PITTSBURGH — Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke is hoping some shake-ups to the status quo will make for a better environment for Pitt football games at Heinz Field.
While ticket sales, both of the season-ticket and single-game variety, are of course a hot-button topic for the school, sales haven’t been as much of an issue as getting those with tickets to use them.
“We have a lot of people who buy season tickets,” Lyke said. “We want to get them to the stadium. Once they get there, what’s their tailgate environment like? That’s why we partnered with Tailgate Guys along the river. That is an unbelievable place to tailgate. If I was coming to the game, that’s where I would want to be.”
Some of the changes have already been announced, like moving the student section and the band inside the building so that it both looks better on television and will be louder inside the stadium. Some measures are still being discussed, such as giving the students a tailgate area closer to Heinz Field.
“We need to move them closer and make then a part of the scene,” she said.
The focus on making the student section an the student fan experience a priority is a sound one. After all, there’s almost no way to capture new fans and enlarge the fan base if Pitt doesn’t capture students as fans. The Panthers averaged 36,295 fans per game in 2017, the lowest average since 2007, the second-lowest average in the stadium’s history, and the third straight year attendance has fallen.
With Penn State on the schedule for 2018, that figure will surely rise. But the only fix for Pitt’s long-term attendance decline is to create new fans, and capturing the attention of Pitt’s almost 20,000 undergrads is the best way to do that.
“How do you make the experience within Heinz Field remarkable?” Lyke posited. “The Panther Pitt is going to be all the way along the end zone. I think we can be much more engaged with, organized with and help the Panther Pitt. The Oakland Zoo is obviously a bit more developed, but I think the Panther Pitt has that ability — it’s a lot of the same kids. We just need to brand it and connect with them, understand what they want and create some traditions.”
The struggle between older fans and newer fans is nothing new in college sports, and Lyke undoubtedly didn’t make many fans amongst the season ticket holders who were displaced from the end zone to make way for the students, but her focus on the future shows a forward vision that so many of her predecessors have lacked.
“It’s an exciting team,” Lyke said. “I love our coaches. … I would want to come and watch them play.”
Lyke also said that what’s been revealed isn’t the full scope of what she and her staff have in store for the 2018 football schedule.
“We have a lot of fun, new initiatives that we can’t reveal quite yet,” she said. “We’ve got some interesting things that will come out. Those out to be pretty engaging for our fans.”