We’re less than two months from the 2018 Pitt football opener which also means we’re close to hearing about the topic that never seems to go away: Pitt football attendance.
While I believe it’s an overblown topic due to Pitt being located in a major city and consistently being compared to football programs that don’t have to compete with professional sports, I do feel the athletic department can do a better job of getting people to Heinz Field.
One of the biggest challenges the administration faces is trying to get a younger demographic interested in Pitt football. If you spend every fall Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field it’s no shock to hear that majority of the fanbase that shows up week in and out are holdovers from the glory years, and not fresh blood. The biggest reason for that is the Panthers haven’t won enough games to draw interest and create the atmosphere that is going to get younger fans hooked.
Pittsburgh is a city that is drawn to winners and to big-time events and over the last 15 years, Pitt has had too many six- and seven-win seasons to regularly qualify as either. With so many other things to do and ways to spend money, that’s not going to cut it.
Winning is the most important draw but I believe there are other things that can be done.
Target a Younger Crowd
How can Pitt successfully get a younger demographic to come to games at Heinz Field? I believe they need to take advantage of the strong history of high school football in Western Pennsylvania and create a youth football section.
It wouldn’t need to be huge portion of the seating, but for every home game, the athletic department should invite a few teams along with their parents to sit in this designated section. Give these players some Pitt gear and in some fashion, recognize them during the game. It wouldn’t have to be just be high school teams, it can be junior high programs, flag football leagues or pee-wee football.
The Penguins have a similar program where they give out free tickets for an entire preseason game to youth teams. Of course, Pitt doesn’t have preseason games, but a game against an FCS opponent that is unlikely to sell out anyway would be perfect for something like this, including this year’s home opener against Albany.
It will get kids and their families to Heinz Field, promote the Pitt football brand and hopefully the kids enjoy themselves and want to return. Who knows, maybe one of these younger kids that attend a game turn out to a D-I prospect and the experience causes them to return for more games and later they develop interest in Pitt because of it.
Capitalize on Pitt’s Strengths
The school needs to do a better job of getting the fan base to know and want to come see these players. The Pitt football program has a rich tradition of putting players in the NFL, so they could use this as a marketing theme. “Who on the 2018 Pitt Panthers will be the next Aaron Donald or LeSean McCoy and go from Pitt to the NFL?”
This is something that also has a subliminal effect in recruiting as high school players hear this and they start to equate Pitt football and the NFL. I would run a promotional campaign showing former Pitt players that are currently in the NFL. Show them quickly in a Pitt uniform than doing something in the NFL and end it with “Who’s Next?” and show some current Pitt players.
I can tell you that if I’m the Pitt marketing department, I would be going overboard getting the names Kenny Pickett, Paris Ford, and Damar Hamlin out there to the public. Pitt will have Pickett and Ford in the program for at least the next three years, let the public get to know these players, get them excited about wanting to come watch them play “before possibly playing on Sundays.”
Pickett is someone that the entire fan base is excited about and because of his performance in the Miami game, he’s created a buzz for himself and the Pitt offense. It’s been a long time since Pitt has had a young talented quarterback that they can legitimately be excited about and can watch play for a number of years. I believe the hype surrounding Pickett is legit
Ford is someone that fans have been waiting for over a year to watch and from all accounts, has a chance to be a star. Pitt should be marketing this kid as a former WPIAL star that’s ready to make his mark at Heinz Field so come watch him develop for four years.
Make Saturdays An Event
Pittsburgh is an event-driven city. Pitt has tried to do more to make Saturdays on the North Shore into an event, but there’s more that can be done.
Before the game, many people tailgate, but limited parking availability makes it tough for that to be Pitt’s calling card.
But in place of that parking is plenty of things that draw people to the North Shore. The Carnegie Science Center, Rivers Casino, Stage AE, North Shore bars and restaurants, and heck, the river itself, along with its shoreline park are all draws by themselves.
If Pitt partnered with those institutions to provide tailored things for football fans to do before and after the game, it could foster the kind of community feeling that helps other college schools in smaller towns. That was one of the things Steve Pederson was trying to do by chaining the name from Pitt to Pittsburgh, and though his method missed the mark, the idea was sound.
Pitt should also take advantage of the fact that they’re located in a pro sports town and get current or former Steelers, Penguins, Pirates or local celebrities to the game. Work it out with the Penguins to have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang on the field at Heinz Field. Whenever the schedule permits, get some current Steelers to come root on Pitt. Have them on the big screen and make sure the TV producer gets them on television for the audience to see. This would be a way to show it’s cool to go to Pitt football games.
I’m sure there will be people that will think these ideas area a cheesy waste of time. Unlike the majority of Power Five programs, Pitt is in a unique spot in trying to trying to fill their football stadium. Just promoting the game isn’t good enough and as we’ve seen, it hasn’t worked. Heather Lyke and her staff need to think out of the box and I believe these are some steps in the right direction.