny Lofton out of town. Jason Kendall could be the next to go and, if Reggie Sanders and Matt Stairs aren't re-signed, the Pirates could have fewer recognizable faces than the Riverhounds in 2004.

The question is, what aspect of the product does Berry market to the ticket-buying public• The Pirates already made the ballpark the focal point of their marketing after the 100-loss season in 2001. They tried including the players in this year's "Come See Us Play" slogan, but, the theme should have been, "Come see us trade our veterans away."

Those two strategies are out and, seriously, how many times can you hang your hat on the Pirate Parrot or Pierogi Race as your most unobtrusive part of your product?

Selling the Pirates of 2004 will be harder than promoting Mike Tyson for the Father of the Year award. But here's a silly thought: try lowering ticket prices as a good-faith gesture to the fans. If you're going to go through growing pains on the field, don't make fans go into labor pains when they reach into their wallets to buy tickets.

The Pirates wisely did not raise ticket prices this year and even cut season-ticket buyers a $1 break across the board. That won't be good enough this winter. Cut the prices to all paying customers. You can still charge $5.50 for a beer and $6.50 for cheese fries. Just get the fans into the ballpark so they buy the overpriced beverage and food items.

Of course, that will be no easy feat. The few fans that aren't turned off by the slew of trades since July 20 have turned a deaf ear toward the Pirates. They've grown tired of listening to unfulfilled promises and expectations. No matter how often the Pirates preach patience and hope, these fans have sworn not to spend another dime on the product.

Getting them to come back is the challenge. Here's one way to start: be honest about the state of organization.

The problem stems not just from the product on the field and the string of consecutive losing seasons, it's from claims that the franchise is losing money in unfathomable quantities.

Before the Pirates lure back their fans, maybe they should adequately explain how they have lost $30 million in three seasons when they were only $1.2 million in the hole two years ago.

According to figures commissioner Bud Selig released in December 2001, the Pirates had $1.2 million in losses their first season inside PNC Park despite record-setting attendance. Factoring in debt and interest, that figure increased to $5.9 million. Owner Kevin McClatchy did not dispute those numbers then, and said last year, the Pirates lost "a little more" money than in 2001. When he made that statement, McClatchy was referring to the $1.2 million figure.

Now, all of a sudden, those three-year losses add up to $30 million• Who's responsible for this math, a former Enron accountant?

Explain how this is possible and maybe -- just maybe -- the Pirates can start regaining the trust of the fans. It's going to take a lot more than bobblehead promotions and fireworks nights for them to forgive and forget.

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