What to expect at Heinz Field for Pitt football’s 2021 opener


TPN File Photo

Heinz Field will open fully to spectators for the first time since 2019 at this Saturday’s football game against UMass.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

“Lock the Gates” is an enduring rallying call for Pitt football during Pat Narduzzi’s time as head coach. It’s an ode to the game’s inherent violence. Football is, after all, “the gladiator sport,” seventh-year senior receiver Tre Tipton said during training camp last week. You walk out victoriously or in defeat, but not before the final whistle blows.

For at least one season, “Lock the Gates” applied to more than the field of play. Fans were locked out of Heinz Field during much of the 2020 season, just as the Panthers were locked in. Because of the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pitt played most of its home schedule last year in front of sparsely populated or wholly empty stands. But that will change on Saturday afternoon, when the home of the Panthers opens itself fully to spectators for the first time since 2019.

Pitt football opens the 2021 campaign this Saturday against UMass at 4 p.m., and they will do it in front of an unrestricted crowd at Heinz Field. On paper, this matchup is unassuming. The Panthers are a 38-point favorite against the Minutemen — who haven’t finished a regular season above .500 since 2010, when they finished 6-5.

In all likelihood, Saturday’s contest on the North Shore won’t be wildly entertaining. And on the off-chance UMass does make things interesting, Pitt fans will want to avert their eyes. The good news is that in the event of an upset or ugly game, there will be plenty of distractions. 

With expanded capacity comes many landmarks of a college football gameday. The student section will fill, tailgating is permitted again and even the annual Rib Fest — an outdoor party that lasts through Labor Day and always coincides with Pitt football’s season opener — is back from a one-year hiatus.

Because Heinz Field is governed by independent stadium management, gameday procedures for Saturday will follow what the Pittsburgh Steelers did for their NFL Preseason games this past month. Like last year, the Panthers and their roommates on the North Shore will be in lockstep.

That includes, first and foremost, no limits on capacity. The doors have been officially unlocked after months of hoping. The Steelers hosted more than 45,000 fans for an Aug. 21 preseason game vs. Detroit. In 2019, their last full season with unlimited capacity, the Panthers averaged just over 43,370 fans per game, so Steelers-Lions should serve as a pretty good example of what Saturday’s crowd will look like.

Tailgating was not allowed last year, even when Heinz Field was opened to a limited public last October. It left some wondering how to replicate the game day atmosphere. But they will not need to improvise any longer. As eager Steeler fans demonstrated last week ahead of a preseason game against the Detroit Lions, tailgaters are allowed to return to their favorite lots to eat or drink ahead of game time.

Upon entering the stadium, fans should have their phones charged and ready with their ticket. Heinz Field went paperless and each gate will require fans to use mobile tickets in an effort to cut down on person-to-person contact. And once you get in, make sure masks are handy as well. Everyone, regardless of vaccination status, must wear a face covering when indoors at the club sections on the second level, on elevators and in restrooms.

Concession stands will also have a different look to them. Heinz Field pivoted to a cashless stadium, meaning only credit or debit cards will be accepted for those who want to buy food or apparel. Fans can also order food remotely through the Steelers’ mobile app. They’ll be able to order from their seats and pick it up at the concession stand of their choosing.

There will be some slight alterations to Heinz Field that Pitt fans won’t recognize, but for all intents and purposes, it will be a mostly normal fall Saturday at Heinz Field when the Panthers and Minutemen square off.