The numbers beggared belief, but they were real.
According to reporting by Maury Brown of Forbes.com, of the 29 Major League Baseball franchises, the Pirates attracted the sixth-largest local cable rating for their games through the first half of the 2018 season.
I’ll say it again: The Pittsburgh Pirates, who until very recently were all but dead in the National League postseason hunt, are in the top echelon of MLB teams when it comes to TV ratings in the home market. (Twenty-nine teams are rated by Nielsen, with the Blue Jays excepted.)
To be exact, the Pirates drew a 5.01 local rating before the all-star break, which means that roughly 5 percent of households in the market are tuned to the Bucs on an average night. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but only the Cardinals (7.23), Indians (6.69), Red Sox (6.55), Brewers (5.51) and Royals (5.07) have a bigger TV hold on their respective regions.
Contrast that fact against the Pirates’ marked decline in attendance at PNC Park and you get a very interesting concoction. How can a team that has suffered the fourth-largest year-over-year drop in home attendance — down 6,723 per game — still be keeping fans’ attentions via the regional AT&T Sports Net station?
First of all, it’s helpful to consider that this isn’t some unicorn event. Over in the American League, the aforementioned Royals still have a healthy TV audience, even as they’re seeing about 6,500 fewer fans per night at Kauffman Stadium this year compared to last.
Of course, Kansas City boasted an outstanding 11.44 rating on Fox Sports Midwest just two years ago, so hanging in at 5.07 seems less impressive by comparison. The Pirates’ ratings have declined since 2016 as well, but it’s only about a two-point drop over two years.
In that context, what’s going on in Pittsburgh is rather remarkable. Yes, ratings are down a tick or two since the 2013-15 playoff years, but not nearly as much as the attendance has sunk. Focusing on the past 12 months, the TV ratings are essentially steady even as PNC Park’s lower bowl is much emptier than ever before.
So how is this possible? As I intimated on my River’s Edge talk show last week, it seems like the oft-referenced fan ‘boycott’ of the Pirates is very real in at least one sense. People aren’t handing money directly to the team via tickets and concessions; or, at least, they are handing over much less money than usual.
At the same time, it’s not as if fans are no longer paying attention to the Pirates at all, if Nielsen ratings numbers are to be believed. Sure, the raw number of households (57,000 on average) tuned in still ranks in the bottom half of MLB, but in the context of the Pittsburgh market, that’s an impressive number.
Pirates president Frank Coonelly noted the strong ratings to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently, and he’s not wrong to do so. It has to be a point of pride (or relief) over on Federal Street to know that the public hasn’t completely tuned the Pirates out in 2018, even if the team is taking a serious hit at the gate.
I’ve probably been guilty of being a little on the pessimistic side about the Pirates’ place in the Pittsburgh sports scene. Perhaps my perceptions have been colored by the mostly-negative commentary surrounding the team in both traditional and social media.
And yet, despite all the venom and rancor expressed toward the Pirates and their management, you’re still watching the games from afar. By and large, you haven’t thrown in the towel on Clint Hurdle’s boys.
I’m not entirely sure what I think that says about Pirates’ fans, though. Does it mean that some of you are loyal to a fault? Does it mean that some of you wanted to send a message? Does it mean that some of you simply enjoy baseball too much to quit the local team?
I suppose it can mean all of those things and more.
I’m fairly certain of one thing: Much like the team’s midseason surge has restored some optimism in this core group of ballplayers, the fact that most fans never truly turned their backs on the team reveals a silver lining around the darkest cloud of Pirates criticism in many years.
And, conveniently enough for Coonelly and Co., this comes just as the contract with AT&T Sports Net expires.