Pittsburgh pushes Panthers from spotlight


Pittsburgh’s professional teams, most notably the Steelers, have consistently made it difficult for the Panthers to gain a following amidst years of mediocrity. (Photo by Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer)

Walking around Pittsburgh, it’s hard to go too long without seeing someone wearing Steelers, Penguins or Pirates gear.

The teams are some of the most decorated and storied franchises in American sports — especially in recent years, with the city taking home five championships since 2005 — and the people of the area follow them with passion.

While the city has great support for its professional teams, Pitt, its main college team, has struggled to find a place among them.

The most obvious example of this is the football team. After more than 30 years of mediocrity, the program has lost considerable interest while the Steelers have maintained their spot as one of the NFL’s best teams.

And while Pitt has had more success in recent years and improved overall, the Steelers have remained the clear number one team and likely will be for years to come.

The attendance of both at Heinz Field — shared by Pitt and the Steelers — is the clearest indication of this difference. The stadium seats 68,400 people, and the Steelers almost filled it entirely, averaging 64,312 fans per game in 2016. Meanwhile, Pitt was far worse, only managing an average of 46,076.

Keep in mind, the Panthers’ average was boosted by the highly-anticipated renewal of the Pitt-Penn State rivalry. The game not only set a Pitt record, but became the highest attended sporting event in Pittsburgh history with 69,983 people packing the stands. Take that away, and the average attendance falls to just under 43,000.

Additionally, the issue is compounded by surrounding universities with a stronger football tradition — namely Penn St., West Virginia and Ohio State. Each of these schools rival the Panthers on the recruiting trail, and the more intense atmosphere at their games is definitely a selling point to prospective athletes.

What all these schools have in common though, is that they are the only major sports team around. There’s no NFL team in Columbus, Ohio, and while many state college and Morgantown residents are fans of the Steelers, Pittsburgh is far enough away to make college football the main attraction.

Pitt isn’t the only university with this problem. In fact, the Panthers are one of seven major programs to share a stadium with a professional football team. Of the rest, only one is in a Power Five conference — ACC foe, the Miami Hurricanes.

From 1937-2008, Miami played in the famous Orange Bowl and rose to greatness in the 1980s and again in the early 2000s. But the city, in a controversial decision, decided to tear down the stadium and replace it with a new ballpark for the Miami Marlins.

With no stadium of their own, the Hurricanes moved to Hard Rock Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins. Now, they too struggle to attain the greatness they once had as more people opt to follow the professional teams. And just like Pitt games are well-known for the bright, empty yellow seats, many Miami games are marked by teal ones.

But while it may sound like the Panthers are only hurt by the nearby professionals, the school does benefit from the relationship as well. Most notably, the football team shares a practice facility with the Steelers and practices alongside the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. This has proven to be a great recruiting tool for the Panthers, as many high school players are interested by the opportunity to get in-person advice from the pros.

Another advantage for the program comes from playing in a city without an NBA team. The Panthers are the biggest basketball team in the city, and with no professional competition, the team is usually a big talking point in the city — for better or worse.

During the 2000s, when the Panthers made 10 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, the buzz around the program and the support from fans, alumni and students made the Petersen Events Center one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball.

And although the group has been less successful in the ACC, they still get decent support and have arguably kept their spot as Pitt’s most-followed team.

The bottom line for the University is that, while being in a sports-loving city has its positives, the negatives seem to outweigh them by a fairly large margin. The Panthers can never have the sports atmosphere schools like West Virginia or Penn State have because those areas don’t have professional teams drawing the attention away.

Since Pitt has three professional teams to compete with, it can be hard to ask people to go out to college games. For the basketball or football program to elevate itself, it would take years of consistent winning with conference championships sprinkled in.

It’s happened before with basketball, and it could happen again, but it’s not likely to be soon. Head coach Pat Narduzzi and the football program still seem several years away from turning the corner while basketball is on the decline under Kevin Stallings.

For now, the Panthers will continue to sit behind the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates in terms of the attention they get from fans and the media. And it will remain that way until one of the programs steps up.

The question is, which one will that be, and how long do Panthers fans have to wait?