I have long posited that the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have to field a championship-level team to attract fans to PNC Park.
Most of the fans are reasonable. They just want the Pirates to field at least a somewhat competitive team rather than being the laughingstock of the major leagues.
A case in point was the 2023 season. The Pirates had a 76-86 record, not great but a 14-game improvement from the previous year.
Sparked, too, by the return of Andrew McCutchen and a 20-8 start, the Pirates saw their season attendance increase by more than 373,000 to 1,630,624.
A sign momentum the Pirates’ have built while re-engaging their fans comes with a bit of news that club President Travis Williams dropped on reporters this week during Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn. He said 16,000 fans registered for tickets to PiratesFest within the first two days tickets were available to the free event.
The fan festival is set for Jan. 6 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and will be held for the first time since the 2019-20 offseason. The event had been stopped following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think that excitement is real, and it makes me excited and passionate about what’s ahead for the season, but I think the opportunity to celebrate the brand during the offseason in January as we’re getting ready to turn the calendar over to 2024 and you start to think ahead to spring training is exciting,” Williams said.
While there is plenty of interest in PiratesFest, it remains to be seen how fans will watch Pirates games on television. The franchise is still without a TV contract for the 2024 season following the demise of AT&T SportsNet.
Williams said the Pirates are hopeful of having a deal in place by the end of the year. Their two options are to agree to a deal with SportsNet, which televises the Pittsburgh Penguins, or have Major League Baseball take over production of the telecasts.
“We want to find an option that allows us to allow our fans to be able to enjoy Pirates baseball as broadly as possible,” Williams said. “And that’s always been kind of at our center of our focus is making sure that we don’t lose distribution. We’ve been exploring (the options) for quite some time. Both have pros and cons. And, so, we’ve been looking at that and suffice to say that we’re getting closer to being able to identify which option we’re going to go with.
“I feel very, very comfortable that we’re going to be able to accomplish the goal that we set out at the beginning which is making sure our fans have the opportunity to continue to enjoy Pirates baseball on linear cable.”
The Pirates also want to build on the attendance increase. Williams is confident the Pirates can do that in 2024 as he and owner Bob Nutting expect the team to continue to make progress under general manager Ben Cherington and manager Derek Shelton.
“Overall, Bob, Ben and I have been very aligned that we had a plan from the outset when Ben and I came on board (in 2019) that we wanted to create a sustainable winner,” Williams said. “COVID certainly impacted a little bit of that in terms of us getting there. But what we started to see last year was the fruits of the labor or the output of the work that’s been put into executing that plan.
“It wasn’t just the record. It was the way that they played. They went out every day, Shelty and his staff did a tremendous job of keeping them focused, energized, excited, looking to continue to develop and get better. I think you saw that on the field. The fans felt it. You saw that energy not only on the field but in the stands as well.
“I’m really encouraged by the direction we’re going,” Williams added.
After years of going backward or being stuck in neutral, it would be a nice change of pace for a reinvigorated fan base to see the Pirates continue moving forward as the demand for PiratesFest tickets shows.