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Monday November 28 2022
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White Elephant at Highmark Stadium

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John Krysinsky on the Pittsburgh Riverhounds

There's a popular Twitter account out there called Empty Seats Galore. The Riverhounds had better hope shots from Highmark Stadium don't become regularly shown on this account.

Yes, what I am talking about here is the white elephant at Highmark Stadium through three games thus far this season.

Lots of empty seats.

It makes you wonder, where are the fans? After three home games, the Riverhounds are averaging 1,838 fans per game.

Opening night – the first regular season game ever played at Highmark in March - it was 22 degrees at kickoff and dipped into the teens once the game began. Okay – chalk it up that was good enough reason to keep many casual fans away.

Week two, April 4, it was about 25 degrees warmer, but still pretty chilly, the night before Easter, Passover week, etc. As I looked around, at scattering of fans in the stands and made a remark to another member of the media about the poor turnout, and he said he didn’t think it was too much of a concern, because it’s still early in the season.

Okay I figured, I would wait and see how this progresses. 

By Sunday, being the third home game, the weather was significantly better (sunny and mid 60s at kickoff), and even with a 3 p.m. kickoff -- there were still a lot of empty seats.

The one excuse -- that may be somewhat plausible -- was that the Pirates were playing a home game at the same time. But even then, the previous two years, the Riverhounds have put more people in the seats when they were up against both Pirates and a playoff Penguins home games.

Is it time to be concerned?

Just the day before, there was a standing room only crowd (reports were over 5,200+ jammed into facility to watch the Pitt Blue-Gold scrimmage.

No such luck for the soccer landlords of Highmark Stadium this year.

But, hey -- at least they are finding other ways to fill the seats and generate revenue.

Speaking with Riverhounds President Richard Nightingale briefly on Sunday before the game, he remained pretty optimistic, and was excited not only about the rest of the season, but the packed stadium the day before – and the concert series that will be coming to Highmark Stadium in the coming months. The Steve Miller Band will be the first live musical act in June, with REO Speedwagon, and a number of other acts to follow as they will be working with concert promoter Rich Engler.

Taking a closer look at the team's attendance history -- they had a very nice push their first three seasons at Bethel Park High School in 1999-2001 – drawing 4,178, 3,808 and 3,226. But from that point, until their inaugural season at Highmark Stadium in 2013, attendance declined steadily.

Then in 2013, the team experienced their first season drawing over 3,000 fans per game. The numbers since then have slowly dragged, dropping to 2,686 in 2014, and now a very sluggish start in 2015.

Some signs can be pointed toward the organization’s limited marketing budget and smaller staff at the moment in the wake of their recovery from 2014 bankruptcy proceedings – that it will take some more time to bring fans back.

But it seems as it's more of the case of the novelty of the new stadium wearing off a bit as well, and now the real work begins for Nightingale and his small, crack staff to get more people through the turnstiles to support the world's popular sport with more regularity. 

Here are some suggestions on how the Riverhounds can maybe get some “buzz” going to bring Pittsburgh’s casual sports fans out to Highmark:

1.Recognizable Star Players, "Name Brand" Teams
This is a tough one – especially this year with an influx of so many new, young players in the USL regular season but no real star players. Ryan Thompson seems to be emerging as a very exciting player in goal.

Maybe what they can do -- is make an effort to bring some soccer star power to Highmark Stadium.

A few ways to do this might include scheduling a friendly with a European based club training in the U.S. in July/August (as they did with Wigan FC two years ago) or try to book a future U.S. Women's National, or U-20 Men's team game here. It might also help to win a few games in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup -- with the potential of hosting a Major League Soccer team here in Pittsburgh in June or July.

2.Creative and Fun Promotions
Good soccer, with exciting young players alone won't do the trick. Like the good minor league baseball and hockey franchises that we’ve seen throughout the American sports landscape, the Riverhounds will have to make each game fun and promotions can’t be too stale or predictable. T-shirts and hats are nice, but they have to start thinking outside the bun with their promotions to get people excited about coming to Station Square. I am not calling for a disco-demolition or dollar-beer night, but they can make the games more fun.

3.Engage More Community Groups / Organizations
They need to work hard to work with community groups and organizations – to increase group ticket sales and give people reasons to enjoy soccer as a group outing. Obviously it starts with soccer leagues, clubs and building a better relationship with PA West Soccer would help (talk about another White Elephant in the room that's another topic for another day).

A lot of this is in the relationship building – and in Pittsburgh -- it's the type of town where that can be very important.

The Riverhounds should be working tirelessly to engage schools, community organizations – and even health and service providers to bring people to Highmark Stadium to watch soccer -- but also showcase and celebrate the community that we live in. You can never go wrong by providing a forum to celebrate many postive causes and things that are going on in our community. I am sure with limited staff right now, they are just not able to do this as effectively as they could be.

I've said this before, and I'll say it again. The Riverhounds supporters, The Steel Army would be incredible if they were even bigger. They are a fun group. They tailgate. They have songs. They have chants, bang drums, wave flags and bring around a giant picture of Fred Rogers to support their beloved Hounds.  

They seem to be optimistic that there membership numbers are up this year -- but if the Army can get bigger -- it will only help with ticket sales.

4. Winning Helps
Pittsburghers love winners, and while that will be one of the things that Nightingale and the Hounds will be banking on to spur long-term, and continued interest. The anticipation of a playoff game at Highmark Stadium will be a nice reward and could be something Pittsburgh fans might catch on to.

But even that doesn’t always result in automatic ticket sales boosts, especially for second- level pro sports teams.

The Pittsburgh Power are a prime example, the Arena Football franchise found themselves having their best season in 2014, but by season’s end had to fold as they couldn’t keep up with costs to run the team, pay salaries, etc.
You can find more Riverhounds and Pittsburgh soccer coverage by John Krysinsky, on twitter @johnkrysinsky and on his blog at www.pittsburghsoccerreport.com 

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