Sports is a big deal for the people of Pittsburgh. You only have to look at the Pittsburgh Steelers in the National Football League (NFL), who are the oldest franchise in the AFC, as evidence of that. The Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2006 and 2009, adding to their previous four successes. Meanwhile, in Major League Baseball (MLB), the Pittsburgh Pirates compete in the National League Central division of the MLB and are five-time World Series champions. So, why is there a lack of demand for a National Basketball Association (NBA) basketball team in Pittsburgh?
Ultimately, a lot of it comes down to money. One argument is that Pittsburgh isn’t big enough to house teams in all four of America’s major league sports. In fact, only 12 metropolitan areas across the U.S. have teams in all four leagues, and if Pittsburgh was to make it 13, it would be the smallest region on the list by some distance. There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh is well-known for its loyal, vociferous sports fans, but the city has already tried — and failed — to support a professional basketball team way back during the era of the original American Basketball Association (ABA).
Understanding Pittsburgh’s History with Basketball
Enter stage left, the Pittsburgh Pipers. The Pipers were one of the inaugural franchises in the ABA’s 1967 championship. The team went on to enjoy immediate success in the first-ever year of the ABA championship, securing the title with a 54-24 regular season record. Much of the Pipers’ success was due to their MVP and future Hall-of-Famer, Connie Hawkins, who averaged almost 27 points per game. The Pipers also inched out the New Orleans Buccaneers 4-3 to take the overall championship in the 1968 ABA Playoffs.
Disappointingly, despite the team’s unprecedented success and the impressive crowds from the people of Pittsburgh, the franchise up and left the city to set up in Minnesota the following season. Frustratingly, the Minnesota Pipers did not attract bigger crowds than those they enjoyed in Pittsburgh, and in 1969, they ended up losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Miami Floridians. The team’s co-owner, Gabe Rubin, admitted there was no choice but to return the franchise to Pittsburgh for the 1969-70 season.
The Pipers retained the nickname once again, but the team failed to scale to the heights that they did in 1967-68, resulting in large swathes of fans staying away. A rebrand of the team took place for the 1970-71 season, with Pittsburgh now seeming to be the permanent home of this franchise. The team’s new owners, Haven Industries, opted to change the nickname to the Pittsburgh Pioneers, but this clashed with the local university’s nickname. To avoid an unwanted lawsuit, the owners resolved the issue by changing the team’s name to the Pittsburgh Condors.
The Unfortunate Collapse of the Condors
The 1970-71 season was a frustrating one all around for Condors fans. Though they had a dangerous offense, it was their all-too-leaky defense that proved to be the Condors’ undoing. They ended up finishing in fifth in the Eastern Division and were out of the playoff race. Average attendances were disappointingly low at around 2,800, so the 1971-1972 was almost a do-or-die scenario. The Condors attempted to rebrand their franchise, with new uniforms and a brand-new logo, along with a mainstream marketing ploy.
A difficult start to the season led to General Manager Mark Binstein firing the current head coach, Jack McMahon and acting as his replacement. Binstein saw this as the last roll of the dice to try and keep professional basketball alive and kicking in the city of Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, the gamble backfired, with the Condors registering a record of 21-50 for the remainder of the campaign. Attendances reportedly fell to embarrassing levels of less than 1,000, with speculation rife that the Condors would fold before the festive season.
The franchise managed to limp its way through to the remainder of the season, but its owners had seen enough and announced that the Condors would leave Pittsburgh once again. In fact, the Condors played their last ever “home” game in Tucson, Arizona, as the owners sought to test the water regarding support from Arizonans. The owners, Haven Industries, sought to move the franchise to a bigger metropolitan region and perceived market, but they failed to do so in time. The ABA eventually removed the Condors’ franchise, with the Condors’ roster placed into a dispersal draft immediately.
The 76ers Lead the Way for the NBA in Pennsylvania
At the time of writing, Pennsylvania only has one NBA team in its entire state, the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers play at the Wells Fargo Center, which is the biggest NBA arena in the entire league, including the Western Conference, which features some of the biggest names in NBA history. The Denver Nuggets have the biggest arena in the Western Conference, with the Pepsi Center capable of holding 18,007 people. The Pepsi Center is likely to be full for much of the NBA 2019 season, with the Nuggets regarded as third favorites to win the Western Conference.
There have been reports in recent years of investors looking to form a team to bring professional basketball back to Pittsburgh. KDKA confirmed that a group of investors headed up by a Floridian have formed Professional Basketball Associates LLC, with a vision to make it a reality. So, perhaps we are wrong to suggest that Pittsburgh is incapable of being a basketball city?
Previously, the Condors played at the Civic Arena, and the new PPG Paints Arena could be a new home for a Pittsburgh franchise, which might be an exciting place to play basketball. Pittsburgh is also recognized as an up-and-coming city in various quarters. Amazon has opted to position its second headquarters in the region, which will likely bring huge economic benefits to the city. The city also ranks at the top of the pile in all city rankings published, whether it’s to do with Pittsburgh’s renaissance, its food or its tech scene. Pittsburgh only needs to look at the Vegas Golden Knights to see that new franchises can still make a big success of their time in the NBA. Watch this space.