Yes, Pittsburgh is a sports crazed city. And that’s OK. It may be odd to gift terrible towels to distant cousins in far away cities, but maybe that’s what you do when your city has lost its identity. All the “most livable city” awards are empty victories when the name of your most venerated sports team—the Steelers—has lost all meaning since the steel industry has unceremoniously pulled up stakes and moved away. We’ve lost the jobs, but we still have the symbol!
Even the often shameless cheapness of local professional teams—ask Troy Polamalu or Gerrit Cole—doesn’t tarnish fan loyalty. The fact that sports management demonstrate little loyalty to its ascending or descending stars leaves rabid fans unfazed.
Of course Pittsburghers have every right to pay outrageous prices for seat licenses or aftermarket tickets. They can tolerate having seats held for generations arbitrarily moved to obscure locations. And they can ecstatically throw themselves at the feet of retired sports legends. That’s the fans’ business and not a worry of the community at large.
But the city as a whole should have a different relationship with the sports teams: a relationship that should insist that the sports teams act like good citizens; a relationship that balances the passion of fans with the interests of the rest of the populace.
The institution entrusted with guaranteeing that sports teams do not abuse their popularity with unreasonable demands or neglected responsibilities is the Pittsburgh Stadium and Exposition Authority. This unelected body negotiates in our interest with sports team management.
But too often, the Authority appears to operate solely in the interest of the sports teams; too often, Authority executives surrender to the teams without a fight.
The stadium wars of the 1990s demonstrate that despite fan loyalty, our region does not want to be a financial chump for wealthy team owners. The local voters had to be hoodwinked into going along with a stealth funding plan for new stadiums. They had to stand by helplessly while stadium contracts went to out-of-town and out-of-state contractors, sham “minority” contracts were enacted, and a RAD tax that threw 10 million dollars of public funds at the stadiums for 30 years.
But the Stadium Authority never got the message of public outrage. Over a decade ago, they gifted the development rights to the adjacent lands to the North Side sports teams and their chosen developer, a Columbus, Ohio firm. Yet the Steelers/Pirates designated developer has done little. The ever generous Stadium Authority has granted them four extensions while allocated land goes unpurchased and unused.
Parking lot titan Merrill Stabile offered the Stadium Authority $10 million in 2011 for a parcel twice the size, but including the Steelers/Pirates land. The Authority turned him down, choosing to hold the 1.3 acre parcel vacant for another 5 years so that it could honor its deal to give it away for $900,000. The Steelers/Pirates have yet to exercise that option.
Stabile is the same local mogul who kicks in money to support free rides on the tunnel, to and fro the North Side, which benefits his lucrative parking lots. The Steelers and the Pirates, who benefit even more from the tunnel, refuse to kick in. Good neighbors.
Last November, the Stadium Authority agreed to move ahead with a $15 million dollar parking garage directly benefiting the two sports teams. The garage is an attempt to appease the teams’ complaints about lost parking from the long-awaited Steelers/Pirates development.
But recently, the Steelers/Pirates managements have lodged a further complaint, arrogantly demanding a “global solution” to North Side development without which they are “very, very unhappy.” After dragging their feet for over a decade, the sports teams are very unhappy?
Even the normally compliant Stadium Authority recoiled from this howler, reminding a Steelers spokesperson that they have a deal in place. When pressed– after a Stadium Authority meeting– if they want to renegotiate the contract, the Steelers spokesperson rambled on about parking access, other undeveloped parcels, etc. Clearly the sports teams are really “unhappy” about their December deadline—their fourth.
It is just as clear that the Stadium Authority is a sports team doormat. The only cure for this failing is fresh air. The appointed board—like Port Authority, and other agencies—needs citizen advocates who are not in awe of powerful interests.
Last year Allegheny County controller Chelsa Wagner proposed to conduct an audit of county agencies and authorities, including the Stadium Authority. County politicians howled in protest, refusing to permit it and forcing her to unsuccessfully appeal to the courts. One can only wonder what she might have found.