If You Build It, They Will Come?

There was a lot of controversy over the off-season that came from our interview with Pittsburgh Pirates’ president Frank Coonelly.  The bulk of the controversy came from this response:

Kevin: Would the Pirates be able to afford a $70M to $80M payroll, in present-day worth, if this current group of players were competitive enough to merit additional outside free agents?

Frank: Today, no but we will be able to support that payroll very soon if our fans believe that we now have a group of players in Pittsburgh and on its way here in the near future that is competitive.  We need to take a meaningful step forward in terms of attendance to reach that payroll number while continuing to invest heavily in our future but I am convinced that the attendance will move quickly once we convince our fans that we are on the right track.

Coonelly was criticized heavily for his comments in an interview with Pirates Prospects over the off-season.

That last sentence was skipped over by a lot of people who wanted to spin the response as a sort of “the responsibility is on the fans to show up” comment.  Those same people are the people who say things like “if you build it, they will come”, and mention that you have to spend money first to improve your product (insert bad restaurant analogy here) before people will show up to pay for that product.

The Pirates didn’t go on an all out spending spree this off-season, but they did add some important pieces.  Kevin Correia was signed to a two year, $8 M deal, which is looking like a steal with the way Correia has been pitching this season.  Jose Veras was brought in for $1 M, and Joe Beimel was added for $1.85 M, with both pitchers helping to build a very strong bullpen.  Lyle Overbay hasn’t lived up to his $5 M salary yet, but the Pirates are finally starting to platoon him, which could provide some real value from his signing this off-season.

There wasn’t a lot of spending, but somehow the Pirates are currently over the .500 mark.  At the same time, the fans aren’t really showing up.  The Pirates, after winning two games in a row, had a chance to go above .500 last night, and yet only saw 11,373 in attendance.  Now before you jump ahead of me, I’m not in any way blaming fans for not showing up.  I’m not saying that the fans are responsible for showing up.  I’m addressing both sets of comments made over the off-season, whether it’s the group that says “if you build it, they will come” or Frank Coonelly’s comment about how attendance will move quickly once the fans see the team is on the right track.

The problem with each comment is that it doesn’t take in to consideration the circumstances surrounding this team.  The Pirates have lost for 18 years in a row heading in to the 2011 season.  During that time they’ve had a few hot starts where they’ve been above .500 in May, so the fact that they’re above .500 on May 10th is pretty meaningless, especially when you consider how long the baseball season is.  Coonelly’s comment was:

I am convinced that the attendance will move quickly once we convince our fans that we are on the right track.

The key part there is “once we convince our fans that we are on the right track”.  Sitting at 18-17 on May 10th isn’t going to convince many people.  Aside from the season having a little less than five months remaining, there’s interleague play coming up, and that’s a time that the Pirates always seem to fall apart.  Overall, it’s a general trust issue.  We’ve seen this story before.  Granted, it doesn’t happen very often that the Pirates are above .500 in May, but it’s happen.  Those instances didn’t guarantee a winner, and this situation provides no such guarantees.

It will take awhile for fans to trust that this winning is legit, assuming that the winning actually continues (and if the Pirates are legit, then the winning should continue with their easy schedule in May, as I outlined in an article last week).  That’s where the “if you build it, they will come” crowd enters the picture.  The idea that fans will just show up if you spend money is ridiculous.  Just look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.  They added free agents prior to the 2005 season, but they didn’t get a waiting list on their season tickets until after they made the playoffs the following season.

The Pirates didn’t go on a spending spree this off-season, but they did put together a team that is winning.  Yet, as highlighted above, winning in May isn’t enough to bring the fans in.  Had the Pirates spent a large amount of money for it, hoping to regain that money with increased attendance, they’d probably be in trouble right now.  Maybe not Los Angeles Dodgers/New York Mets level trouble, but they’d definitely be facing some financial losses, and that’s never what you want to do, as we’ve seen with the Dodgers and Mets this year.

What the Pirates are doing now is building a team within their means.  They are building mostly through the minors, but also adding some low key free agent moves and waiver claims that are looking pretty good so far this season.  That’s how small market teams do it.  They don’t go out and spend a ton of money for a quick fix.  The teams that do that usually see it backfire.  I’ve long believed that this approach is the right approach for the Pirates, even before Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly arrived.  Is it finally starting to pay off with a winning team?  I think when we can provide a “yes” to that question with certainty, then we will start to see the attendance increase.  Until then, I wouldn’t expect the fans to come out in masses for an 18-17 team in early May.

Analysis

  • Tim,

    The last word of the preceding sentence was also ignored. “Competetive”. I sent e-mails to those Pittsburgh radio/media personalities and they wrote me back to say basically that even though that word was in there, Mr. Coonelly was definitely blaming the poor attendance on fans.

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