Bucs 'couldn't be happier' for fans' return

March 3rd, 2021

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the Pirates, as with all clubs. But team president Travis Williams says a plan is in place both to welcome fans back to PNC Park in ‘21 and grow the infrastructure for future success in Pittsburgh.

Speaking with reporters at LECOM Park on Wednesday, Williams said the organization is ready to host fans again after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf revised a mitigation order this week to allow for up to 20 percent of the maximum capacity at outdoor venues in the state.

“We couldn’t be happier with the governor’s decision to open it up to 20 percent,” Williams said. “For us, we’re still working through exactly how that manifests [and] looks.”

Williams said what the order means is that roughly 7,500-8,000 fans will be allowed to attend Pirates home games to start the season, though he said the final blueprints will be given in the coming days. Season-ticket holders are expected to be given priority access to seats at PNC Park, then tickets will be opened up to the general public.

The Pirates have frameworks in place to make the fan experience both more convenient and safe. Some of those changes are to the ballpark itself, including removing seating at pinch points in the concourse, as well as portable stations like condiment tables. Touchless options will become the norm, with digital ticketing, cashless and touchless payment methods and touchless faucets and fixtures in the restrooms. The Pirates have also worked to improve their HVAC systems and airflow patterns in semi-enclosed areas like suites and press boxes.

“There’s a whole host of things we’ve done, most of which we’ll be rolling out to our fan base, and we’ll see it in more detail over the coming weeks as we get ready to host them back at the ballpark,” Williams said. “But all of that has been with the fans’ health and safety in mind and making sure that they feel comfortable coming back in the ballpark.”

What transpires this month at LECOM Park may also be an indicator of what’s to come at PNC Park in 2021. The Pirates are allowing 25 percent capacity for Grapefruit League games in Bradenton, which led to an announced attendance of 1,507 for the team’s home opener vs. the Tigers on Tuesday. Many of the measures listed above are being taken in Bradenton.

“Obviously, it’s a much bigger facility, many different types of areas that you have to manage,” Williams said, “but the blueprint or the core of the plan here is very much what you’ll see and very much the core of the plan that we’ll have at PNC Park, as well.”

While the club took a hit from the pandemic, Williams said the Pirates were able to invest meaningfully in areas outside of the ballpark. Chief among them, the organization was able to grow its Dominican academy as it continues to increase its involvement in the international market.

“We’ve put in several millions of dollars in expansion of the Dominican Republic academy,” Williams said. “It allowed us to actually double the size, double the number of coaches and players that we’re able to host there.”

That estimate includes funding not only for the complex and the personnel, but for enhanced nutrition and training programs and residential experiences. 

The Pirates also added pitching mounds to their Spring Training home at LECOM Park as part of their focus on player development in the Minor Leagues. The club owns the Class A team in Bradenton, so it's able to be more hands-on there. But it has also stayed in contact with its other Minor League affiliates in Indianapolis, Altoona and Greensboro to make sure they are making the necessary improvements to their facilities as set by Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball.

“They have a period of time in which those can be done,” Williams said, “and we’re confident that they’re committed to that and there will be improvements made to those facilities.”

Williams also relayed that the Pirates have gotten clearance from MLB to continue their mass vaccination clinics at PNC Park during the regular season. In partnership with Allegheny Health Network and Highmark BlueCross BlueShield, the Pirates have already hosted two such events, immunizing thousands in western Pennsylvania.

“That’s going to be critically important not only to the country, but also it’s critically important in our business and our industry,” Williams said, “to make sure as many people can get in or have access to it as possible and allow us to get back to some sense of normalcy when it comes to the ballpark in the sense of capacity.”

In terms of naming rights at PNC Park, Williams said the two sides have made very good progress. PNC Bank has held the naming rights for the park for the past 20 years, but that contract expired after last season. According to Williams, news on that front should come very soon.

Whatever the park will be named in 2021, the Pirates expect the return of fans to be a monumental moment. Williams called fans the biggest missing piece last season, not just in terms of business but the baseball experience as a whole. Piped-in crowd noise is no replacement for the real thing, and the Pirates are eager to see fans return.

“It’s going to be an Opening Day like no other,” Williams said. “Even with limited capacity, there’s going to be a lot of excitement in the air. I think the biggest thing is it really symbolizes the power of the game and [it symbolizes] getting past the pandemic, starting to move past it and coming out of this.”