There’s no disputing the Pittsburgh Pirates have activated their long-dormant fanbase in 2013. Jolly Rogers are flying high throughout the Tri-State Area - to say nothing of PNC Park and any MLB stadium the Bucs happen to be visiting.
Speaking of PNC, after attendance gradually built in 2011 and 2012, the bleachers and box seats are nearly as full as they’ve ever been. With three home dates to go, the Pirates have already guaranteed the second-best attendance figure in franchise history, behind only the 2001 debut of their current North Shore home.
But is it good enough? Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett raised that question earlier this week after PNC Park drew a little more than 43,000 combined for the first two games of a series against the Padres:
Lots of empty seats. Lots!
— AJ Burnett (@wudeydo34) September 18, 2013
Some Pirates fans took offense to this tweet, although there were many others who vehemently agreed with Burnett. The fiery 36-year-old has developed a loyal following in Pittsburgh for his personality as much as for his rejuvenated career.
For what it’s worth, the final two games vs. San Diego drew larger crowds, including an announced 26,242 for Thursday’s 12:35 p.m. start. Did Burnett guilt more Bucs fans into buying tickets? Tough to say, as game-day sales are notoriously fickle.
The Pirates have drawn nearly 28,000 per home date this season. That raw number ranks 19th out of 30 teams, although they’re 15th by percentage of seats filled (72.5). Considering the level of fan alienation after 20 straight losing seasons and two consecutive late-season collapses, the Bucs have done quite well at the gate.
Comparatively speaking, Pirates partisans have been more than adequate. Recent crowds in Cleveland have struggled to top 10,000 despite the Indians taking part in a great wild-card race, while division-leading Oakland and contending Tampa Bay didn’t fare much better at the gate this week.
It’s easy to see why some might expect a packed house every night, but a quick look at MLB attendance figures reveals that the teams ahead of the Pirates in that category play in much bigger markets, have a strong recent tradition of winning, or both. Considering the size of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area and what this fan base has gone through, it’s not reasonable to expect much more.
After this year’s success and an expected boost in season-ticket sales, the Pirates are a near lock to set a new franchise attendance record in 2014. It’s guaranteed we’ll see nearly 40,000 for each of the coming three games against the Reds, as PNC Park hasn’t seen a weekend crowd under 35,000 since June 2.
The Bucs are in the midst of a remarkably tight battle for the National League Central with nine games to play. They are one game ahead of Cincinnati for the top wild-card spot and one behind St. Louis for the division lead. These are the best of times, so let’s leave the attendance concerns for another day.
Pirates fans have done their part, and now it’s the team’s turn to cap what’s been a wonderful return to impactful big-league baseball in Pittsburgh. The spectators will be doing what they do best: watching, and in large numbers.