What I'm about to say may shock and disturb you. I find it incomprehensible myself. But the fact remains: Not everyone who buys a ticket actually shows up at the game. Or as Steelers spokesman Ron Wahl puts it, "Just because it's a sell-out doesn't mean everyone shows up."
In the NFL, attendance is determined not by ticket sales but by turnstile count -- the number of people who show up to watch the game, not including Tommy Maddox. The Pirates, by contrast, base their attendance figures on the number of tickets sold. For purposes of figuring attendance at baseball games, it doesn't matter whether you actually show up for the game at all. (The same rule has often applied for purposes of paying players such as Derek "Operation Shutdown" Bell.)
What this means for the Steelers is that the attendance is very often less than the listed capacity of Heinz Field: 64,350 people. At almost any given game, there are hundreds or even thousands of empty seats, each one representing a fan who waited for years to buy season tickets, spent thousands of bucks when they finally became available ... and then had something better to do on game day.
Wahl says that in last year's disappointing 6-10 season, for example, the average attendance was 59,698. That works out to 4,600 no-shows every week. Even in 2002, the year the Steelers went to the AFC championship, regular-season attendance was 62,399.
I still find this astounding. What are these people doing? Working around the house? Spending time with their families? Going to church? Where are your priorities, people? Hines Ward is blocking linemen twice his size so you can bond with your kids?
Call me naïve, but whenever I've seen those empty seats on TV at kickoff, I just assumed there had to be a reason. Perhaps fans were in line for the reasonably priced beverages on offer. Perhaps they were reluctant to leave the handsomely appointed bathroom facilities at Heinz Field. But maybe the plain truth is just this: We Steelers fans are just a fickle bunch. I was at a game once when a guy two rows behind me was screaming, "I paid too much for these tickets!" -- after the second play of the game.
We're always ready to back a winner, of course. I was at my local bank branch two days before the game against Cleveland, and everyone working there was in Steelers regalia. Yet the week before, there was not a jersey to be found anywhere in the place, even though the team was 6-1 and had just beaten the champion New England Patriots.
I can understand the bank's caution: I want to know that my bank is backing a winner. If my teller is wearing a Bettis jersey and the Steelers are 1-6, I'm going to withdraw my money. But wasn't beating the defending Super Bowl champs reason enough to get excited?
None of the tellers were able to explain the policy. Maybe there's a Vice President of Steelers Apparel, who follows the NFL standings and, after adjusting for strength of schedule, makes the call to officially sanction bank-employee enthusiasm.
During those good times, it's possible to have more people at Steelers games than the stadium's listed capacity. At this year's Steelers/Eagles game, for example, there were 64,975 tickets sold -- 625 more than the stadium's listed capacity.
How? For this game, the team put some extra seating in one end zone to accommodate family members of the 1979 team, which was being honored at the game. But attendance can actually be larger than total capacity for another reason. Says Wahl, "People who have the [luxury] suites are able to purchase additional tickets for guests." That's right: Elite Steelers fans can enjoy the ultimate luxury: the choice to fill up their suites until they are almost as cramped as ... regular seats at Heinz Field.
Of course, that's not to say that the additional guests watch the game, either; each luxury suite comes with a television, bar and buffet table. But when the luxury-box set decides not to watch a game, they do it in style.