Pittsburgh Pirate Ownership’s Backwards Business Model

Normally, the first articles to seep out of a team’s spring training facility are the sort of “Rah rah go team!” feel good stories you’ve come to expect after not having baseball for over four months. At this point, any unbridled optimism is usually embraced. But some of the first words out of Pittsburgh Pirates’ President Frank Coonelly once again reinforced that ownership has little understanding of what it takes to build a successful franchise.

In a February 21st interview with Kevin Creagh of Pirates Prospects, Coonelly mentioned the following when asked if the Pirates could support a $70-80 million dollar payroll (which would still only place them 18th highest in MLB at most):

“Today, no but we will be able to support that payroll very soon if our fans believe that we now have a group of players in Pittsburgh and on its way here in the near future that is competitive. We need to take a meaningful step forward in terms of attendance to reach that payroll number while continuing to invest heavily in our future but I am convinced that the attendance will move quickly once we convince our fans that we are on the right track.”

(Bold not in original)

Sadly, Coonelly does not place the immediate onus on the Pirates themselves to build a better, more competitive team that fans would WANT to see. Rather- as has been a consistent message from Pirates’ ownership- they desire to see a significant increase in attendance PRIOR to the team actually getting good! It’s maddening. From a purely business perspective, it is a backwards approach. You could liken it to a car company telling its customers:

“We really want to build better cars for you. But before we do, we need you to start buying our lower-quality, underperforming cars in a much higher volume.”

While many aspects of running a multi-million dollar business are highly complex, appeasing a fan base is not. Offer them a consistently competitive team, and they will show up in droves. Bobbleheads and fireworks only mask an inferior on-the-field product for so long. The Pirates were provided a jewel of a stadium in PNC Park that was almost entirely publicly financed. They are handed tens of millions of dollars every year in MLB revenue sharing and the MLB TV contract- to the point that it could cover their ENTIRE payroll most years! (More on those numbers in a future article.)

Finally, the Pirates are blessed with a dedicated, hungry fanbase that currently has two of the longer consecutive sellout streaks in the NFL (Steelers) and NHL (Penguins). The difference is that the Steelers and Penguins knew they had to improve their teams FIRST, before they could expect an increase in attendance.

Frank Coonelly and the Pirates’ ownership has put the proverbial cart before the horse. After 18 straight losing seasons, they should be simply appreciative that fans show up at all. The team STILL averaged almost 20,000 paying customers a game, so clearly the hunger for a winner burns strong in the hearts of fans.

But at this point, it’s up to the Pirates’ ownership to provide it, and the current group is mired in a slump that would have most players demoted to the bench.

Jim Krug

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