Is Pitt an Unfortunate Casualty In A Pro Town Like Pittsburgh?

So I was having a discussion with a friend the other day about Pitt and our mutual love for the Athletic programs there.   We went fairly deep into conversation when a topic  popped out  that was worth digging deeper into.  Is Pitt’s athletic programs an unfortunate Casualty in a Pro Town like Pittsburgh?

For those wondering what I meant by that question, I will explain because this onion has many folds.

First off, when your University plays major college football in the same city as the Pittsburgh Steelers, your already taking a big back seat.  The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most popular NFL Franchises, if not one of the most popular in all the major sports.   They are also an expensive ticket locally.  The cost may not be as much as it is in other large cities, but locally, it is a costly ticket.

Let’s couple that with the fact Pitt Football and Basketball share seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Pittsburgh Pirates.  And although the Pirates have not won a World Series recently they are more than relevent right now. The Pens have won 4 Stanley Cups since 1990 and has possessed 3 or 4 of the greatest players in Hockey History in Mario, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  Not to mention Ron Frances and … okay you get the point.

The Pirates were dormant for 20 years, then woke up with a vengeance in the last 5 years with 3 trips into the playoffs and possessing some of the games best players including a recent MVP in Andrew McCutchen. Regardless where they were prior, they are right back in the public eye in this region.

Then, there is the University of Pittsburgh and their sports programs.  The College teams are judged in the same way from the local fans perspective as the pro teams.  If they are not contending for Championships of some sort, the local fan base screams from the highest mountain top that their needs to be new leadership, coaches, or recruiting stinks, etc.  This beast is also fed by  the local media.  The local papers and news outlets are as hard on that University’s Athletic programs as any in the country.

Pittsburgh is the 23rd largest media market in the country according to Neilson ratings.  And you may say, what does that have to do with this conversation. Let me  explain.

When you look at the Cities ahead of them and just behind them in the rankings, that house not only Major College Sports but Professional teams, most of the Universities suffer the same issues.

Here is a sample list.

L.A. – 2nd
Boston – 8th
Houston – 10th
Phoenix – 12th
Minneapolis – 15th
Miami – 16th
Pittsburgh – 23rd
Columbus – 31st

If you look at that list, you can probably figure out where I am going with this. Let’s break it down a bit.

Los Angeles is a gigantic city that can support both college and pro teams alike with 10 million + people.  They  are one of the Unicorns in this list.  And it is only the case because of the population of the city and how large the Universities are there.

Boston is much larger than Pittsburgh, but Boston College suffers in a very similar way that Pitt does. It fights for local coverage and if they are not relevant, they get destroyed or worse yet, ignored by the local media.

The City of Houston (Texas)is similar size (population wise) as the Pittsburgh/Western PA region. The difference is that the University of Houston plays in a non power five conference so the comparison is not as compelling. But if you follow Cougar football you know, when they are winning the stadium is full. When they are not relevant the stadium is not even close to full.

Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the country with just under 1.6 million. It has 4.3 million combined in the surrounding area. Compare that to the City of Pittsburgh that has 305k. The surrounding region along with the City puts the population around 2 million as we stated earlier.  ASU is in Tempe which is not far from Phoenix.  It has an enrollement of 71k and is supported when winning only.

I’ll cover one more and that is Columbus Ohio. They have one major sports team and that is an NHL team. The population is 850k in the city with a total of 2.4 million including surrounding area. We all know that the Buckeyes rule that region.  The Blue Jackets Hockey team came much later and in it’s entire existence has only seen the playoffs a couple of times.

If you look at each of the Cities that house both Multiple pro teams and College teams, Very few of the College programs make a dent in the local coverage if they do not win. That is just a fact. Miami is an interesting City when you consider that the “U” during it’s hay day was the big game in town. The Dolphins actually took a back seat. Now, Miami University struggles terribly with attendance regardless if they win or not.

What makes the University of Pittsburgh even more unique is it’s relative proximity to both Penn State and WVU. Penn State is the State of Pennsylvania’s largest institution.  Main campus has over 50K kids and all of their campuses combined have just under 100k students.  WVU, is smaller than Pitt, but is the State of West Virginia’s largest University in it’s largest city of 50k people. It is a true, small town, college town. Penn state graduates nearly as many people every year as Pitt has in it’s under grad program.

Locally Pitt Get’s hammered by the major media outlets when they lose.  What is worse is the discussion about attendance. I think they are treated unmercifully in some cases. Even when the football team is winning or playing well, if the attendance does not match that success then the lead story is attendance and not the winning. I am not naive  in the fact that negative media drives sales. But in this case I think it is driven by the fact that this is a major sports market. I think the Local University is held to the same standard as it’s professional neighbors.

The unfortunate piece of that standard is the fact that they forget that these are kids playing the games.  They hold these kids individually to the same  standard as their pro counterpart. I do not mean that Nate Peterman is compared to Ben Roethlisberger with regards to talent.  But he or any other Pitt QB is as harshly judged and commented on as his pro counterpart. I think that goes for most of the positions.

And now that the men’s Basketball team has hit upon some hard times, they are getting more than their fair share of negative press.

The Athletic programs with regards to coaching have been characterized as “Pitt Stops” or even a conveyor belt of talent rolling out of the area, etc.  We even heard words like Embarrassment.

But it is not all bad.

The Panthers and the Steelers share a facility so the kids get to be around those Pro’s on occasion. That is enticing and something that can be cherished and sold as such.

How can the problems be fixed or What can be done you ask? Nothing. When Pitt’s football team plays for championships (ACC or National), the fans will return. And the second they stop contending, the fans will leave. AS for the Basketball team, once some positivity returns to the program I can see them bouncing back quickly because of it’s recent success.  It is only a 10k seat arena. It’s not like trying to fill a 66K seat stadium, which is something the Steelers do not do every week. Although we know the tickets are sold, they only had 62k in the stadium for a playoff game.

After Pitt Knocked off 2nd ranked Clemson, the local media crushed them and the fan base for the turnout for the Duke game the following week. The fact is, even beating Clemson, the Panthers had nothing to play for but an 8-4 record. No championship or playoff birth was at stake. That is why the fans did not come out. That win though will help attendance early next season when the team gets a clean slate and a chance to play for an ACC Championship.

This is a problem that will never go away. I just wish the overly negative and antagonistic coverage would disappear. I guess I can always hope.


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