Since Heinz Field opened in 2001, the goal of every Pitt Athletic Director has been the same:
Fill the seats for the Panthers’ home games.
But what Steve Pederson and Jeff Long and Steve Pederson again and Scott Barnes have found out is that Pitt has unique challenges - challenges that make filling those seats difficult, even when the team excels on the field.
Pitt is an urban school sharing the local spotlight with three pro sports teams, including two that rank among the most popular franchises in their respective sports. That combination makes things complicated when it comes to generating interest and boosting attendance, and those complications require unique styles of thinking and creative approaches to solving the problem.
Now Heather Lyke is bringing her own perspective to that challenge, and she comes to it with a rather unique background that just might be ideal for the job.
Sure, Lyke learned the business of college athletics at Ohio State, where football is king and literally the biggest game in town. But her experience in the position of athletic director came over the last three years at Eastern Michigan, a school with some parallels that might just be relevant for Pitt.
EMU is located in Ypsilanti, Mich., about 40 miles away from Detroit, so it’s not quite an urban campus but not totally removed from the metro area. More importantly, though, EMU’s campus is 14 miles from the University of Michigan, and the Big House casts a long shadow.
Working in that shadow, though, Lyke created something. A decaying football program found itself in a bowl game for the first time in 29 years under the direction of head coach Chris Creighton, who was one of Lyke’s first hires. And her initiatives resulted in a doubling of season-ticket holders over her three years with the Eagles.
Pitt doesn’t have a perfect parallel for the “in extremis” nature of EMU’s athletics, but there are scaled similarities. The Panthers appear to be on the upswing with the football program, but attendance and local attention still lag, largely due to the presence of the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates. As Athletic Director, Lyke will have to find a way to bring Pitt out of the shadow, at least enough to get the numbers up, and she recognizes how significant that task is.
“The challenge of being in Pittsburgh in a professional market and trying to develop a strong identity is incredibly important,” Lyke said at her introductory press conference on Monday. “I think it’s also important to develop a strong partnership with those professional organizations and I look forward to that. I see them as partners and an opportunity to connect and build relationships and find out and be innovative with them. Find out what they’re doing and what is working and study that and build upon that. We’ll have to analyze it and find out how does it fit for the University of Pittsburgh and our football program, but there’s a whole lot of good ideas, they do some tremendous things and I think we can learn and work together on some creative ways to do things and innovative ways to do things different.
“The experience of coming to Heinz Field for a University of Pittsburgh football game should be unique and remarkable, so we’ve got to work hand-in-hand and recognize what they’re doing and how do we build from that, and we’ve got to develop our own identity as well.”
Lyke’s new boss said those goals - making Pitt relevant in the city of Pittsburgh and filling Heinz Field - were key discussion points in the interviews for the athletic director position.
“It’s a vital issue for our success, right? Both from the business side and also from the success of our sports programs,” Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said Monday. “Every coach will tell you - I’ve heard it from Coach (Pat) Narduzzi, I’ve heard it from Kevin (Stallings), Suzie (McConnell-Serio) - when those stands are full, our teams play better and our program does better. So it was a big part of the interview process: I wanted to know how candidates thought about this issue. We have unique aspects in the Pittsburgh market; a community that expects to win and is used to seeing winning teams on the field. And also changes nationally in how people are consuming sports and looking at sports, and we’ve seen those trends in attendance.
“What impressed me about Heather wasn’t that she had the answer - I think this is going to be an experimental science; we’re going to try things - but she was a real innovator and was really excited about taking a look at the things we can do to create that unique and special fan experience that you couldn’t get anywhere else unless you came to the game. We’ll just keep working that until we get it right. Like I said, it’s vital to our success.”