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Can the Steelers blame poor attendance in 2021 solely on the pandemic?

Heinz Field wasn’t the packed house in 2021 many have gotten accustomed to seeing.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers had an up and down season in 2021, to the tune of a 9-7-1 regular season record. At home, the team posted a 6-2-1 record. Compared to their road record, Heinz Field was good for the black and gold.

What wasn’t as good for the Steelers was their overall attendance at games. When the Steelers played games, it was common place to see beat writers taking photos of empty yellow seats in the middle of a quarter. NFL cameras would pan the stadium only to see empty seats throughout the game.

In 2021-2022, things were definitely different. The Steelers, like all NFL teams, were welcoming fans back to their friendly confines for the first time since 2019 in full capacity. After a year with basically no fans in 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic still in our midst, it would make sense some fans would want to stay away. However, the lack of attendance wasn’t just noticed by fans, it caught the attention of team president Art Rooney II.

Speaking with media following the completion of the 2021-2022 season, Rooney accredited the poor attendance to the pandemic, but is something the organization is looking into.

“From an attendance point of view, we don’t like having that many no-shows, and we’ve done some research on it, and I do think the pandemic played a role in that.” Rooney said. “It was an unusual season in that our highest attended games were actually the night games. There are some different things going on that we’ve got to study and understand. I think the bottom line is from what we’ve seen across the board, there’s still strong demand for our tickets. If we can get back closer to normal, I think we’ll see that attendance go back up. All in all, our fan enthusiasm is strong, and I think people are looking forward to seeing what’s next.”

Before going any further, I decided to take a look at the Steelers’ home regular season average attendance, and their home percentage of fans this past season.

2021 Home Regular Season Average: 60,488 (28th)

2021 Home Regular Season Percentage: 88.4 (29th)

Not really encouraging numbers when you look at them from a global perspective across the NFL. I wanted to take a deeper dive into the numbers, and compare them to previous seasons where fans were in attendance.

2019 Home Regular Season Average: 62,237 (24th)

2019 Home Regular Season Percentage: 91.0 (27th)

Looking at the 2019 numbers, you can see an average of almost 2,000 more people attending games. On top of that, the average percentage was up significantly. It also should be noted this was the season Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season in Week 2 after he injured his elbow vs. the Seattle Seahawks. Did that push fans away from the stadium on game days? The statistics don’t suggest that to be the case.

Going back even further, look at the 2018 and 2017 season numbers. I have to be honest, I was shocked the Steelers ranked so poorly in these two main categories.

2018 Home Regular Season Average: 63,456 (23rd)

2018 Home Regular Season Percentage: 92.8 (26th)

2017 Home Regular Season Average: 62,471 (27th)

2017 Home Regular Season Percentage: 91.3 (26th)

Of course I have to add in the fact the Steelers play in a smaller venue, when compared to other NFL stadiums. Below is the detailed information on Heinz Field.

Heinz Field: 68,400 capacity (17th largest venue)

Could the pandemic have impacted the Steelers’ attendance? Absolutely. Everyone has a different level of comfortability when it comes to going in public places which are heavily populated. However, the attendance numbers were drastic enough to get the attention of Rooney and the front office.

The NFL isn’t the only league which has seen attendance become an issue. The Steelers’ neighbors across town, the Pittsburgh Penguins, saw their home sell out streak snapped in 2021-2022, and have had more tickets available than imaginable during the Sidney Crosby era this season. When you look at a team like the Penguins, who have consistent success and more games to play, you see how the hesitance to go to games is a real thing.

These numbers shouldn’t be considered a shot across the bow of the Steelers organization, or the fan base. Everyone has a right to go, or choose not to go, to any particular game. Does the success, or lack thereof, of the team have something to do with the attendance on top of the COVID-19 pandemic? I think that is absolutely fair to say when looking at the numbers. Nonetheless, there is no doubt the pandemic has played a role in the decreased attendance at Heinz Field in 2021. Will it linger into 2022, well that has yet to be determined.

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for what could be a very eventful 2022 offseason.