How Kevin McClatchy Made Pittsburgh "The City of Champions" Again

Marky BillsonContributor IJune 21, 2009

27 May 1997:  Kevin McClatchy of the Pittsburgh Pirates stands in the bleacher during a game against the Houston Astros at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Astros won the game 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Jed Jacobsohn  /Allsport

In this second generation of Pittsburgh’s “City of Champions” title, it’s time to thank the man who made it all happen.


Kevin McClatchy.


What? The former owner of the Pirates who never produced so much as a winning record? The man who went from being a vibrant, popular young owner to a grey-haired miser in the public’s eyes in just a decade?


How is he responsible for the Steelers winning the Super Bowl and the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup?


By laying the groundwork for the construction of not just PNC Park, but Heinz Field and ultimately the Consul Energy Center as well.


The story begins in 1996, when McClatchy bought the Pirates from Pittsburgh Associates.


At the time, McClatchy was looked upon as a white knight. After Pittsburghmayor Tom Murphy badly mismanaged the Pirates’ sale, McClatchy came in with a large group of investors to rescue the Bucs from any potential move.


Upon the purchase, McClatchy insisted the Pirates needed a new ballpark to replace Three Rivers Stadium.


It was a tough sell. Remember, in 1996 the new stadium boom in professional sports was just starting, and Three Rivers was still only 26 years old.


Five years earlier Mayor Sophie Masloff had announced her desire for a new baseball-only park alongside Three Rivers and was looked upon as delusional by Pittsburghers. Yes, a view of the city’s skyline while watching a baseball game would be nice, but the $219 million price tag would not. Masloff did not run for re-election in 1993.


But McClatchy’s demand spearheaded construction of all the new sports facilities in Pittsburgh. Soon the Pirates didn’t just need a new yard, but the Steelers, stating a new stadium would cost just as much as refurbishing Three Rivers, decided it was the proper time to get into the act.


Since it’s a tough sell to get the government to allot more than $200 million for a new stadium with only 10 scheduled events a year, the University of Pittsburgh was lured to the new football stadium as well, abandoning 74-year old Pitt Stadium and building a new basketball arena in its place.


Yes, Western Pennsylvaniavoters rejected a sales tax increase to fund the new yards in 1997. But McClatchy had too many local investors in his ownership group to consider selling the team to interests that would have moved it elsewhere and the groundwork had to build the new stadiums had already been done.


McClatchy had made enough civic, political, and financial ties to keep the team in town, and had convinced them a new ballpark was needed for the Pirates.

With this, a domino effect occurred where every sports franchise wanted to, and eventually did, get into the act, and enough momentum was established for the public money to be allotted to build the stadiums without a sales tax increase.


Is it coincidence the Steelers went from 22-26 during their final years at Three Rivers to six division titles and two Super Bowl Championships in their first eight years at Heinz Field?


Is it coincidence the Pitt men’s basketball team went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine seasons in their first year at the Peterson Events Center and became a national power?


Is it coincidence Pitt’s women’s basketball team became a nationally ranked program for the first time in their history upon moving into “The Pete” as well?


Is it coincidence Pitt’s football team went to five straight bowls for the first time in a generation upon moving? Or that the Penguins’ success coincides with the promise of future earnings to be made in the Consul Energy Center?


No more so than it was coincidence the Pirates won the World Series in the first year at Forbes Field and second at Three Rivers, or that the Panthers won five football and two men’s basketball national championships within a 12-year period upon moving into multipurpose Pitt Stadium (Pitt’s cagers played in a pavilion inside Pitt Stadium during this era).

No more so than the fact that the Steelers’ dynasty occurred within three years of moving to Three Rivers, or that once the Civic Arena was built the AHL Hornets returned after a five-year hiatus, leading to the creation of the Penguins six years later.


Ironically, if any team failed to benefit from the modern local stadium boom, it was the Pirates.

Luxury box revenue aside, it could be argued it would be easier to build a championship team in a small market with speed and defense rather than high priced power hitters, and with its artificial surface and symmetric dimensions Three Rivers Stadium was more suited for the former style of play. 


Indeed, the Bucs have never contended for so much as a winning record since moving to PNC Park, whereas the team led by stolen base champ Tony Womack just missed .500 records with 79 victories in 1997 and 78 in 1999.


McClatchy will be remembered in many ways by Pittsburgh sports fans. He’ll be remembered as the owner who may have saved the Pirates from relocation and for getting the franchise back in touch with their history.


But ultimately, he’ll be remembered as a loser.


The irony is he indirectly helped everybody else in town win.