There’s a current debate amongst Pitt fans, spurred by comments athletic director Heather Lyke made to the Canton Repository.
Closing off excess sections at Heinz Field would condense the crowd and reduce the number of highly visible, empty yellow seats. Here’s what Lyke, a Canton native, had to say to her hometown newspaper:
“The opportunity we have at Heinz Field is to right-size the stadium, to banner, to intentionally wrap (the excess seats). It’s 68,000 seats right now, which is in the top quartile of the Power Five schools and there’s really only 10-20 schools in the country that really draw consistently over 80,000. … There’s a way to make the stadium seem smaller, but the amenities at Heinz Field are phenomenal. We’re going to make the best of it.”
Lyke is correct, of course, that the nearly 70,000-seat Heinz Field is probably a bit too big for Pitt. But it would simply be a mask for the larger issue affecting Pitt football: the attendance is slipping.
Attendance, is of course, relative, and comparing Pitt to other schools around the nation or even the region is a fool’s errand. Pitt has unique challenges with an off-campus stadium, a relatively small student body and a professional sports market with successful teams that draw away casual sports fans. Those are all real issues that affect the Panthers’ attendance.
But comparing Pitt of 2017 to the Pitt attendance in the past, in the same venue, with the same-sized student body, in the same pro sports town, is more than fair game. In that comparison, it’s clear that Pitt’s attendance isn’t what it once was.
Through five games at Heinz Field this season, the Panthers have averaged 36,806 fans per game. If that number were to hold through the remainder of the season, it would be the second-worst attendance figure in Pitt’s Heinz Field history, second only to 2007, when the Panthers hosted just one team that is currently a Power Five program.
It’s a year-over-year drop of almost 10,000 fans per game. Much of that can be explained by losing the near-70,000 crowd that came to see Penn State in 2016, but not all of it.
This year’s home opener against Youngstown State drew 40,012 — the second-worst attendance for a Pitt home opener at Heinz Field (2007 vs. Eastern Michigan at 36,193 was the worst.)
When Pitt hosted Oklahoma State in front of 38,952 in September, it was the lowest-attended Power Five non-conference game in the history of the stadium and the second-lowest attended game against a ranked opponent (33,423 vs. Cincinnati in 2007).
The 33,051 in attendance for the Rice game was the smallest crowd for a non-conference game since 2007.
The 30,889 that saw Pitt beat Virginia three weeks ago was the lowest-attended game against a team currently in the Power Five and was the second-lowest attendance conference game in Pitt’s Heinz Field history (30,434 vs. Cincinnati in 2005).
It adds up to Pitt drawing its worst attendance of the last decade. If Pitt fans and the administration are worried about the way the empty seats look on TV, they’ll need to find a way to reverse that trend — or buy tarps in bulk.