Pittsburgh's New No.
Hockey Overtakes Baseball
By Robert Edward Healy, III
When did July and August start becoming part of hockey's preseason
the same time that May became hockey's postseason again and August
routinely became the de facto end of baseball season.
Save for 1997, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been realistically
out of Major League Baseball's playoff picture by the start of
every August since 1992?the last of the team's winning seasons.
Many Buccos fans have hung in with the team every year in the
hope that the losing will finally end. But casual Pirates fans,
including younger ones that have never seen a winning version
of the team, have all but completely lost interest.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, young Pittsburgh sports fans
were still attracted to baseball. Their parents had told them
of the Pirates' world championship teams from the 1970s, and PNC
Park was set to be the home of the next championship club. More
importantly though, young people then still remembered for themselves
seeing a winning team in Pittsburgh, or at least, had heard of
Many fans remember the Pirates' three straight National League
East championship teams from 1990-92. Back then, Barry Bonds was
your hero, Doug Drabek was an ace and R.J. Reynolds, at least
to Pittsburghers, was an outfielder, not a tobacco company.
Today, it really does take a pack of cigarettes to get through
a Pirates game, let alone an entire season.
For those that still care, the Pirates are nearing the end of
their 15th consecutive losing campaign. MLB's financial structure
and Pirates players, coaches and management have all been blamed
for the team's failures, but to this day, the reason, or reasons,
are anything but clear.
However, this much is crystal: Baseball is no longer Pittsburgh's
No. 2 sport.
Football, of course, is No. 1 and has been in Pittsburgh since,
most likely, around the mid-1970s. The high school and college
games are much too strong here to convince someone otherwise,
not to mention that a non-packed house for a Pittsburgh Steelers
game at Heinz Field is more rare than a new Steelers head coach.
Winning four Super Bowls in six years-and five overall-will have
When young people gain interest in a sport, the aftershocks
reverberate through generations. Parents pass the interest of
the particular sport along to their children who pass along it
to their children, et cetera.
The Pirates' main problem is that they have essentially lost
a generation of fans. Young adults are sparse at Pirates games
now, meaning that, soon, even children-long an established fan
base for baseball teams everywhere-will stop coming because young
adults-turned-parents will take their children elsewhere.
As Bob Smizik wrote in a July 13 column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,
"When readers e-mail [the paper] to express their complaints about
the Pirates, invariably, they talk about how long they've been
a fan, and it's not 10 years or even 15. They talk about the first
time they went to a game, and it's not 1995 or even 1985. They
talk about their heroes growing up, and it's not Brian Giles or
even Andy Van Slyke.
"The Pirates are serving an older demographic."
But the rationale for deeming baseball as no longer Pittsburgh's
No. 2 sport is incomplete without naming its successor.
Do we even have to do this?
Officially, the answer is hockey, in all of its deck, roller
and ice glory.
Have you noticed that the Post-Gazette recently swapped the
Pittsburgh Penguins with the Pirates on its web site's sports
page hierarchy? That may be a small change, but it signals a cultural
shift in Pittsburgh's priorities regarding sports.
Better yet, have you noticed a lot more kids playing street
hockey these days than, say, wiffleball?
It's just a fact that the effects of the Mario Lemieux era are
still being felt in Pittsburgh. You could count on one hand the
number of ice arenas around town before Lemieux was drafted by
the Penguins in 1984. Nowadays, they're everywhere, and it's still
hard to get ice time.
Youth hockey participation in Pittsburgh has skyrocketed since
Lemieux led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships
in 1991 and '92.
A Pittsburgh area-trained athlete had never played in the National
Hockey League before Ryan Malone, of Upper St. Clair, made his
debut in 2003 for… the Penguins.
R.J. Umberger, of Plum, debuted for the Philadelphia Flyers
in 2005, John Zeiler, of Thomas Jefferson, debuted this year for
the Los Angeles Kings and now, another Pittsburgher is seemingly
drafted by an NHL team every year. In 2006, Mike Weber, of Seneca
Valley, was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres, and this year, C.J.
Severyn, of Beaver, was drafted by the Calgary Flames.
These are just a few examples of the growing strength of high
school hockey in western Pennsylvania. Add to that the addition
of men's and women's NCAA Division I ice hockey at local Robert
Morris University, and you can see the game continuing to grow
here among young people, of either sex, participation-wise.
Spectator-wise, the "Student Rush" lines last year at Penguins
games spoke for itself.
As Smizik said in the aforementioned column, "The Penguins are
gobbling up the younger demographic."
Young people flock to Mellon Arena; that is, when they're not
watching hockey on TV. Pittsburgh is one of the NHL's few bright
spots when it comes to TV ratings. The 2007 NHL All-Star Game
was the highest-rated cable show in Pittsburgh the night that
it aired, and although Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh will not reveal
Penguins games' season-long ratings, indications are that they
are in the upper echelon of the NHL.
It's hard to imagine things getting better for the Penguins,
but they almost certainly will. Sidney Crosby, the new face of
Pittsburgh sports and the best hockey player in the world, recently
signed a long-term contract extension to stay with the team. And,
lest we forget, a new arena is coming to Pittsburgh that will
be the Penguins' new home.
None of this is to suggest that hockey is threatening to become
Pittsburgh's No. 1 sport. Western Pennsylvania is the birthplace
of professional football, and there are high school football teams
in this area that could give some small college clubs a run for
their money. Football here is an institution, and it's unlikely
to fall from the throne that it sits on atop Pittsburgh anytime
But baseball now sits on a stool, at best.
It's September, and fans in many baseball cities are checking
the MLB standings everyday. In Pittsburgh, fans are checking out
the Penguins new web site.
There couldn't be a greater contrast of public sentiment toward
two teams either than there is now between the Pirates and the
Penguins. Pirates chairman Bob Nutting is metaphorically burned
in effigy everyday by talk radio call-ins, while the same callers
can't wait to build not only a new arena for Lemieux's Penguins
but also a statue for the man himself.
Let it be known, and make it official.
Introducing Pittsburgh's new No. 2 sport: Hockey.