(Note: This is Part I of a three-part series proposing a new on-campus stadium for the University of Pittsburgh. Super long, right? But if you read this and are interested in soldiering on, check out Part II and Part III.)
Whether Pitt fans want to accept it or not, the team has an attendance problem. Or at least an optics problem.
— Sam Werner (@SWernerPG) October 16, 2014
Heinz Field was more yellow than a Terrible Towel factory last night. In front of a national ESPN audience (albeit one that was paying more attention to Jets-Patriots, the NLCS and the return of the NHL), Pitt fans were seen as unwilling to show up for a primetime game.
Don’t get me wrong: I will accept any reason you had for not attending Pitt vs. Virginia Tech on Thursday night. It was raining. The Penguins were playing. You don’t want to pay to watch a team on a three-game losing streak.
Actually, you don’t even need to give me a reason! It’s your money and time, and I won’t shame you for not spending it on college football.
But this is the problem for the University of Pittsburgh and its athletic department: In 75% of Pitt’s games over the last decade, fans filled less than 75% of the stadium.
Put another way, the vast majority of Pitt football home games see at least a quarter of the seats sitting empty. Bright yellow. It’s not a good look for an ACC program, especially when the Steelers are about to expand Heinz Field to 68,000 seats and exacerbate Pitt’s problem.
Rob Rossi of the Tribune-Review was right to bring up the issue in his column, though unfortunately he spent little space on how to implement his solution: a new Pitt Stadium in Oakland.
Some Pitt fans agreed with Rossi. Many did not. Those who didn’t most commonly replied, “a new stadium isn’t a solution. Winning is a solution.” Or something close.
That is absolutely fair. Pittsburghers will flock to see a winning football team, thus solving Pitt’s attendance issue. But back up one second. How much winning does it take to fill Heinz Field?
Over the last decade, there has only been one season in which Pitt needed 52,000 seats for more than two games — the 2009 campaign, in which the Panthers were a Cincinnati comeback away from the BCS.
So yes, winning is a solution. If Pitt can win 10 games every year, reach the AP Top 10 every year, and be a legitimate playoff contender every year, fans will fill an NFL stadium.
The only snag in that plan is you would have to be delusional to think it will happen. This is not the 1970’s and 80’s. Pitt will not be a perennial championship contender in the new millennium of college football, in which every FBS school is in an arms race to make the playoffs.
Can they win? Absolutely. In fact, the program has made six straight bowl games and 11 bowls in the last 14 seasons. That is excellent! Thus, here’s the reality for Pitt: the school has a winning program, but not a championship-contending one like Oregon, Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, etc.
Pitt needs a stadium solution that matches its reality as a program. Here is my concept: build a 41,000-seat on-campus stadium. Use it for the majority of home games, then play one or two big games each year at Heinz Field.
Look at how Stanford attacked the problem of its too-big stadium:
Doesn’t it look a little like old Pitt Stadium? Massive, all-bowl, bleachers, track around the field…
Well Stanford re-built its stadium on the same site after the 2005 season, and the results are stunning:
Stanford dropped the capacity down to 50,000 in its practically-brand-new stadium, and the program is far better for it. I have been there — it is an intimate venue in a beautiful setting. When it’s packed, it is loud. When it’s not full, the optics are not as bad as an empty Heinz Field.
I know you have questions. I’ll try to read your mind and guess them. Put your forehead right up on the screen.
- Why 41,000 seats?
1. Pitt has needed less than 41,000 seats for the majority of its games over the last decade.
Consider that 56% of Pitt’s home games have had a paid attendance below 46,000. Subtract 10% for no-shows to those games (which is probably generous. I would guess it is more than 10%) and you get 41,000. It is the ideal size for your run-of-the-mill game against conference foes past and present — think Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Virginia, Louisville, Connecticut.
And as Pitt basketball has proven, sellouts are a good event for the program. Sellouts can become the rule for Pitt football too, instead of the exception.
2. It fits the current trend of new stadiums on campus.
Since 2003, Division I FBS schools have built 10 new stadiums. They range from 30,000 for non-BCS schools (Akron, Florida Atlantic, Tulane) to just above 50,000 seats (Minnesota and Stanford).
The average new stadium size? 39,211 seats. If you want to design in a few thousand more seats or build with the possibility to expand, that’s cool. The idea here is to build a venue that suits Pitt’s needs but is not so large that it overwhelms the Oakland neighborhood in footprint, traffic and parking.
- Which games would Pitt play at Heinz Field?
The Panthers would only need Heinz Field’s larger capacity for one or two games each season. Only 10 times over the past decade has Pitt’s paid attendance been higher than 55,100, and 7 of those games were against either West Virginia or Notre Dame.
Sounds easy enough. Schedule Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami and Penn State games at Heinz Field. If the Backyard Brawl ever returns, put those games at Heinz as well. Have Heinz Field available for the season’s final home game if Pitt is competing for an ACC title. Even all that makes up a minority of the Panthers’ schedule, an example of why a new, smaller stadium better serves the program.
- Why go back on campus if Panthers fans couldn’t even fill Pitt Stadium?
Look, I never attended Pitt stadium. The school tore it down when I was seven years old. From how it looked though, Pitt Stadium was built for 60,000 fans, had stands way too far from the field, and as Bob Smizik wrote in 1999, “backless seats, inadequate restrooms, insufficient concessions and invisible parking.”
New Pitt Stadium would be smaller, leaner and serve the entire university. That’s because on-campus stadium does not need to be empty the 360 days per year that the Panthers are not playing.
Look to Notre Dame as an example. The university is spending $400 million to construct three new buildings on the sides of Notre Dame Stadium. ND’s new stadium will offer “space for student organizations, a recreation center and career center… anthropology and psychology departments and a digital media center… the Department of Music… [and] some 3,000 to 4,000 premium seats for the football stadium with supporting club amenities.”
New Pitt Stadium would not be just for the athletic department, but for the whole school. Intramurals and summer concerts on the field, career festivals and parents’ weekend events in the concourses, and academic facilities on the sides of the stadium. New Pitt Stadium could be the center of Pitt campus life, expanding on the success of the Petersen Events Center.
- Where would it go? Where would people park?
That we will explore in Part II, coming up tomorrow. But rest assured, there is space available for a 41,000-seat stadium and attached facilities.