I want to preface this column by saying that I don’t really want to write this column. I’m paid to cover the team, and that’s what I’m best at. But it feels like in this moment, not talking about the elephant in the room is doing something of a disservice to what’s happening right now regarding the team.
I’m referring, of course, to the boycott that some fans are participating in when it comes to attending Pirates games.
The reason I think it’s important is a pretty simple one. The Pirates are a small-market team with revenues typically in the bottom third of the league They start every season far behind their division rivals in Chicago and St. Louis when it comes to their ability to spend money to put a team on the field. So any action that ends up hurting the Pirates bottom line will end up mattering to the team on the field.
Forbes Magazine came out with its annual evaluation of each MLB team’s finances on Wednesday and determined that the Pirates had an operating income of $35 million in 2017 — down $15 million from the 2016 season. That’s a trend that obviously doesn’t have a lot more room to give. So if a fan boycott put a dent in the Pirates’ bottom line, it could end up having a big impact on how much the team is able to spend in the future.
First, let’s talk about exactly what sort of impact, if any, the protest has had.
Anecdotally, there was plenty of angst on social media over the offseason, as the Pirates traded Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, cut payroll by close to $20 million and appeared to lack a cohesive direction.
Empirically, over 60,000 people signed a change.org petition that hoped to force Pirates owner Bob Nutting to sell the team and attendance through the first six home games has declined.
Of course, there are many reasons for the downturn in attendance. The weather, even for Pittsburgh in April, has been unseasonably poor. There is a league-wide trend of declining attendance that has been going on for quite some time. There’s also the fact that the Pirates are one more season away from their last playoff berth, so there was bound to be some decline from 2017 to 2018.
Through six home games, the Pirates have sold 96,805 tickets for an average of 16,134 fans per game. A year ago, the Pirates also had a six-game first homestand, and they drew 142,571 fans for an average of 23,761 per game.
The weather is a largely unquantifiable factor, at least until things warm up. But we can attempt to judge what the standard downturn would be following two years of losing after a playoff appearance. The last time that happened in Pittsburgh, the Pirates made the playoffs in 1992 and missed in 1993 and 1994. In the first six games of 1994, the team drew 109,159. The following year, in the beginning of the third year following their last playoff berth, they drew 103,335 — a decrease of 5.3 percent.
If the Pirates assumed the same decrease from 2017 to 2018, the six-game attendance figure would be 135,158. So, while being unable to control for the weather, the Pirates have drawn 38,353 fewer fans than they should have been able to expect thus far this season.
The most-recent figure for the average price of a Pirates ticket is from 2016, when they averaged just a hair under $30 per game. I don’t believe they’ve increased their ticket prices since then, so let’s go with that number.
With that math, the combination of the weather and more-than-usual fan dissatisfaction has cost the Pirates $1.15 million over six games. Of course, that’s just ticket sales. There’s merchandise, food and beverage sales to consider, but there’s no need to get too far into the weeds. Even to a billionaire, that’s a lot of money. The Pirates cut Juan Nicasio last season to save nearly half that.
If that trend carried out throughout the rest of the season, it would end up costing the Pirates nearly $15 million. To offset that, the Pirates would have to take two of the seven highest-paid players off the roster — say, Josh Harrison and Sean Rodriguez or Starling Marte and Corey Dickerson.
But I’m pretty skeptical of that trend carrying out. First of all, it’s not going to continue to be 40 degrees, raining and miserable for very long, and if it is, I’m going to request a permanent transfer to Bradenton and let this team be someone else’s problem. [EDITOR’S NOTE: You don’t know miserable until you’ve covered a GCL game at noon when it’s 95 degrees with about 200% humidity, and then get caught in a downpour right at the end of the game, which only makes it more humid 30 minutes later. But yeah, I’d still take that over snow.]
Second of all, it’s hard to maintain momentum on a protest. Most of the time, there’s a lot of momentum at the beginning because people are angry about something. It’s easy to turn that emotion into action. But it’s hard to stay that angry for long.
Thirdly, the team’s 8-2 start to the season already has many fans changing their mind about the way the offseason went down.
Has the team’s 8-2 start changed your outlook for the 2018 season?
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) April 11, 2018
As Matt Gajtka wrote last week, the Pirates had a unique opportunity to take advantage of a quirk of the calendar when they were essentially the only game in town for a week as the Penguins wound down their regular season and awaited their playoff fate.
It’s hard to argue that the Pirates could have done any more over the first 10 games to re-endear themselves to the populace. Newcomers Corey Dickerson, Michael Feliz, and Colin Moran have looked the part in important rules. Returning players that needed to have better seasons like Francisco Cervelli, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco are doing so — and they seem to be having fun doing it.
— Cannonball Corner (@CannonballCrner) April 10, 2018
As the Stanley Cup playoffs begin on Wednesday night, the attention of the Pittsburgh faithful — not to mention a good portion of the media — will turn to the ice. If the last two seasons are any indication, that could last a while.
If when fans tune back into baseball, the Pirates are still in a strong position in the National League Central, thoughts of a boycott are going to be far at the back of most people’s minds.