Pittsburgh doesn’t get to host a lot of soccer matches between major international club teams, and it’s not a regular stop for United States national teams to play friendlies and World Cup qualifiers either.
In the past 14 years, while there’s only a small sample size, there has been incremental growth in attendance for soccer matches played at Heinz Field.
Until this week.
That’s probably why it was a bit disappointing for those in Pittsburgh’s soccer circles (as I would imagine the event organizers too) with the attendance for Wednesday night’s match between two of Europe’s most storied soccer clubs, Borussia Dortmund of Germany (Bundesliga) and Benfica of Portugal (Liga1).
The attendance announced in the second half of the match was 16,717.
Make no mistake, strictly from a soccer standpoint, this was a really good match-up.
Each team plays an attractive, fun-to-watch style of play. Both clubs at this moment are going through some transition, and looking to improve upon disappointing 2017-18 campaigns. Each came to the U.S., and Pittsburgh with something to prove while in preseason.
You know what? It made for a really good preseason battle between world class players for those who were actually in attendance.
All of that really wasn’t enough to move the needle for most Pittsburghers — or even soccer fans willing to make the trip to Pittsburgh from greater distances.
This was the third time Heinz Field hosted a match between European clubs, and the fifth match overall, as two United States Women’s National Team matches were played here in 2004 and 2015.
Until last night, the attendance numbers for soccer matches have grown incrementally over the years.
In 2004, when Chelsea (England/Barclays Premier League) and AS Roma (Italy/Serie A) played here, they drew 25.317.
Ten years later, Manchester City (England/Barclay’s Premier League) and AC Milan (Italy/Serie A) drew 34,347.
The following year, in its first appearance following the 2015 World Cup victory, the USWNT played before 44,028 fans excited to catch a glimpse of hometown hero Megan Klingenberg. In its first go-around in 2004, the USWNT only drew 6,386 as part of its Gold medal celebration tour.
So, why the significant drop this time around?
There are probably a myriad of reasons for this.
1. Teams / Star power
Despite the draw of Christian Pulisic, potentially one of the best young players our country has ever produced and who is also a Pennsylvania native, the 19-year old plays for a team is growing its reputation globally, but still not exactly a household name in these parts.
It appears on the surface that it was a nice coincidence that Pulisic’s father is currently in Pittsburgh, coaching the Riverhounds, that Dortmund would be one of the teams of choice from International Champions Cup to play at Heinz Field. There were other obvious tie-ins that made Dortmund a great fit to play, and be the ‘home’ team in this match-up, from their Yellow and Black colors and also coming from an industrial city in Germany that resembles Pittsburgh in numerous ways. Pittsburgh also has a rich heritage of German-Americans, from Heinz family and company to the Deutschtown neighborhood in the shadows of Heinz Field.
It was the other choice — Benfica — that immediately provided doubts in my mind about drawing power in these parts. Pittsburgh’s Portuguese-American population is very small, showing only a sliver of growth recently. For the record, in 2010, Pittsburgh’s population was 1.56 percent Latino. That figure inched up to 1.9 percent by 2014.
Don’t get me wrong, Benfica is an outstanding club and has a strong reputation worldwide (except maybe as Riverhounds Rabbi pointed out in his match preview — they do like to develop players and sell them off to bigger clubs)
The previous two matches at Heinz between European clubs featured English and Italian teams with strong worldwide followings. Manchester City and AC Milan brought lots of fans here in 2014. The Chelsea-Roma match was the first of its kind in this region, and drew a lot of curiosity seekers.
Dortmund played two of the biggest names in English soccer, drawing more than 34K in Chicago on Friday against Manchester City, then saw a very impressive 55.447 fans in Charlotte when taking on Liverpool, in a city that has a USL team that only draws 2,500 people a game.
Bottom line — the bigger brand name recognition — the potential for bigger crowds.
On the same night, there were four other ICC matches being played in the United States, each with bigger crowds, and bigger name teams with more drawing power.
One other note about Pulisic being a draw — he admittedly had almost no connection with Pittsburgh. His popularity is not in question here (just take a look at the number of people who showed up to get autographs at Highmark Stadium on Tuesday).
— Borussia Dortmund (@BVB) July 24, 2018
Also, it’s not like we can’t see him play in this country either, so his drawing card is a bit limited in that respect. He will be here playing for USMNT in friendlies — probably as short drives as Columbus (we still hope!), Washington D.C., New York or Philadelphia to name a few places he would play. This was my second match watching him play in person (and as I pointed out in my game report — he didn’t leave many disappointed).
2. Weeknight game
I’ll keep this one short. The two largest crowds to watch games at Heinz Field were on Sunday afternoon games, held in 2014 and 2015.
Playing a game at 8 p.m. on a weeknight — although in the summer months when school is out — probably limited some of the attendance too.
3. ICC / Ticket Prices
There was no shortage of advertising for this match. The ICC and the company behind the match, Relevant, Inc. included an aggressive advertising campaign that included billboards, banners and ads on local internet sites and on radio stations just to name a few.
Ticket prices weren’t exactly cheap either.
ICC charges between $54 and $254 for tickets. But there were opportunities to purchase discounted tickets as groups including the Riverhounds, PA West and a few others were offered deals brokered with game organizers.
The low attendance numbers shouldn’t deter the ICC or in the future, the United States Soccer Federation from considering Pittsburgh as a host for upcoming games. What it will do though, is to make sure they can find the right fit for Heinz Field to host intriguing matches that will bring out bigger numbers. That unfortunately may not come around most years, and that’s probably why Pittsburgh will only be in the rotation every so many years.
4. Growth of game in our region
Hear me out for a second on this one.
This is where there’s still lots of room for improvement and always among the biggest topics in soccer circles, and maybe more annoyingly among mainstream media every time the World Cup (or a big soccer game/event) rolls around.
While Western PA will produce occasional players that move on to the pro ranks, this is a region that’s still way behind many areas. Pulisic came out of Central PA, so there is a blueprint for young players in our region that can potentially get recognized and find opportunities to reach the highest levels.
The Riverhounds Development Academy is still fairly in its infancy stages, but the amount of money and investment toward providing better training facilities is gaining steam. The next real step will be being part of getting more people excited about soccer and provide opportunities for kids from all backgrounds and economic backgrounds to play the game at highest levels possible.
Last night, two players, Pulisic and Keaton Parks, both 19-and-20 years of age respectively, who are part of the Unites States player team pool were on the field.
That’s a positive sign that they’ve landed on rosters with some of the best clubs in the world. In the entire ICC tournament, they are the only two Americans represented.
Overall, we have a long way to go.
But, if Pittsburgh area produced a local player of interest on the men’s side, it could provide a greater drawing card.
We’ve seen this on the women’s side with Klingenberg, on that magical Sunday afternoon in August 2015, as the largest crowd to watch a soccer match in Pittsburgh witnessed.
The success of the Riverhounds may or may not directly impact the potential to bring international clubs to this region, but they can do their part.
In 2013, the Riverhounds hosted English side Wigan Athletic FC at Highmark Stadium before a standing room only crowd. It was a fun atmosphere and this provided the most intimate and appealing international friendly played here in recent memory. There are probably many first or even second division clubs that could play the Riverhounds that would make for a very intriguing and fun night of soccer. Matches like this can only help grow the game and bring more interest.
Right now, Pittsburgh soccer fans should appreciate having a game like this here every three or four years and be considered on the rotation.
5. Soccer is number five at best
Make no mistake, it would be great to see Pittsburgh host more matches with international clubs.
In the overall scheme of things, in the United States, despite all of the positive vibes and growth, and having a league that has gotten better (MLS) soccer remains behind the longer established sports (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) in terms of relevancy.
And in Pittsburgh, where the generational divide with interest in soccer is pretty divided, even the younger generation of fans are still a bit more skeptical of soccer, even if many have played it as youth. This is where the Riverhounds have struggled to gain notice, but they’re in a city which sports culture has firmly been entrenched with Steelers, Penguins and Pirates — then Pitt football and basketball.
While soccer is immersed deeply in the culture of most every country in the world as either the number one (or top two or three sport), here it still remains number five.
And when soccer is number five — at best on the totem pole of sports choices — when two teams that most people haven’t heard of, with players most locals can’t identify with come to play at Heinz Field, interest is going to be limited.