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Pirates

At PNC, attitude is wait and see

| Monday, April 8, 2002

In a day when new Major League Baseball parks are starting to resemble amusement parks -- complete with fireworks nights and pierogie races -- the best way to draw fans remains unchanged.

Put a winning team on the field.

The Pittsburgh Pirates will sell fewer tickets at PNC Park this year, if the sales at other recently opened ballparks are any indication. But just how much sales will slump will largely depend on how well the team plays. About 6,000 seats remain for this afternoon's home opener, and, as of last week, the team had not sold out a single game.

Season ticket sales at PNC Park were stuck at 10,000 on the last day of March. That's 7,072 fewer than last year, when a record 2.5 million fans came to watch the Pirates play. Or, as was more likely the case during last year's 100-loss season, to see PNC Park.

But now that the thrill of a new ballpark has worn off, the Pirates will need to start winning, or they will struggle at the box office, observers say.

"We had anticipated the decline, because that's what other clubs had told us they found in going from year one to year two," Pirates spokeswoman Patty Paytas said. "Then you add in the performance of the team, a bad economy -- which no one saw coming -- and there's your ticket sales drop off."

Also this year, the Pirates lost some support for parking advertising and public transportation for the new season. Last month, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority rejected the team's request to pay $20,000 to promote Downtown parking availability during games. Board members said they thought that visitors were aware of Downtown parking by now.

Around the same time, the Port Authority said it will eliminate its Downtown and suburban shuttle service to PNC Park because of low ridership. However, fans still can reach games through regular Port Authority bus routes.

Around the country, none of the eight teams that have opened new ballparks since 1997 have sold more tickets in the second season at their new home. But just how bad the second year drop off is varies and depends largely on the quality of play on the field.

The Houston Astros sold just 2,000 fewer tickets in 2001, their second year at Astros Field, than they did in 2000. The Detroit Tigers, meanwhile, saw ticket sales drop 32 percent between 2000 and 2001, their first and second seasons at Comerica Park. The Astros were National League Central Division Champions last year; the Tigers lost 96 games.

"Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your situation, your bottom line numbers are more closely related to how the team performs on the field," said John Hahn, a Tigers spokesman. "We believe that was the case here. We were 30 games under .500 last year, and we felt that number at the box office."

Hahn said the Tigers were optimistic this year. Season ticket renewals were at 80 percent last week and the team was hoping to boost single-game sales by lowering ticket prices. The team has also created a $5 seating section, and created $8 and $12 packages where fans get a ticket, hot dog, and Coke.

"It's a difficult economy that we're in. We saw the fans wanting a more affordable product, and we responded to that," Hahn said. "You have to work hard every single year to provide the best value to your fans."

The Pirates are putting a positive spin on passing the 10,000-season ticket mark for this year: Paytas noted that it was the fourth highest number of season tickets sold in team history. The team's "six pack" promotion, which offers fans tickets to six games, is selling well and group sales are up 11 percent from figures one year ago, she said.

"The park has more than delivered what we expected," Paytas said. "There's no question that people loved the park last year, and we're very sure they'll continue to love it in the future."

Paytas said the team is asking former season ticket holders why they did not renew this year. Most are citing the poor economy and the team's last place finish in 2001.

"But they're not telling us that they're not coming at all," Paytas said. "We think that's encouraging."

Matt O'Brokta of Mt. Lebanon said he has already bought tickets to 12 games this year. That's down from last year, when he went to 20 games, but O'Brokta said he plans to buy tickets to more games as the season progresses.

"I'm not one of these people who, if you lost 100 games, I wouldn't be here," O'Brokta said. "I'm a baseball fan. I root for the team no matter how bad they're doing. Plus, I love the park, too."

Mike Elizer, of Shaler Township, said he was using slow sales at PNC Park to snag tickets against top Major League teams, like the San Francisco Giants and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"I still think they have a two- or three-year window to put a good team on the field before the allure of PNC Park wears off," Elizer said. "If you look at Cleveland, they put a winning team together, and they still sell out. Then you look at Baltimore, and after a few years their sales weren't as good as they were when they first opened."

There are some exceptions to the second-season ticket sales slump.

Baltimore's Camden Yards was one of the first "new" ballparks and saw robust ticket sales for several seasons following its 1992 opening. The Cleveland Indians drew 2 million fans to Jacobs Field in 1994, their strike-shortened, 113-game inaugural season at the park. The following year, with a penant-contending team, the Indians drew 2.8 million to Jacobs Field. The 1995 season was shortened to 145 games after a lockout delayed the start of the season.

But nothing helps ticket sales like a winning team. The Arizona Diamondbacks saw sales slump 25 percent between 1998 and 1999, their first two seasons in Major League Baseball and at BankOne Ballpark. Last year, the team won the World Series. Single-game ticket sales for this season are up 70 percent from year-ago figures.

"The World Series definitely had an impact," said Dianne Aguilar, Diamondbacks vice president of ticket operations. "We were told that once you got in the World Series, you'd see a huge difference."

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