Pirates fans will protest at tonight’s game. Ownership is the root cause.
Fifteen years of futility in the standings would be bad enough for Pirates fans. But when you couple the futility with a clear ownership direction that is based on making the most out of a diminishing product, it’s enough to make them want to protest.
That is what will happen at tonight’s game at PNC Park against the Washington Nationals, when a group of fans led by businessman Andy Chomos of Wexford, Pa, will get up in the third inning, and walk out onto the concourse with the hope that they will leave a sea of empty seats that represents ownership’s broken promises.
Fans are being asked to wear green representing the lack of financial backing for on-the-field talent that ownership has not provided over the course of their tenure, and during the time that fans are not in their seats, they are urged to not spend a cent on concessions or merchandise.
"I appreciate the passion of all of our fans and their frustration with the team's performance," Bob Nutting said Friday in a team-issued statement. "Frankly, we all share in this frustration. Everyone throughout the organization understands the expectation and needs to perform."
If only we could believe that.
The Nutting family and Kevin McClatchy might have been believed with this statement if it weren’t for the fact this rhetoric has been rolled out by them since Day One, and never backed by action. The adage, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” seem applicable. Fans aren’t buying the stink that the Pirates are shoveling anymore.
Case in point today.
While the statement said one thing, the actions clearly point to an ownership group that isn’t interested in being held personally accountable for the discontent they’ve created. Comments on the pirates.com message board about the protest were deleted, and they have asked their television announcing crew not to say anything about the matter.
The statement should have read, "Frankly, we all share in this frustration [of you fans all questioning our lack of business sense].”
Here’s the Pirates business model in a nutshell:
Spend enough to field a team just above a replacement level. That will allow us to continue to reap millions through revenue sharing. We won’t draw fans, but since our operating expenses are so slim, we’ll make a fair profit.
To prove it, we’ll keep a GM in place who year after year can’t seem to procure undervalued talent, or develop it.
To prove it further, when we get the All-Star Game, instead of reinvesting the added revenues that come with hosting the game, we’ll pay down debt — some of it based on stadium cost overruns and capital improvements, which will then increase the value of the franchise — a stadium, mind you, that we told the public that they had to pay the lion’s share for so that we could gain the revenues necessary to compete.
With that, we can cash in when we sell it.
To really drive home the point, we’ll publicly say that we made a modest profit along the way.
Makes one want protest, right?
But, here’s the rub… the protest is probably not going to be effective, nor will it likely resonate with ownership. As I replied to Jake at the Bucco Blog on Monday:
"Protesting, while a sign of solidarity and something that shows the level of frustration that the current Pirates ownership has rightfully driven its core constituency to, it is, none the less, a fruitless endeavor. If the Pirates ownership has been unwilling to right their own ship after all these years of poor returns on the field, I doubt anything short of a citywide protest will register to the point of action on their part."
The question becomes, are the Pirates not pulling in decent revenues to compete based on unsound business practices, or whether it is a case of being fully constrained by the Pittsburgh market? History seems to point to the former rather than the latter.
For one thing, this is the NL Central, a weak division that sees Mark Attanasio and the Milwaukee Brewers making Bob Nutting and Kevin McClatchy look silly as they sit in first place in the standings, are watching record numbers through the turnstiles, and are becoming darlings throughout the nation for their underdog appeal.
When you apply numbers to the situation, the Pirates ownership looks worse still:
- The Pirates opening day payroll: $38,604,500 (27th in the league, a decrease of $8,113,250 from the year prior)
- Revenue sharing received by the Pirates in 2006: $25 million
- Pittsburgh population (based on the last census): 2,358,695
- The Brewers opening day payroll: $71,986,500 (18th in the league, an increase of $14,418,167 from the year prior)
- Revenue sharing received by the Brewers in 2006: $24 million
- Milwaukee population (based on the last census): 1,689,572
This is about accountability. The Nuttings and McClatchy can’t apply the business standards that they use to run publishing companies to a baseball team. It’s a different business model entirely.
Maybe this is about collecting a payoff in the end. As mentioned, if the debt is paid down, the franchise valuation increases. Certainly PNC Park is a jewel, and there are enough passionate would-be owners out there to gin up the price further. Could it be that ownership is doing what it’s supposed to do? Make money for its shareholders when the time comes to sell?
While this makes sense for the current owners, we’re nearing a stage where they could be salting the earth in Pittsburgh. That’s not good for MLB, and it certainly isn’t good for the great fans of the Pirates.
So, tonight, the print and alternative media will have to report on the fan protest since the Pirates are looking to gag the media they do control. Meanwhile, late at night after the fans have left PNC Park, the sweeping you hear won’t be just from janitors cleaning up spilled popcorn and peanuts… it will also be the Nuttings and McClatchy working to sweep the protest under the carpet.
Maury Brown is the founder and president of The Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball and The Biz of Football. He is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and can be contacted here.