Pittsburgh is a Small Market
The Steelers have won their sixth Super Bowl, despite playing in a “small market”.
What exactly is a “small market”? If we’re talking about city sizes, it could be a small town in Virginia with no high rises, and a relatively small population. If we’re talking sports teams, it’s still a gray matter. Pittsburgh is considered a small market in baseball, but some point to the success of the Steelers (two Super Bowls in the last four years) and Penguins (lost in the Stanley Cup finals last year) as proof that the Pirates are not a small market.
A day after the Steelers celebrate their second Super Bowl victory in four years, and NFL record sixth Super Bowl title, is it fair to say the Pirates are in a small market?
Let’s not confuse success in the NFL and NHL with market size. The difference between the NFL and NHL compared to baseball is huge. The NFL has a total revenue sharing plan, a salary cap and salary floor, and when you draft a player, you own the rights to that player, with no chance of that player threatening to go back to college.
Compare that to baseball where there is a limited revenue sharing plan, but none that stops teams like the Yankees from bringing in ten times as much as the Pirates. There are no salary caps or salary floors. In the 2007 season all of the NFL teams were separated by about $25 M in payroll. In the 2008 baseball season, the difference between the Marlins and Yankees was over $150 M. Baseball has an upper, middle, and lower class. Football has just one class.
In football, the only avenue in to the league is through the draft. There’s no chance of teams outbidding other teams for the rights to an international free agent. There’s no chance of a star prospect refusing to sign for a team, with the team at risk of losing that prospect, only for the prospect to be drafted by someone else the next season.
So as we celebrate a Steelers victory, let’s just point out what gives the Steelers their shot. The Steelers didn’t win because of their market size, no matter how big or small it may be. The Steelers won because the NFL is designed for every team to have a fair shot at winning, and with profits guaranteed, the only thing teams need to worry about is winning.
Baseball has limited revenue sharing, which means almost every team is going to profit, but only if they stick to their payroll ranges. The Pirates and Yankees can each show a profit, but the Yankees can spend four times as much as the Pirates and show a profit, while the Pirates would struggle to break even by spending a third of what the Yankees spend.
Some may point to other markets that are similar to the Pirates, like the Brewers and Reds, who sport payrolls that are nearly $30 M higher. Unfortunately, when comparing baseball teams, the size of the market doesn’t matter. What matters is the amount of people in that market that are willing to support the team.
In 2008 the Pirates drew 1.6 M fans. That same year the Brewers drew just over 3 M fans, and the Reds drew just over 2 M fans. The Pirates haven’t outdrawn the Brewers in the last eight seasons, and that includes the record setting 2001 season when PNC Park opened. The Brewers were losing their ninth season in a row in 2001, a streak just as bad as the Pirates. Milwaukee has two winning seasons the last two years, but they were out-drawing the Pirates before those seasons. 2001 was the only year in the last eight seasons that the Pirates out-drew the Reds. Granted, the Reds had winning seasons leading up to 2001, but haven’t posted a winning season since 2000.
Let’s assume that the average fan brings the Pirates $30 in profit per game. If the Pirates saw just half a million more fans, that would be an extra $15 M available each year. Imagine who the Pirates could pursue if they had an extra $15 M each season, especially this year when you could probably add Adam Dunn and Ben Sheets for that price.
But I don’t want to blame the Pirates’ lack of success on the fans. Despite what anyone else is doing, the fact remains that the Pirates have lost 16 years in a row, and that is going to have a big impact on attendance. That being said, what exactly could the Pirates look forward to with success? Milwaukee is arguably in a similar market as the Pirates. They have two winning seasons in a row, and their payroll is maxing out around $80 M. That’s higher than the Pirates, but still ranking in the second half in the league.
Milwaukee is coming off a huge season where they drew 3 M fans, and they can’t even afford to keep C.C. Sabathia or Ben Sheets. With almost half of that attendance, how would the Pirates be expected to keep guys like Jason Bay or Xavier Nady past free agency, or even Nate McLouth and Paul Maholm when the time comes.
Simply put, baseball is broken. The NFL is fair. The NHL has moved in that direction. Baseball is still in the dark ages. The best proof that Pittsburgh is a small market isn’t the Pirates. It’s the Penguins.
At the start of the decade we saw the Penguins near bankrupcy, trading away stars like Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev, Robert Lang, and Martin Straka, all because they couldn’t afford to keep those players. After the lockout, the NHL establishes revenue sharing, a salary cap, and a salary floor, and suddenly we’ve got a new Penguins team. They’re locking up young stars to long term contracts, they’re competing for the Stanley Cup, and they’re making a splash in the free agent market each season.
Pittsburgh is a small market. The Penguins and Steelers are successful because their leagues are designed to give every team, large and small market, a fair chance. The Pirates can’t be compared to those teams, simply because baseball is light years behind the NFL and NHL.
That being said, I’m not sure total revenue sharing, a salary cap, and a salary floor would have helped us during the Littlefield years, but at least we’d know that the poor decisions were 100% the problem.
So celebrate the Steelers victory, but don’t let the victory give you any false illusions on the chances of the Pirates. Pittsburgh is a small market, and baseball is not designed to give small market teams an equal chance like football and hockey. That means if the Pirates want to win, they have to play perfect. They can’t afford to have massive flaws, much like the Steelers quarterback protection problems and punting issues, and expect to compete in the lopsided league known as Major League Baseball.