John Vazquez, owner of Black and Gold Forever -- "There's nothing more passionate to fans in Pittsburgh than their Steelers."
By Mark Belko Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As the Steelers' first Super Bowl plays on a flat-screen TV in his tiny corner shop stacked with everything from T-shirts to trinkets, John Vazquez can't bring himself to think about the unthinkable.
"I'll be honest. It's like, you know, people don't talk about death. You know what I mean? You ask people and they don't want to think it could happen, that there could be absolutely no football," he said.
For some, a fall without Steelers football may be akin to death, at least in the existential sense. But it's a fate that may await them if the National Football League lockout continues to drag on through the spring and summer.
As devastating as canceled games could be to the psyche of Steelers Nation, it would be even worse for the countless restaurateurs, hotel owners and merchants like Mr. Vazquez who depend on the Black and Gold to produce green from August until January, sometimes beyond, during the good seasons.
Mr. Vazquez, owner of Black and Gold Forever stores Downtown and in the Strip District, has built an entire business catering to the whims of fans. He said his sales would suffer a big hit if some Steeler games -- or heaven forbid, an entire season -- were canceled because of the lockout.
"I try to design shirts keying on what people are passionate about, and there's nothing more passionate to fans in Pittsburgh than their Steelers," he said.
The overall economic impact of lost football games to the region could easily run into tens of millions of dollars.
January's divisional playoff game against the Ravens, for instance, produced an estimated $19.2 million in direct spending, according to tourism group VisitPittsburgh. The calculation included money spent on tickets, hotel stays, parking, food and souvenirs.
VisitPittsburgh hasn't done calculations for regular-season games. Nonetheless, cutting the playoff estimate by even 20 percent, taking into account lower ticket and hotel rates, a single regular season game still would generate nearly $15.4 million in economic impact.
For the eight regular season home games, that would translate into $123.2 million.
Steve Greenberg, a sports marketing expert at Duquesne University, likened the impact of lost games to three expanding rings, starting at Heinz Field itself and extending across the region and even into the skies.
At Heinz Field, the epicenter or first ring, the vendors, ushers, concessionaires and others who cater to Steelers crowds would be out of work.
The second ring would include all of the restaurants, bars, hotels and other businesses on the North Shore and Downtown that would be affected. The city itself also would lose parking and amusement tax revenues. The Steelers estimated January's AFC Championship game alone generated more than $600,000 in amusement taxes and $55,000 in parking taxes.
But the biggest ring, Mr. Greenberg said, encompasses the many people, perhaps more than 1 million, who watch the games from bars or restaurants or from the comfort of their family rooms. It reaches into places like Giant Eagle, which would lose money on sandwich rings, snacks and sodas bought for the games and even the airlines that fly fans to and from Pittsburgh for games.
It all translates into a "dramatic loss of revenue," said Mr. Greenberg, the Pirates' former marketing director.
"When you talk about economic impact, this is not a football game. This is part of the fabric of the community," he said.
The repercussions, he added, could be felt more deeply in Pittsburgh than in some NFL cities simply because of the loyalty the team incites locally.
"It really has to do with how strong the Steeler brand is. They have one of the strongest brands in all of sports. Not having football in Pittsburgh is a lot different than not having football in Jacksonville because it's so much part of the fabric here," he said.
Count Tom Martini, general manager of the Westin Convention Center Hotel, among those who believe the impact of lost football games would go well beyond the field.
If the entire season were to evaporate, the hotel could lose more than $600,000 in room revenue alone, Mr. Martini said. Add in meals and drinks at hotel restaurants and lounges and the tab easily could reach $700,000 to $750,000.
The hotel typically sells out the night before Sunday home games. Even on Sunday night after the game, it usually sees a 50 percent boost in business.
"It has a hugh impact for the hotel, for our associates, for the restaurants surrounding us," he said.
Mr. Martini said the hotel's revenue was up 50 percent in January because of the two Steeler playoff games and the National Hockey League's Winter Classic game.
While it might be possible to find other business to replace the lost revenue, it's not a task he relishes.
He noted the impact goes well beyond his own hotel.
"For the city as a whole, it has a large impact because all the hotels are selling out. It has an impact for the whole market and, obviously, the tax revenue it generates," he said.
Football produces more than chump change for local restaurants as well. Kevin Joyce, owner of The Carlton and past president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, said he sees 40 to 50 more diners on Saturday evenings before a Steelers home game. That, he said, is "significant," equating to a couple of thousand dollars in revenue.
"The bottom line, obviously, is that canceled games would certainly impact restaurant and food service establishments in Allegheny County. We get a boost when there's a home game," he said.
On the North Shore, closer to the stadium, the impact could be even greater, he said.
Just ask Bubba Snider, operating partner of Mullen's on Federal Street. He said Steelers games produce some of his biggest crowds.
"Steelers games are huge. While 10 games a year don't seem like a lot to the average reader, for business owners, it's pretty significant," he said.
Even the rivers are impacted, at least figuratively speaking.
The Gateway Clipper fleet hauls about 5,000 people a game to and from Heinz Field, at $10 a pop for a round trip, $5 one way.
On passenger counts alone, the Steelers shuttles account for 7 to 8 percent of the Gateway Clipper's overall business and an even larger percentage revenue wise, president Terry Wirginis said.
Mr. Wirginis said the Gateway Clipper typically has 100 people working on game days. They, too, would lose money if football games were canceled.
The longer the lockout goes, the more dicey it could get for Mr. Wirginis. At some point, he must decide whether to book cruises on what would be Steelers home dates in an effort to make up for the potential lost revenue.
"The key factor for us is how long do we wait. Right now, we're waiting. I believe and hope that wise heads will prevail, wise people will prevail," he said.
In the end, the impact could trickle all the way down to guys like Dirty Red, a panhandler who was trolling for coins on the Roberto Clemente Bridge before the Pirates' opener last week.
He said he usually makes his largest hauls during Steelers games. Were they to go away, "I wouldn't be able to have nothing," he said.
But as devastating as the lockout could be for some, it could be a boon for others.
While casual and sports-theme restaurants could see business tumble if games are lost, others could benefit if fans aren't sitting in the stadium or at home watching the game, said Susan Sansale, western chapter president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association.
Without games to watch, a lot of fans will have time and money on their hands and might look to eat away their depression, perhaps boosting business for some restaurateurs, she said.
A few games or even a season without the Steelers also could be a plus for science fans.
The Carnegie Science Center, which is closed on Sunday afternoons when the Steelers play, would reopen its doors if games are canceled, co-director Ann Metzger said.
And while there would be plenty of losers in a lost season, there's another group that might benefit in Mr. Vazquez's view.
"People are creatures of habit, especially people who have been living the Steelers since they were a kid," he said.
"When it comes to [football season] and it's not there, I don't know, maybe some people gotta go to therapy."