Monday, June 25, 2012

Major League Baseball Starts to Fulfill its True Potential in Pittsburgh

A few weeks ago I read a blog post written by a young PR professional who centered the piece on the communications lessons that can be taken from the movie “The Princess Bride.”  Being the father of two boys, nothing in my experience enabled me to relate to the post.  Needless to say I didn’t see the movie.

What I did gain was an appreciation for what so many sports agnostics over the years have had to endure when their sports-crazed counterparts used sports analogies as part of countless business presentations, books, workshops and meetings.

The point is, if the audience doesn’t have a shared experience, it’s hard to connect with everyone, so that when sports is the launching point, you risk losing a good chunk of your audience. 

I say all this with a warning, this blog post is about sports, but it is also about a shared experience that anyone with an interest in business and regional pride can appreciate.  But please bear with me, because I have to talk a little baseball. 

From 1987 to 1997, I provided PR counsel to the Pittsburgh Pirates.  There were many people inside the Pirate organization and outside consultants who worked together during a key time in the history of the franchise.  A group of civic-minded corporations formed an innovative public-private partnership to purchase the Major League franchise to keep it in Pittsburgh.  Over the course of those years, many issues arose in the media that were not without controversy.

Organizationally, there were periodic leadership changes.  The fiscal operation of the club made news more often than it ever had under private ownership.  The economic challenges of operating a professional baseball franchise in Pittsburgh were daunting.  TV contracts didn’t favor small market teams like the Pirates.  Attendance was dropping off.  The team didn’t always do well on the field.  And Three Rivers Stadium, while hardly ancient, was quickly becoming obsolescent in a new age of professional sports.

In public debate over how much public support the Pirates required, the franchise was starting to be perceived as an expensive luxury a shrinking region couldn’t afford.

The battle raged between those who felt too much is made of professional sports, and those who either had an emotional attachment to the Pirates, or who saw the presence of professional baseball as integral to maintaining the region’s “major league” status among the nation’s leading cities.

During those years my focus was on providing PR support to the club on business issues.  No baseball beat writer ever called me to find out about roster changes or who would pitch on Saturday.

By the time I left the agency where we helped the Pirates through some turbulent times, new ownership had taken over from the public-private partnership and we were well on our way to making a case for the development of PNC Park.

What I remember most about all of those years were the promises we helped the Pirates make to the community.  Regardless of who was in charge, the message was always that a successful Major League Baseball franchise is an economic asset to the region that once lost it would be virtually impossible to replace.  And that only when you lose it will you realize the ripple effect it will have well beyond hard core baseball fans.

In our work to gain public support for the building of a new ballpark, new ownership worked tirelessly to paint a picture of the kind of catalyst it would be for so many good things.

The new ballpark opened in 2001 and remains one of the most fan-friendly and beautiful baseball venues anywhere.  While the Pirates have never had a winning season in the park, fans have come out year after year to enjoy a baseball game.  In addition to what the club meant to the regular fan, the Pirates served a valuable purpose for local business, providing marketing opportunities and a range of ticket packages for corporate entertainment.

Perhaps most importantly to the non-baseball fan, PNC Park and its neighbor Heinz Field, have combined to drive development on Pittsburgh’s North Shore in such a way that the city often shines to the rest of the world when major events are held in the facilities or even nearby on the rivers and in the city.

In 2012 it’s safe to say that even after many years of subpar baseball, the presence of a Major League Franchise in a first class facility has proven to be extremely valuable to the region on a number of levels – tourism, real estate development, jobs, entertainment and hospitality options, tax revenue, and even the intangibles like hometown pride, corporate talent recruitment, and quality of life.

In the PR business, many of these things factor into a region’s brand identity.

What’s Different in 2012

It’s now 2012 and the Pirates still have not completed a winning season.  So what’s changed?  

They’re winning.  On the field and off the field the Pirates are starting to fulfill their true potential to the region for the first time since the arrival of PNC Park.

Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you have to love it when Downtown Pittsburgh is abuzz with activity on game days.  Hotels are full, restaurants are busy, Pittsburgh pride is on display as thousands walk along riverfront walkways in their black and gold, the sun shines down in the day, or the fans cheer under starry skies and, of course, fireworks.

Add to this the Three Rivers Arts Festival in June or the Three Rivers Regatta in July when the Pirates are playing and the city comes into its own like none other.  In the summer, Pittsburgh puts its best foot forward in a big way.

And winning does matter. When the Pirates win and they are having a great season so far, the fans come out in larger numbers.  On a few days in June, PNC Park was filled to its 37,000-seat capacity, which provides the stimulus for so much more activity outside the ball field.  But it doesn’t end there.

Don’t Discount the Effect Sports has on a Region

Baseball’s critics have certainly not gone away.  Some still question the amount of public monies that have gone into stadiums and infrastructure around stadiums.  And then there are those who wonder about the cult of celebrity that exists in sports.

Those who feel that people have confused their priorities when it comes to sports celebrity may have a point, but that’s not my focus here.

My focus is on what a successful sports organization can do for a region and how the relationship between that organization and the people can lead to bigger things.

In Pittsburgh, we’ve seen it when the Steelers have won championships, when the Penguins have won championships, and when our colleges have done well in football and basketball.

Success on the field, on the court or on the ice can be inspiring to a region.  It can bring out a hometown pride that’s already there, even if it’s been dormant for a while.  It can improve morale.  It can lead to a lot of fun.  And that’s just for the adults.

For kids, it can be more than that.  Little boys and girls bond with their families when they go to games or even watch them on TV.  When they make it to the ballpark, they’re entertained by so much off the field, it’s a wonder they know they were at a baseball game by the time they get home.  And then there are those kids who, thanks to the Pirates, develop a love for the game.  Maybe they play Little League, or maybe they don’t.  But there’s something about the game that draws them.

They become loyal fans, and even over the course of 20 years without a winning season, they’re still there. 

When the Pirates come into their own once again, those fans are the ones who drive all the good that comes from having a Major League team.  They bring the city and the region to life again in the summer. 

And those of us who remember some of the darkest days for baseball know that all the hard work and patience from so many was worth it.

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