If the NFL had allowed Steelers owner Art Rooney II to make his team’s schedule this year, it sounds like he would have done his best to keep the Steelers out of prime time.
During an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week, Rooney revealed that he’s not a big fan of home prime-time games. For Rooney, the problem is that fans just aren’t showing up for night games in the same way they show up for afternoon games.
“The thing that concerns me about our attendance is more related to our schedule — I would rather not have as many night games,” Rooney said. “Last year we had three home night games almost in a row. I just don’t think our fans want to do that anymore.”
For the Steelers, attendance has been falling steadily since 2015, when the team set an all-time record with an average attendance of 64,731 fans over the course of their eight-game home schedule. In the two years since then, the Steelers have averaged 64,313 fans (2016) and 62,471 (2017).
Rooney’s obviously been keeping a close eye on the attendance number, which is probably why we shouldn’t be surprised that he wants to see fewer night games. In 2017, a big reason why the attendance average was so low was because fans just weren’t showing up for prime-time games the same way they were showing up for afternoon games. For instance, the team drew 66,237 for a Week 5 afternoon game against the Jaguars, but just 60,069 for a December Sunday night game against the Ravens, a division rival.
If you don’t count the team’s season finale against the Browns, when only 50,704 fans showed up watch the Steelers backups play against an 0-15 Browns team, you can see the giant discrepancy between night and day games. In four day games — against Minnesota, Jacksonville, Cincinnati and New England — the Steelers averaged 66,536 fans per game. In their three night games, the team averaged just 60,973 fans.
Rooney thinks part of the problem is that 18 percent of season-ticket holders live outside of the state and thousands more have to make a drive of more than three hours to get to games. That becomes a problem for fans, because it means they’re not driving home until midnight or 1 a.m. if they attend a night game.
Of course, the Steelers’ popularity is part of the problem and that’s because it’s the big reason they end up playing in so many prime-time games each year. Rooney definitely sees the irony in wanting to take his popular team out of prime time.
“It’s definitely a Catch-22,” Rooney said. “Obviously we want to be in prime time, we want to be the kind of team they put in prime time. I just think it’s a question of them spreading them out, which this year is a little better from that standpoint. When you have those sort of bunched at the end of the season when it gets cold, I think that can be a problem.”
Although the Steelers have been scheduled to play in five prime-time games this year (the league maximum), the NFL must have listened to Rooney, because the league has cut down on home prime-time games for the Steelers. Assuming they don’t get flexed, the Steelers will play only two home prime-time games this year (Week 4 vs. Baltimore and Week 10 vs. Carolina).