Pittsburgh Sports Report
September 2007

Pittsburgh's New No. 2
Hockey Overtakes Baseball
By Robert Edward Healy, III

When did July and August start becoming part of hockey's preseason around here?

Around 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 one.

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 that effect.

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.

See: Steelers.

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 soon.

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.

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