More than 38,000 fans packed PNC Park on Saturday to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates defeat the Milwaukee Brewers 2-1. It marked the eighth straight victory for the formerly dreadful Buccos. Equally important, it was the fifth straight home sellout for the Pirates, which represents the most consecutive sellouts since the $237 million stadium opened in 2001 (the team is trying to confirm that five straight sellouts were a first in the franchise’s 132 history).
The team fell just short of a sellout Sunday, no doubt hurt by the weather forecast, which led to a two hour-plus rain delay. But the Pirates notched another 2-1 win and have the sport’s best record, 51-30, at baseball’s halfway point. It is a new day in Pittsburgh with fans gobbling up tickets, soaring TV ratings and merchandise flying off the shelves.
The Pirates are one of baseball’s hallowed franchises. Their five World Series titles are seventh most all-time, as are their 10,012 victories, according to Baseball Reference. There are 41 Hall of Famers who have worn the black and gold, including Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Honus Wagner. They made “We Are Family” part of the baseball lexicon in 1979 while rocking their iconic striped caps.
The success carried into the early 1990s when the Pirates averaged 96 wins during three straight playoff appearances led by the best player in the sport, Barry Bonds. But Bonds left for free agent riches in San Francisco after the 1992 season and the Pirates have been a train wreck almost ever since.
The Pirates lost 57% of their games between 1993 and 2012 in a run of 20 straight losing seasons—a record run of futility amongst teams in the four major U.S. sports (the old record was 16 consecutive losing seasons by the Philadelphia Phillies). The team finished last in nine of those seasons and within 12 games of first place only once. Only the Kansas City Royals are in the midst of a longer postseason drought.
The team’s success on the field and off has been building for a couple of years. The Pirates started hot the past two seasons only to see second half fades on the diamond. But fans turned out with attendance up 30% between 2010 and 2012. Last year represented the second highest attendance in the franchise’s history with 2.1 million fans. This year is going to be better.
“With the club’s strong performance, (ticket) sales have picked up at a brisk pace the past two or three weeks,” says Pirates president Frank Coonelly. Sunday was the largest single day of ticket sales in the franchise’s history. Total tickets already sold for the season (including games still to be played) are up 11% versus last year. Per-game attendance is still running slightly behind last year, but Coonelly says that is a function of scheduling and the season starting on a Monday instead of near the weekend. Connelly expects final 2013 attendance to trail only 2001 when PNC opened and 2.4 million fans came through the turnstiles.
The team’s merchandise is red-hot as well. On Sunday, the Pirates were the No. 2 selling MLB team on Fanatics.com, one of the largest online retailers of officially licensed sports merchandise. Sales jumped more than 50% last week compared to the previous one, which was the biggest percent increase of any MLB team on Fanatics.com.
Majestic Athletic produces MLB’s authentic jerseys and Pirates’ threads are up 25% after a big jump last year. “Pittsburgh is a great sports apparel market and with the team's history, exciting young players and iconic branding, we expect Pirate sales to keep getting hotter," says Chuck Strom, who heads the MLB business at Majestic.
The Pirates split revenue with other clubs for merchandise sold outside the ballpark and team stores, but sales have been brisk locally as well. Other financial highlights: individual suite sales have picked up and Coonelly says 2013 will be a record year for sponsorship revenue led by corporate partners like HJ Heinz, Anheuser-Busch and Giant Eagle. PNC Financial is the biggest partner with a naming rights deal worth $30 million over 20 years.
The Pirates’ financial progress is a boon for baseball’s other 29 teams because the team has been a drain on the revenue sharing system collecting a check north of $30 million from baseball's fund for the last half-dozen years. The Pirates were criticized for keeping payroll low, while cashing revenue sharing checks, but the team poured money into amateur scouting and signing young talent. GM Neal Huntington spent an MLB high $48 million signing draft picks between 2008 and 2011. The club is bearing the fruits of that spending on players like Garrit Cole, who received an $8 million bonus as the top pick in 2011. Cole is the first Pirates pitcher in more than a century to win his first four career starts.
The team bumped its major league payroll $15 million this season to $67 million with the July 2012 trade for pitcher Wandy Rodriguez and free agent signing of catcher Russell Martin. The Pirates have received strong starting pitching this season from Jeff Locke, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano and the bullpen has been lights out with baseball’s lowest batting average against. The team’s ERA is the best in baseball at 3.11. The Bucs’ lineup is led by their young core trio of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte. All rank in the top 25 of the NL with on-base percentage plus slugging of more than .800.
Fifty wins does not guarantee a trip to the postseason. The first team to win 50 has failed to make the playoffs six times since 1969, according to Elias Sports Bureau (although two Wild Card berths give the Pirates a bit more leeway). Coonelly is well-aware of the swoons the last two years and is not printing playoff tickets yet. “We are looking to get better every day and finish strong,” he says.
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