Pirates look to attract ‘lost generation’

By Gwenn Barney

The smack of a bat lumbering against a baseball rumbles through PNC Park. Pirates second baseman… The smack of a bat lumbering against a baseball rumbles through PNC Park. Pirates second baseman Neil Walker steps in the path of a ground ball hit by Colorado Rockies batter Carlos Gonzalez.

Walker throws the baseball toward second for what should be an easy out. But the toss falls short, bouncing off the dirt and in the direction of left field. The error leads to the first two runs in the inning for the Rockies in what would become a 7-1 home opener loss for the Pirates.

Far above Walker, in the penultimate row of the stadium, Pitt senior Eve Bandi sits with her brother Brian, 27, a Pitt alumnus. The pair is relatively unfazed by the unfortunate turn of events. They don’t yell at Walker, stomp on their hats or spit out every curse they can think of. It’s just another mistake that will lead to another loss in a string of losing seasons.

“You kind of get used to that [losing] feeling after a while,” Brian said. “It’s not a surprise when they make mistakes now.”

The Bandi siblings are part of a lost generation of Pirates fans. They are too young to have hailed Roberto Clemente calling, “Arriba! Arriba!” or to have seen Bill Mazeroski’s famous ninth-inning heroics. At 22, Eve even missed out on pre-watermelon-sized head Barry Bonds swinging for the Ohio River in 1992, the Pirates’ last winning season.

It’s not that the Bandis don’t want to care about whether or not the Pirates win, it’s that they don’t know how to care.

That’s one of the reasons why Brian Chiera might have the most difficult job in all of baseball. As senior director of marketing & special events for the Pirates, he’s the man charged with making a lost generation of fans care again and bringing the college-aged crowd back aboard the Pirates’ ship.

“It is a huge market,” Chiera said of the young adult age group. “It’s developing the next generation of fans, so that once they have disposable incomes, they will come to Pirates games.”

The problem with drawing young fans to baseball is that the marketing must go beyond simply discounting tickets. Whereas the Penguins draw in the college crowd with their Student Rush discount — which halves the price of the cheapest arena seat — the cheapest seats in PNC Park are already $9.

Instead of discounting tickets, Chiera and his marketing team have to think more creatively to bring students into their stadium. One of their newest marketing strategies involves taking their product to the streets — literally. Before every Friday home game this season, The Pirates will host a block party on Federal Street that includes food, games and music.

“It’s kind of a tailgating atmosphere geared towards young adults,” Chiera said.

The Pirates are infiltrating campuses across the city to spread word of their product, as well. The team currently has Pirates ambassadors, students who scour campuses promoting the team, on nine campuses around the Pittsburgh area, including Duquesne, La Roche and West Virginia. Pitt sponsored an ambassadors program through professor Bob Gilbert’s marketing class last year, but is without ambassadors on campus this year. Chiera is on the lookout for a group of students willing to take on the project during the summer semester.

The Pirates are also using activities inside the stadium to draw the college crowd, including fireworks shows and hiring bands that are popular among young adults. Chiera said that the band Train will play a post-game concert on Aug. 6 in part to attract this younger audience.

Some fans don’t buy into the bells-and-whistles attempt to win them back.

“They’re just distracting you with all the fireworks and free stuff because they’re sucking,” Pitt sophomore Tyler Crock said.

Chiera recognized that no matter how popular the bands are or how many fireworks the Pirates set off, it’s difficult to bring fans into the ballpark if the team isn’t winning.

“The tough part is that a lot of it relates to team performance,” Chiera said.

Pirates President Frank Coonelly agreed that poor performances on the Pirates part in the past have made it difficult to attract young adult fans.

“We work really hard to engage all of our potential fan base, and we have to work harder than other clubs to engage that group.” Coonelly said.

Now, after three years of re-building in Pittsburgh, he believes that young recruits might be key to attracting young fans. .

“We’re bringing strong young players up through the [minor league] system who our fans will be able to connect with,” Coonelly said. “That’s the only real way to win back a generation that was lost.”