As a native Pittsburgher, I was raised to be one thing if nothing else: a Steelers fan. From the day that a person is born in to a family of Steeler fans, they're expected to wholeheartedly (albeit, sometimes blindly) support their team regardless of record, score, scandal, etc. Now at Pitt, I've developed that same passion for the Panthers.
Never has that passion and allegiance been tested more than by the past football and current basketball seasons. We all know about the dismal season that was the first and last of the Todd Graham Era. We're also fully aware of the struggles impeding Jamie Dixon and his usually-successful basketball team. Both programs are elite when it comes to funding and sponsorship (it doesn't get much better than Nike). The marketing and public relations departments have also been doing a solid job with promotion and billboards and signage around the city.
Clearly, the athletic department and the university are dedicated to making both of these programs even more nationally known than they already are. One thing that hasn't been consistent throughout this past year? Fan support.
Okay, I know that the football team was almost unbearable to watch. I know this because I actually watched every game, most of which were at Heinz Field. Now, I don't want to sound like 'that guy' ... the one that thinks he's better than you because he supports his team when they aren't that good, but that's kind of what I'm talking about. Not only me, though, but all of those fans that understand the way that college athletics works and can also understand that eventually Pitt will again be ranked in the top 25 in football and will start to sell some more tickets.
A big problem with the low attendance numbers at games is that recruits are often in the stands. They've got to be a bit discouraged when looking around at all of the bright yellow seats that are empty. That, I'm sure, costs the program some recruits and without better players, it makes it difficult for the program to get better. Recruits' perception of the light crowds is only a small part of recruiting, but make no mistake that it plays a role.
When some of these recruits see the place about half full on a prime time night game against a ranked South Florida team, they can only assume that when Pitt plays a lesser opponent, the attendance numbers are even lower ... which, of course, they usually are. The fact is that there's a bit of a trickle-down effect and all of these things are very much connected.
Basketball on the other hand, has been a much different animal the past decade. People have been on waiting lists for season tickets for years and years. My parents just purchased two tickets this season after being on the waiting list for at least five or six years. The Pete is usually packed and so is the student section. This year, though, with recent struggles on the court, the Zoo has been a bit easier to get into. Rather than having to religiously check the athletics site (the way students acquire tickets), the tickets are on demand the day before the game. This is nitpicking because the Zoo still gets filled and the overall attendance is still relatively good, but here's a story from my girlfriend who works in the ticket office at the Pete:
Yesterday, she got a call from a season ticket holder who was clearly upset by the play of the basketball team. He wanted to cancel his season tickets and proceeded to tell her how bad the team was. Now, it's hard to believe that a season ticket holder would be so naive to believe that the entire program was going to go down the drain after one sub-par season. This same guy probably waited several years to purchase those season tickets and was now throwing them away. Sure, they will be picked up by someone who is on that waiting list next year, but why throw in the towel so quickly?
A good example of supporting a program can be found out west. USC wasn't even eligible for a bowl game this year in football and people still showed up for all of their games. The quality of football there is surely higher than at Pitt, but the team had little to play for and fans still showed up for games.
The old argument about Pitt when it comes to attendance is that because the university is competing with three pro teams, it's more difficult to draw. That's certainly true to a degree, but if the team wins, I have no doubt fans would come. The problem is, though, that the attendance shouldn't be as bad as it was this past football season. I really have no idea what it is about Pitt that makes our fans so easily deterred from going to the games. At one point, football tickets in the lower bowl section were selling for under one dollar on Stubhub. A dollar?!
I understand that the football team was awful this year and the basketball team isn't currently doing any better. But the program isn't helped when fans don't show up. The basketball team hasn't reached the low attendance levels that the football team experiences, but stories of season ticket holders abandoning ship like the one I mentioned earlier are too much for me to handle. Going to the games isn't going to make Tino Sunseri turn into Dan Marino or make Ashton Gibbs suddenly revert to his 2010-11 form, but it can make the difference in swaying a big-time recruit's decision to attend the university. Pitt fans, particularly the football ones, need to step it up.