Pirates and Port Authority: A Losing Duo

What do PAT and the Buccos have in common? No matter how much taxpayer money they have been given, they simply are not able to keep from falling into deeper and deeper holes.

The Pirates’ long, painful slide into being a major league laughingstock is well known. PAT’s long decline into financial ill-repute takes a little more digging to understand. For the Pirates years of mismanagement and poor judgment have produced the fiasco that portrays itself as a major league franchise. Port Authority’s troubles arise out of too much spending on projects that can never pay a return to taxpayers and collective bargaining agreements that have saddled the agency with employment costs and legacy cost that no private entity could hope to survive.

The Pirates promised that a new ballpark would end their financial and performance woes. The Port Authority thinks cutting service and laying off overpaid drivers will solve their problem. All they are doing is running a smaller, still very expensive system.

The question is; why do fans and taxpayers put up with the endless displays of incompetence?

Another Year, Another Weak Start for Pirates Attendance

Welcome to another installment of “Where are the fans?”   As we have reported in Policy Briefs or Blogs since 2007, Pittsburgh Pirates’ attendance languishes among the lowest in the league. Since 2007, attendance has ranked 28th out of 30 teams.  So far this season, attendance is still holding two spots above the worst level. Unless fireworks and special promotions over this summer boost attendance sharply from the current pace of 17,170 per game, the 2010 season will see only 1.4 million fans push through the turnstiles.  In previous years, there has been a pickup after school is out and game attendance gradually moved up to lift the season total to around 1.6 million. 



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Real Tragedy of Pirates Losing Season Record

Here’s where we rather impolitely say "told you so." Back during the debate over funding for new stadiums, we pointed out that Pittsburgh was a small market team with little television revenue and did not have a history of being a "baseball" town in the manner of St. Louis with its strong attendance record in the old Busch Stadium or, to a lesser extent, Cincinnati. Thus, we argued that a new ballpark in Pittsburgh would not end the Pirates’ weak attendance or generate significant gains in TV money. So, unless the team owners showed a willingness to roll the dice and spend a lot of money beyond the team’s near term earning potential, mediocrity or futility on the field would continue.

And as it turns out, that has been the result.

But what is worse, during the debate over spending hundreds of million in tax dollars for the new ballpark, we were told that great economic benefits would accrue to the region with stronger job and income gains. That claim turned out to be as fatuous as the assurance that the team would be pennant contenders in the new ballpark. Indeed, private sector jobs in the region are now 30,000 below their 2001 level. Jobs remained below the 2001 level until 2008 when they barely managed to struggle back to the seven year earlier reading.

So much for engendering economic dynamism in the region.

The City of Pittsburgh has been placed in distressed status by the state and remains a financial basket case because of legacy costs and overspending.

The real tragedy of the Pirates arises from the bill of goods taxpayers were sold and had rammed down their throats despite strong opposition by politicians and civic leaders who were certain the corporate welfare involved in keeping the Pirates would pay dividends for the City and region. The greatest irony is the Pirates had nowhere to go. There was no place other than Washington, D.C. big enough to support a major league franchise. And the Orioles were successfully blocking any team moving there. Only years later after Montreal collapsed did Major League Baseball overcome that resistance.

In sum, taxpayers ended up paying for a new ballpark under false pretenses and have received none of the promised returns on their investment. Can public policy be any worse?

Forget Baseball, Go with Fireworks

An attempt at a positive spin on what will be the Pittsburgh Pirates’ seventeenth consecutive losing season-the longest in major professional sports history-is that attendance is running slightly above last year’s level. A newspaper report notes that through 39 games in 2009, attendance is up 2.4 percent over last season and that Pittsburgh is only one of ten teams to have drawn more fans to date than last year. Overall, attendance across major league teams is down about six percent. But before we start singing "We Are Family", let’s take a more careful look at these figures.

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Will the RAD Board Sue the Pirates for Non-Performance?

Recall that back in 1998 and 1999 when the Plan B for the new Pirates ballpark was being assembled and sold to the legislature and the RAD Board, the mantra of the Pirates owners and their supporters was "give us a new ball park and we will put a competitive team on the field." Nine years into PNC Park it is clear the owners have no intention of living up to that promise. The team is well on the way to their 17th consecutive year with more losses than wins. This will set a new record for futility for any major professional sports franchise, surpassing the 16 season mark set by the Phillies decades ago.

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Pirates’ Attendance Two Leagues Down

Attendance at Pittsburgh Pirate home games has slipped to the lowest level among the 30 teams comprising the National and American Leagues. So far in 2009, home attendance is averaging around 15,600, well under the 17,000 plus average in Tampa Bay, which ranks as the second worst attendance. The Pirates are filling just 40 percent of the seats in the highly touted PNC Park that was supposed to attract 30,000 fans per game and provide the revenue to make the team competitive. What a bill of goods that was. The taxpayers will never get a positive return on their investment-an investment they did not want to make.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals who play in a similar sized market are drawing over 40,000 per game and in Milwaukee (a smaller metro area than Pittsburgh) the team is pulling over 36,000 per game.

What is the difference? Milwaukee has spent enough money to build a competitive team. St. Louis is simply a far better baseball town. Their attendance was over 40,000 per game for years even in the old Three Rivers Stadium look alike ballpark. Pittsburgh has not been a baseball town in the way St. Louis has been and the owners have chosen for years not to have the kind of payroll of teams who are perennially competitive.

All this was known at the time of the Plan B that sought and got approval for state funds and the allocation of RAD dollars to build PNC Park. The civic and political leadership wanted the new park and despite overwhelming opposition by the public went ahead with Plan B. Ten years later we are now wasting far more additional dollars putting in a subway so people can get to ball games. Preposterous does not begin to describe how wrongheaded these decisions were.