After several years at Heinz Field, a high school stadium, and a canceled game in 2014 by Paul Chryst, Pitt held their spring game at Highmark Stadium last season. Despite a full venue, I wasn't a big fan of the decision, you might recall.
This year, Pitt's spring game returns to Heinz Field - and it's the right move.
While I wasn't a fan of the venue, I praised the Panthers for bringing back the game last season. It came after Chryst had canceled the exhibition a year earlier, citing a need to fit in another practice - what I termed a pretty ridiculous reason in the grand scheme of things. Getting the game back last year in any form was a step in the right direction ... but it wasn't ideal.
To be fair, part (or all) of the reason the game wasn't at Heinz last season was because the stadium was undergoing renovations. But Pitt could have played things safe and continued on at Highmark Stadium or some other smaller venue for the future.
Let's be clear here. Highmark Stadium, with an incredible backdrop of the skyline, was a great atmosphere according to all that attended. JD gave a very good writeup afterwards explaining how the athletics department got it right. It was also a step up from playing the game at a high school, as I heavily criticized a few years back. But my stance has always been that if Pitt wants to be considered a big time program, they had to take the game more seriously. This administration, under athletics director Scott Barnes, recognizes that. This quote from Barnes after the announcement was pretty telling and essentially mirrored what I've said in so many past years.
"(Highmark) was packed, with 4,000-5,000 (people)," he said. "It's a great venue, but it's not big enough for what we want to be.
"If we want to be what we want to be, that (attendance) number has to be multiples of that."
I know that many fans don't take the game seriously. The idea is that it's a glorified practice and that's exactly what it is, folks. But it's also (as I've said for years) free marketing and essentially a free two-three hour commercial in front of your most passionate fans. You can't pass that up or even afford to take it lightly, relegating it to a tiny venue.
I'm not sure what Pitt will have in store, but I like that Barnes shares my line of thinking - it's a big deal. He's made all the right decisions since assuming control of the athletics department and I have no doubt that he'll do what he can. My feelings on this remain unchanged - Pitt needs to blow it out completely. Free season ticket giveaways, bring back legends to sign free autographs, free hot dogs, etc. Pull out all the stops and get people there doing whatever it takes. Sure all of that costs money, but so does everything else. And since we all love to talk about recruiting so much, think of the impact there. If you don't think other programs have used Pitt's terrible spring game attendances as a negative recruiting tool, you're sadly mistaken.
And you know what can really draw people? What about some early limited single-game ticket sales to, you guessed it, the Penn State contest? Pitt wants desperately to sell those as part of season ticket packages and there's not a thing in the world wrong with that. It's the right move. But you want to find a way to get people to come out to that game? Give away a few hundred tickets to that game and/or allow some people attending to buy a ticket to only that game as well.
It's a bold move when you consider that Pitt is surely relying on that game to provide increased season ticket sales. It could even be a risky one since the Panthers could conceivably sell out of season tickets because of the game this year and . But you don't have to sell/give away 10,000 tickets to that game to get a buzz around the game. What about allowing the first 1,000 people to buy a pair of tickets? Or what about a random giveaway of 250 pairs of tickets? There are lots of ways to get creative and give people a reason to show up.
A very real argument can be made that Pitt should stay at a smaller venue where drawing a crowd isn't as difficult. But that thought process is wrong on several fronts. For one, it explicitly shows that the program is giving up in terms of drawing a crowd. It's the easy way out, really. For another, drawing 5,000 people is still drawing 5,000 people. Sure the venue may look packed and be more intimate, but at the end of the day, a crowd that small (and the fact that you're playing such a small venue) is always going to be a point of derision. There's only one way out of this mess and that's up. Big time football needs a big time atmosphere - it's really that simple.
Pitt would be better served if Heinz Field wasn't so cavernous and held about half the size it does. That point is clear. But unfortunately those are the cards the program is dealt. They may never draw insane crowds, but I'd argue that 15,000 (reached by a program like Rutgers last year, by the way) in Heinz Field is better than a packed lower-tier soccer or high school stadium. It may look somewhat sparse but plenty of programs draw similarly sparse crowds at their home stadiums. Plus, with a smaller venue like Highmark Stadium, there's no real room for growth.
Whether or not Pitt draws a big crowd this year, the good news is that the game is back at Heinz Field. It's another step in the direction of Pitt declaring itself in the hunt to be a major player in college football.