The brand name that is the Pittsburgh Steelers ranks among the most popular in American sports, but Art Rooney II wants more. He wants Mexico.
“We’re always trying to build up and find great new fans and appeal to a new generations of fans,” the Steelers president said. “Certainly there are places like Mexico where we have a great following, and I think we need to figure out how to be able to engage with the fan group maybe more than we do now.”
The Steelers are the most popular team among the estimated 20 million NFL fans in Mexico, according to Mexidata.info. Their popularity took a foothold in the 1970s, when the Steelers spun their dynasty and games began being televised in Mexico.
The Steelers annually send a caravan of players, coaches and executives to Mexico City to hold football camps. They did so in April when Cortez Allen, Kelvin Beachum, Maurkice Pouncey, Markus Wheaton, Jason Worilds and former Steelers Willie Parker and Craig Wolfley visited and conducted two camps.
Their games also are broadcast in Spanish on Mexican radio and at Steelers.com with their own broadcast crew.
“We do an annual trip to Mexico; we’d like to continue to do that and try to expand our presence there,” Rooney said. “As time goes on, we’d really like to take advantage of all the different ways there are now to really engage with fans, get a better idea who is out there and what their interests are. There are a lot of opportunities now to do that we really didn’t have just five or 10 years ago.”
The Steelers played a preseason game in 2000 against the Indianapolis Colts in Mexico City. In 2005, the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers played the only regular-season game ever in Mexico, but there have been no games in that country since, including the preseason.
Rooney would not mind going back.
“We wouldn’t be opposed to it. That’s something we’d look at. We were down there [in 2000] and had a great reception. We’d be up for trying that again sometime, that’s for sure.”
Hitting closer to home …
They might be popular in Mexico, but how have consecutive 8-8 seasons and no playoff appearance in those two years affected the popularity of the Steelers around these parts?
“Let’s face it,” Rooney said, “it’s not the same as when you’re coming off a playoff year or a Super Bowl year.
“The fan enthusiasm rises and falls a little bit, but at the end of every season it’s a little different, the reaction of the fans is a little different, they react to every season. Hey, our fans are very loyal, enthusiastic and the participation in terms of ratings and social media is as strong as ever. They’ll respond to us putting on the field what they want to see on the field.”
The Steelers had their lowest attendance last season in the history of Heinz Field, which opened in 2001. They averaged 57,311 fans in the 65,500-seat stadium, although they have sold every seat since 1972. Most NFL teams count tickets sold as their attendance, as do Major League Baseball teams. The Steelers, for some reason, count only those who show up. Still, there has to be some concern about the number of fans who buy tickets and do not bother to use them.
“I’m always disappointed in no-shows, but by the same token, it’s a combination of getting off to a 0-4 start and we had some lousy weather and things like that,” Rooney said. “We’ve seen seasons like that before and sort of bounced back from it. I’m not worried about a long-term issue there.”
There is, after all, that long waiting list clamoring for a chance to buy one of the approximate 3,000 extra seats that will be installed in the riverside end zone for the 2015 season.
The Steelers also were ranked No. 1 in their fans’ social media engagement through a recent analysis covering 13 years by two professors at Emory University in Atlanta.
“The fact we were No. 1 on this social media index — I might not have thought we were No. 1, but it was great to see,” Rooney said. “In most of those kinds of categories, we’re still top five in different measurements that you can see around the league.
“Our fan base is strong and we’re looking forward to all of the different opportunities that we have nowadays to engage with them. Social media is a great thing in that regard.”