I’m sure you’ve heard the expression — the more things change, the more they stay the same.
That certainly applies to the attendance challenges for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.
“There’s a popular Twitter account called Empty Seats Galore. The Riverhounds had better hope shots from Highmark Stadium don’t become featured regularly on this account,”
John Krysinsky, Pittsburgh Sports Report, April 2015.
This was something I wrote three years ago this week — in an article on Pittsburgh Sports Report titled White Elephant at Highmark Stadium.
That was the last time the Riverhounds got off to a pretty good start, with a team that was doing some exciting things on the field.
In fact, they were led by a USL Hall of Fame coach, Mark Steffens, who brought an exciting style of play to Pittsburgh, in the first month of the season they had become the highest scoring team in the league. A pair of third-year Hounds, Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr, had suddenly become the focal point of the team’s attack along with a young, versatile midfielder in his first-year as a pro, Lebo Moloto.
Doesn’t this all sound very similar?
The 2018 edition of the Riverhounds also have brought in a Hall of Fame coach, Bob Lilley, in his first year in Pittsburgh he has assembled a squad that has not lost in its first five games and boast a deep roster filled with both veterans and young players.
Entering this new season after two sub par campaigns, things have have a different feel on the South Side. There is an aura of excitement among those of us that are around the team and even around USL — with good reason — and a feeling that this could be a special season for the Riverhounds SC.
In addition to bringing in Lilley, a coach who has never missed playoffs and won two championships at this level, the club announced a slight name change and re-branded as Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC with a new look that’s centered around a sharp new crest that pays tribute to the City of Pittsburgh’s history and the team’s standing tradition as one of USL’s ‘old guard’ franchises.
As part of USL’s initiative to ensure that all teams meet US Soccer standards, which include facilities that have more than 5,000 seats, Highmark Stadium, now in its sixth season as the home of the Riverhounds, is set to add 1,500 more seats, though the only the additional two rows of river side seating has been completed thus far.
For the most part, in these early days, Lilley’s club has delivered on the field.
The Hounds have yet to lose a game. Lilley’s unique coaching style promises unpredictability, discipline and a one-of-a-kind approach to winning soccer. Despite his long-track record of success as a coach, that has boasted some of the best defensive units in USL’s modern era, Lilley has assembled a team in Pittsburgh that is attack-minded and can be fun to watch.
Outside of the core group of fans and another strong showing early in the season by club’s supporters group, the Steel Army, few in Pittsburgh have taken notice that the Hounds are 2-0-3, and only one of two teams in USL’s Eastern Conference without a loss.
The one alarming parallel between 2015 and 2018 through the first three games is lousy attendance.
In 2015, the Hounds were averaging 1,838 fans per game.
In 2018, after three home games, they’re averaging 1,556 fans per game.
For the record, here are the Hounds official attendance numbers since moving into Highmark Stadium in 2013:
|2014||USL Pro||11th||Did not qualify|
|2015||USL||5th, Eastern||Conference 1st Round|
|2016||USL||13th, Eastern||Did not qualify|
|2017||USL||13th, Eastern||Did not qualify|
Adding salt to the wound for the Hounds has been the fact that they’ve had to play its first two road games before lively crowds in excess of 18,000 and 24,000 fans in Nashville and Cincinnati respectively, but come home to play before a faithful 2,000 people.
Where are the soccer fans in Pittsburgh?
Oh, there’s the usual list of excuses that I’ve heard over the years, and it gets tiring to hear these constantly repeated.
The only legitimate excuse that has contributed to the overall poor attendance average was that the second game against Toronto FC II, where only 840 fans witnessed a 4-0 Hounds win, as the game was switched to Pittsburgh only two days before it was played due to Toronto was having problems with BMO Field after a Champions League match.
Still, there were two other games. To have only 2,006 fans for it’s long awaited home opener vs Penn FC, and follow that up with just 1,823 for an exciting 1-0 win over Ottawa, is disappointing.
Bring on the excuses. I think I’ve heard them all.
It’s only March and April, wait until the weather gets better.
The Penguins are in the playoffs. The Pirates have started its season.
They’re a minor league team.
I’d rather watch EPL or La Liga.
Wait until they start winning.
Wait, wait, wait — please stop right there.
The Riverhounds are winning.
And yet, it’s the same old song and dance.
To its credit, it’s not like the organization isn’t putting in an effort to lure more fans, even with limited resources compared to cities like Nashville and Cincinnati that are already a part of — or will likely be part of — Major League Soccer.
The Hounds have been spending money on advertising — with a pretty extensive billboard campaign and some additional TV and radio spots here and there. Its promotions department is working on various tie-ins and cross-marketing efforts. They have some good partnerships in the community. And as Lilley said, the growth of its youth academy has provided a foundation to be excited about.
Even this season, the Hounds have a deal with Pittsburgh’s CBS affiliate CW to carry many games on the local television channel.
Team owner Tuffy Shallenberger, who owns Shallenberger Construction, a Fayette County based company, has been rolling out mobile billboards on trucks making their way around Pennsylvania’s roadways.
— Tuffy Shallenberger (@Tuffy_Shall) April 18, 2018
But is all of this enough?
So far — it’s not.
In 2015, when the Hounds had some marquee wins including Open Cup triumph over Tampa Bay Rowdies, then a “Miracle” win over rivals Harrisburg, those games were played before sporadic crowds.
The win over Tampa Bay finally brought an MLS opponent to Pittsburgh that June, as DC United drew a standing room crowd for a 4th round Open Cup encounter (DC won 3-1 in 2OT), providing an atmosphere that has been mostly lacking for a good part of the past six years.
As many of us who were there on that momentous night have said — wouldn’t it be great if the Hounds could generate that kind of excitement on a regular basis and have more people in our region get caught up in the excitement of a full soccer season.
It’s also a much longer season than ever — with more home games (17) as part of an unprecedented schedule. The Hounds have to try to fill the seats for more than twice as many games as an NFL team, and yet substantially less than its NHL and Major League Baseball counterparts in the Steel City.
And that’s what we’re still waiting for. That’s what the hard-core soccer community and ongoing supporters of the Riverhounds SC have already embraced — whether the large crowds come or not. And those true fans should be applauded.
I’ve also written about how difficult it is for the Hounds to break into the conversation when there are three extremely well-established pro sports teams and an additional sporting culture that people follow from college, high school and youth teams — that are in direct competition.
The reality is even on this site, which is devoted to coverage of soccer in our region, our numbers and readership spikes when there are stories about high school and youth soccer, and even the recent announcement of the Borussia Dortmund-Benfica match at Heinz Field drew higher numbers than our ongoing Riverhounds coverage.
It doesn’t help that the City’s two major print media outlets — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review — no longer have a regular beat writer assigned to covering the team and neither have covered a game yet this season.
So, the struggle continues, continuing with another home game on Saturday against a side we know little about –Atlanta United 2.
The faithful will be there — including yours truly — as we here at Pittsburgh Soccer Now, and the MonGoals gang are dedicated to covering it all from pregame to postgame analysis.
With Lilley and the team doing their part — the possibility for that elusive Open Cup home game vs a Major League Soccer team and also the potential for the Hounds to host a playoff game in October are probably the stronger than ever — but not guaranteed by any means.
For the Hounds, they’ll have to keep the faith, and hope that ultimately, winning will indeed turn things in positive direction — and the seeds of their work (new TV deal, expanded seating, new crest/identity, building a winning product) will blossom and more fans will start to jump along for the ride.