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Are Steelers losing fan support? TV ratings fall 10%, exacerbating attendance losses

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Fans watch an NFL game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021. The Steelers finished 28th in NFL attendance this season with 60,488 fans per game, which represents just 88.4% of capacity.

Ben Roethlisberger's final season wasn't enough to save the Steelers from sharp attendance drops at Heinz Field this past year. And as it turns out, it wasn't enough to keep fans tuned in from their living rooms, either.

Local television ratings published by Sports Business Journal on Monday show that the team suffered one of the biggest drops within its own market in the entire NFL, with fully 10% of its audience fleeing between 2020 and 2021.

Only Houston (18%), Chicago (14%), and Seattle (14%) experienced bigger declines within their markets, and none of those teams made the playoffs as the Steelers did.

The bad news is mitigated a bit by the team's overall rating of 36.24, which stacked up well with competitors. That number was the best in the AFC North, edging out Cleveland's 35.19, and ranked behind only Kansas City and Buffalo within the AFC. Green Bay and New Orleans, meanwhile, were the only NFC teams to post better numbers.

Still, the double-digit percentage drop is a discouraging sign for a marquee franchise that's historically posted numbers at least in the 40s while consistently selling out its stadium.

That was decidedly not the case in 2021, as the team finished 28th in attendance with 60,488 fans per game, which represents just 88.4% of capacity.

COVID-19 may have been a contributing factor to that drop, as 28% of respondents to a Post-Gazette poll in October cited it as an issue. A 53% majority, however, blamed recent mediocrity and early playoff exits.

Consider that with the verdict rendered by the ratings, and the conclusion seems clear: The brand simply isn't enough alone, regardless of the pandemic.

Perhaps that goes with the territory of failing to win a playoff game in the past five seasons for the first time since the early 1970s. The Steelers last triumphed in the postseason late in the 2016 campaign.

Fortunately for owner Art Rooney II and his minority partners, local revenue accounts for only a small chunk of his franchise's net worth. Forbes estimated in September that just $190 million of the franchise's $3.43 billion valuation can be attributed to its market. That's just over 5%, so the core business tied heavily into the league's record-breaking television deals remains healthy.

League-wide, the big winners in the local ratings were the Los Angeles Chargers (25%), Dallas (23%), Carolina (19%) and Arizona (19%.)