As an average Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I attend or watch as many games as possible. This year and last season, attendance at football games has received a lot of attention. Televised viewership is reported to be declining. Many different reasons such as market saturation, streaming options undermining cable viewership, overall quality of the product including refereeing; injury concerns and politics (last year’s election & the this year’s anthem protests) are given on why the ratings plummet.
A New York Post article; National anthem protests aren’t the only thing killing NFL ratings by Richard Morgan mentions some of the factors. Morgan states that “TV viewership has tumbled 9 percent from a year ago, leaving the cumulative audience … through Week 16 down by more than 150 million viewers.” There is also the perception that attendance to games is also down.
In the past the NFL allowed teams to announce whatever attendance figures it chose. Most only announce tickets sold while the Steelers have traditionally announced actual attendance – tickets scanned (the old turnstile click count). A 2005 Los Angeles Times article by Bill Shaikin claims that the NFL issued a memo that year encouraging teams to only announce tickets sold. “When no-shows become a significant factor,” the memo read, “clubs should respond factually to inquiries from the media.” I don’t know if that is still the league policy but, if true, they are basically encouraging owners to deceive the public and fess up about actual attendance only if asked.
The Steelers and the New York Giants are the only NFL teams that announce actual attendance.
In 2014, Roger Goodell raised concerns with Dan Rooney (RIP) about no shows in Pittsburgh described in a CBS Sports article by John Breech. Rooney pointed out the rotunda where a lot of people like to stand. The article indicates that Goodell was skeptical. That year, Pittsburgh was ranked 25th in home attendance among NFL teams. Considering that Heinz Field is currently ranked 17th in terms of capacity it would appear to be underperforming compared to other teams on initial examination. However, since only two teams are announcing actual attendance; it is likely Pittsburgh’s home attendance would rank higher if all 32 teams announced actual attendance instead of just ticket sales. I hope that Art Rooney II continues to announce actual attendance.
The 2017 Steelers Media Guide has statistics for every Steelers season since 1969 including attendance. The chart above reflects announced attendance for all Steelers home games from the time Three Rivers Stadium opened through the 2017 regular season at Heinz Field. 1982 should pop out at you due to the very low attendance. The Steelers only had four home games that year due to the player’s strike. Yet, the fans kept coming as Three Rivers was at 96.7% capacity for those four games (1 before the strike & 3 after).
Also from 1970-1977 the Steelers only played seven home games. There is a spike in 1973 when the Steelers hosted eight home games. The New York Jets could not host the game due to a World Series game being played at Shea Stadium, so the Steelers got to play an away game at home. Capacity percentage stays relatively stable except for a sustained downward trend from a peak in 1984 to a valley in 1989. Not surprisingly, the Steelers missed the playoffs four straight years 1985-1988 with a losing record in three of those seasons. The Steelers made the playoffs in 1989 with a 9-7 record – Chuck Noll’s last appearance in the playoffs as head coach of the Steelers. Ironically, 1989 also had the lowest percentage of attendance for any season at Three Rivers or Heinz Field at 81.2%.
Both Three Rivers and Heinz Field underwent expansions, so the attendance percentage is based on the full capacity of the stadium for that season. For the curious, the Steelers played at Pitt Stadium in Chuck Noll’s first season as head coach. Its capacity was 56,500 and in it’s last season the 284,060 fans that attended amounted to the stadium being 71.8% full for home games that season. This chart shows the changing capacity of the stadia over the years:
The low point in 1989 still had more fans attending (383,494) than any season in the 1970’s except for 1979. But if you make the pie bigger; a thinner slice will still get you more pie if you don’t slice it too thin.
Truly, the subject of attendance at Steelers games could be the subject of a Masters’ thesis. There are so many variables such as population growth; the demographics of attendees; ticket prices; regional economic health; in addition to something so simple as the weather or the performance of the team that year.
Several Steelers fans who I highly respect have said they may not attend any games next year or reduce their presence at Heinz Field. These are not bandwagon fans; they have been longtime fans some who fly in for games others who are local Burghers. Craig, a 17-year season ticket holder, is selling his personal seat licenses (PSL). He sees “no real advantage to owning a PSL any longer with uptick advent of secondary ticket market. (I) can cherry pick games … almost at face value.”
He is not alone.
Even playoff games are not fully attended. Only five of the 13 playoffs games played at Heinz Field have been over capacity. Ticketmaster was showing some 5500 tickets available for this last playoff game just days before kickoff. There were 3,876 no shows or 94.3% attendance for the debacle versus Jacksonville. Considering the weather and related transportation issues that is pretty good. At last year’s playoff game versus Miami – another cold one – there were 5,674 no shows. Season ticket holders have a vested interest in selling the tickets for games they will not attend which gets secondary markets like Ticketmaster (the official vendor for the Steelers) and StubHub booming. This also has put pressure on the scalpers but that is another story.
Team performance and officiating including replay is also a concern. Craig continued that “Steelers continuously fall short and the prevailing thought around my section is they will lose a home playoff game or to the Pats before season even starts (fait accompli football), live experience is tarnished with torture by replay.” During all those replays that we watch on television and then the commercials; the fans in the stands are just staring at football players standing around with hands on their hips. A TV viewer may see multiple angles and explanations on whether Martavis Bryant was interfered with on a deep pass. At Heinz Field; we see Martavis bumped and then watch as referees hold yet another conference on the field. How much fun is it to watch a meeting that you cannot participate in?
After reaching the Conference final last year; and a stronger overall team this year expectations for the 2017 edition of the Steelers was very high. Yet, attendance at Heinz Field dipped from 94.0% in 2016 to 91.3% this year.
You’ll also notice a huge dip in attendance in 2013. This was the second consecutive 8-8 record and fans were appeared to be voting with their wallets. Once back in the playoffs attendance appears to surge. 2013 is also the only season that attendance was below 90% capacity since Heinz Field opened. The next lowest? 91.3% this year. Part of this may be due to the recent expansion in 2015 to 68,400 seats but is disturbing to me since the Steelers have been to the playoffs four straight years but percentage attendance has slightly declined in each succeeding year. If an average Steelers fan like me is noticing this trend; I am sure that the Steelers organization is all over it.
The amenities at games is much greater than back in the day. For those that can remember Pitt Stadium (I never attended a game there), once inside there were your seats; the concession stands and the bathrooms. If you weren’t waiting to be fed or to pee; you watched the game from your seat. Heinz Field has three club lounges that total 65,000 square feet – a lot of folks can fit in there. Plus, the Great Hall and 129 executive suites. There are memorabilia all over and the new Hall of Honor stand where you can have your picture taken. There are television monitors all over so that you don’t have to miss any of the action while away from your seat to grab a drink or just to warm-up. The two rotundas are a favorite vantage point to view the game which also provides standing room only (SRO) space when attendance is over capacity. All this is to make the fans attending the game more comfortable.
An unintended consequence of these comforts is that at any given time; many seats will appear empty in the stadium, but the fans are there just out of sight.
Below is one of the rotundas. This snap was taken during pregame of the Cleveland game on New Years Eve. With only 50,704 in attendance there was plenty of room in the stands, but folks still preferred to stand and watch from this vantage point. It can be 2 or 3 deep during big games and a mix of general admission seat and SRO ticket buyers.
The chart below is a bit busy but wanted to show game attendance by each home game played at Heinz Field:
The opening games of seasons seem to have better attendance perhaps because of optimism for the coming season and better overall weather. The last games of the season tend to have less since playoff spots are already decided or the Steelers are out. But could be good like in 2014 the winner of the final game of the season against the Bengals would determine the division champion.
Contrary to popular belief; it is not the norm for every seat to be occupied for a Pittsburgh Steelers home game. Although all Steelers games since 1972 have been sellouts; from 1970-1991 only six out of 164 Steelers home games were at or over capacity. While Bill Cowher was coach from 1992-2006 there were 11 of 120 games at or over capacity. Under Mike Tomlin only 5 of 88 home games have been at or over capacity. There is likely a figure that Steelers management has as a bottom line. That figure is likely tightly held by the organization. The problem for people going to games is that 90% of “self-described NFL fans have never attended a game,” according to an Investopedia article by Greg McFarlane.
The Steelers make a lot more money from television revenues as distributed by the NFL through their revenue sharing program. For fans going to games, empty stadia are not very photogenic so that is leveraging owners to attract fans to attend games or in some case cover or remove seats.
Here are the 22 games that the home stadium has been over capacity:
On the flip side; there have been 22 games where attendance has been below 80% capacity. The most recent occurrence was the Browns game to finish this season. To put this in context; 80% of Heinz Field today – 54,720 is more than Three Rivers Stadium at 100% during the 1970’s – 50,350.
The 1980’s had 13 of the 22 home games that were at less than 80% capacity. Most occurred when the Steelers and/or their opponent had poor records. All but two occurred in the in the 6th, 7th or 8th home game of the season. So, combining poor records with cold weather likely appears to be the recipe for low attendance. Five occurred in playoff years – three in 1989 when the Steelers rode a three-game winning streak to get into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. One of the games was 5 degrees at game time. Only three of these low attendance games have occurred this century.
Steelers fans have been remarkably spoiled with only one losing season since 2000. There have been three 8-8 seasons but overall the Steelers have continually put out a competitive team. I don’t know what the future will bring. The Steelers fortunes are literally tied to the NFL. The league must address many issues including balancing the televised experience with the in-game experience. For the Steelers; a franchise quarterback is approaching the end of a career. Continued success on the field will be a challenge and championships are very hard to come by. As talented as the Steelers were this year; they came up short. It will be very difficult to maintain the same talent level.
I could go on and on but will leave it for now. What are your thoughts on attendance to Pittsburgh Steelers games – what must be done to improve the experience for fans that go to the games?
For my musical choice; I give you Adam Brand an Australian cowboy.