ANALYSIS: Pittsburgh’s Sports Appetite Robust, Leaves Little Room For Riverhounds, Soccer

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The Penguins warm up before games by playing the world’s most popular sport. (Photo courtesy NBC Sports)

There is little doubt that Pittsburgh is a fantastic sports town — and the fans here are some of the most loyal and passionate in the world.

We are seeing that this week as the Penguins make a run at their fourth Stanley Cup.   This current run of the Pittsburgh Penguins has been magical, as the team is peaking,  Pittsburghers are enjoying every minute of the ride.

Our region’s three major sports franchises: Steelers, Pirates and Penguins are all doing very well of late –and are established entities that have deep loyal fan bases — along with the area’s sports media and news outlets divulge much of their time, energy and attention too these teams.

The Pirates are coming off three consecutive playoff appearances, and have some of the best players in baseball — and there’s no arguing that the Steelers have earned their well-established place in the city as a Six-time Super Bowl Champion — filling up Heinz Field eight times per year — while developing a world-wide appeal that is on par with any pro sports franchise in the world.

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds Soccer Club has been around since 1999, established as a second and now third division franchise in the United States’ rapidly growing professional soccer pyramid.

Since the Riverhounds’ engineered a move into the Highmark Stadium on the South Side in 2013, they have increased visibility not only for the franchise — but for soccer in the Pittsburgh region — having a stadium that is now a part of the City’s landscape on the banks of the Three Rivers.

Despite the increased awareness with terrific new digs — and a tremendous growth in the game in the United States even in the past few years — the Riverhounds remain on the back-burner in the pecking order of the Pittsburgh sports menu.

With new franchises that have popped up in the United Soccer League that are not too far away in FC Cincinnati (who have been drawing nearly 20,000 fans a game) and Louisville City FC playing before steady and larger crowds – it raised eyebrows and made some of us in the Pittsburgh soccer community question why the Riverhounds can’t seem to generate that level of interest in a region that has so many passionate sports fans?

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The answer is pretty simple.

The Penguins.

The Steelers.

The Pirates.

Pittsburghers already have a very healthy sports viewing appetite.

Not to mention the slew of high school and college sports that our region also generate a lot of interest.

Soccer remains passe at times — and niche at others.

And maybe even more-so, soccer’s impending growth (oh yes it is happening and it is coming) remains stagnant in our region primarily because there are three very good sports franchises already established that generations of sports fans have lived (and died) with — and many of these same fans see soccer as an international and foreign sport.

Despite this, the growth of soccer has been strong in our own communities with record numbers of youth participating in the game.

It’s primarily the generational gap that really has been one of the toughest hurdles for professional soccer to welcome more new fans in our region.

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FC Cincinnati has seen more than 20,000 fans at Nippert Stadium on multiple occasions in their first season.

Unlike similar sized cities like Cincinnati, Sacramento, San Antonio and Orlando, which don’t have as many major pro sports teams,where soccer games are attended by fans in five-digit numbers, getting 4,000 fans for a Riverhounds game seems like a monumental achievement.

One thing that Cincinnati did recently was do some cross promotions and involved some of their other sports franchises to help boost interest.  And this ironically involved the game against the rival city of Pittsburgh — as members of the Cincinnati Bengals including PacMan Jones and Vonteze Burfict — served as honorary captains for the game against the Riverhounds on May 14.

This Saturday evening, when they take on the Charleston Battery at 7 p.m. at Highmark Stadium in a match that will feature the return of Rob Vincent (the Hounds leading scorer from 2015) for a one-game loan from D.C. United, the Riverhounds will be up against the following:

  • Penguins Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
  • Pirates home game against the Mike Trout and the Angels of Anaheim.

This isn’t going to change that much.

Pittsburgh media outlets cover soccer with minimum coverage, with some exceptions (kudos to DKSportsPgh for providing on-site coverage of both home and road Hounds games).

The only time that the team is discussed on local sports talk shows is when there’s controversy (Romeo Parkes incident comes to mind) or a true “event” or “happening” on the level of Highmark Stadium’s opening — or when DC United played in Pittsburgh in the U.S. Open Cup last June.  Often, it’s even a rare moment when Riverhounds scores or recaps are shared on the news or sports reports or seen beyond the back pages of the major newspaper outlets.

Even two prominent members local sports media — who have backgrounds having played and/or have reported on soccer — were making fun (in somewhat misleading fashion about the upcoming Copa America)  earlier in the week about the status of soccer in our area/country…

It almost seems as if it’s the thing to do — put soccer down in a way that leads most to believe that no one cares.

There are some old-school news media folks that just don’t want any part of soccer.   That’s fine I suppose — as they are a part of that generational gap that was previously mentioned.

But there is a growing audience for soccer — even in our region.

There have been nice showings at games held at Heinz Field the last two summers — for both Manchester City-AC Milan pre-season International Champions Cup game (attendance: 34,000+) and the United States Women’s Soccer team’s first appearance after its World Cup win in Canada (attendance:  42,000+).

And when these “events” happen in our City — it’s is obviously great for the growth of soccer in our region, but then also creates some of the head-scratching discussion about Major League Soccer coming to Pittsburgh and the predictable “Can Soccer Make it in the U.S.” talk.

For one thing — I addressed this MLS topic in a column about a year ago.  Yes — the reality is that Pittsburgh has a long way to go before we could entertain the thought of have an MLS team in our City.

If you read that piece, you will also recognize that professional soccer can have its place here in our City — and thrive on a certain level.

But, we’re still waiting for the thriving part to happen – as we’ve only seen glimpses.

As Pittsburgh’s mainstay franchises aren’t going anywhere maybe the Hounds can embrace them even more and not try to compete with them.

There should be room for everyone.

The Steelers can benefit by showing support to the Riverhounds and soccer in our area — as Heinz Field should be a destination point for at least one big soccer game a year — and the U.S. Soccer Federation should consider having international matches here every so often.

Yes — it’s a great sports town — so having a USMNT or USWNT World Cup Qualifier in Pittsburgh could show how passionate our fan base could be when there’s a soccer game played here of some significant magnitude.

Most of the Penguins players love soccer enough that they play it in their pre-game warm-up rituals.

And we’ve seen numerous Pirates players on occasion juggling a ball.

It’s the world’s game.

It’s time that Pittsburgh embraces it in a bigger ways

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