Mike Tomlin isn’t much on public gratitude. Still, the perpetually focused Pittsburgh Steelers coach went out of his way to thank the fans who showed up at Heinz Field to watch his team drum the Buffalo Bills 23-10 on Sunday for its third win of the season.
“It’s not something we take for granted,” Tomlin said.
A crowd of 60,406 turned out to watch two teams with a combined 5-12 record play on a cold, blustery day more suited for late-December than three weeks before Thanksgiving. The 5,000 or so who bought their tickets but chose to not make it through the turnstiles were conspicuous, their absence marked by pockets of open gold seats in certain portions of the stadium tucked tight against the Allegheny River.
Welcome to life in the new NFL, where “sellouts” are the norm but full houses are becoming the exception, and not just in places like woeful Jacksonville.
Blame it on mediocre teams. Blame it on rising ticket prices. Blame in on the comfort of your couch, where it doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars to sit, and the cold beer in your fridge, the one that doesn’t cost $8 a bottle.
The Steelers (3-6), who have six Vince Lombardi Trophies in the lobby at team headquarters, are in danger of posting their lowest average attendance since 2003, when they limped to a 6-10 record and missed the playoffs.
The franchise is on a similar trajectory this fall in a place that can be tough — by NFL standards — to completely fill even when times are good. Pittsburgh is averaging 61,465 through four home dates, the lowest over the same span since Heinz Field opened in 2001.
It’s a trend hitting the league regardless of market size or on-field success. In 2008, only five teams played to stadiums less than 95 percent full. That number has doubled this season at a time when TV ratings are at their best since 2006.
Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery was on the 2007 Jets that limped to a 4-12 record. As the season wore on and the losses mounted, things got weird.
“Pittsburgh came to town but it felt like an away game,” Cotchery said. “It was so loud in there. I remember us doing silent count and all of that stuff at home. But we were a bad team. I probably wouldn’t want to take my kid out in the cold and watch a bad team play football.”
It can lead, in some instances, to the unnerving realization that players can’t simply rely on the juice — or the vitriol — from the crowd to get amped up.
“When we play on the road, certain places are just known for being quiet,” Cincinnati left tackle Andrew Whitworth said.
The Steelers plan to add an additional 3,000 seats at Heinz Field, even though they’ve never averaged more than 63,458 per game since its debut in 2001. All that’s left is deciding who picks up most of the tab. The issue remains in the Pittsburgh courts, though whenever the expansion is complete, the same factors that fans face every Sunday will remain in place.
“It’s just how it works,” Cotchery said. “When you’re losing like [we did in New York], those decisions have to be made. Do I go to the game or do I not go to the game? I know it’s tough.”