Steelers fans are recession-proof
Members of Steeler Nation flooded into the courtyard at the Allegheny County Courthouse during a rally yesterday to support the team in its upcoming playoff game against the San Diego Chargers. From left are Michelle Kernan of Moon, Darren Long of Jefferson Hills and, wearing Steelers beads, cap and glasses, Don Zadach of Jefferson Hills.
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The economy may be in full-blown crisis, but Patrick and Linda Gilligan are among the Steeler faithful all set to go to Full Towel -- that state of hyper vigilance brought on by devotion to a football team at playoff time.
They've reserved space to join 200 or so friends who will don their throwback jerseys and paint their faces while twirling The Terrible Towel, the power of which was reserved exclusively for the postseason by its creator, the late Myron Cope.
While similar scenes will play out throughout the borderless Steeler Nation, this one will happen at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Kennesaw, a Georgia town 30 miles north of Atlanta and about 750 miles south of Pittsburgh. No matter how tight money may be, or how big a mess the world is in, or how the wintry weather has brought on bouts of seasonal affective disorder, a home playoff game tends to trump everything.
"People will give up other things before they give up spending on the Steelers," said Mr. Gilligan, who stays rooted to Western Pennsylvania with his allegiance to the Steelers. "When they're playing, they're the centerpiece of our weekend. We'll be whooping and hollering as loudly as everybody in Heinz Field."
Steeler fans have been hardened by tough times going back to the collapse of the steel industry. The Steelers serve as a diversion from, if not an antidote to, bad news. Somehow, some way, their followers will find a way to eat, drink and be manic.
In the big picture, the NFL, anointed by Forbes Magazine as "the strongest sport in the world," recently laid off 150 workers. The Steelers have sold out every home game since Dec. 3, 1972, but last weekend, Minnesota and Arizona had to get extensions from the league to sell out their stadiums in time to lift the TV blackout. And to further illustrate that even the mighty aren't immune to the economic implosions, some lavish parties that have become part of the Super Bowl scene won't be held this year in Tampa.
Nevertheless, having the Chargers in town, along with the national media and transplanted fans who fill hotels and enliven night spots, can cheer up the most dismal of winter weekends.
"January is our worst month," said Joe McGrath, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau, "so a home playoff game really is a windfall. It's a godsend. It makes the whole month of January for the hospitality industry.
"The year they won the Super Bowl, I was talking to Art Rooney [II] and said, 'Great, but you got there without having any playoff games in Pittsburgh. Can you get us some home games?' He laughed and said he'd see what he could do," Mr. McGrath added.
Direct spending for an AFC playoff game means an economic impact of $18.2 million, including the price of tickets and money spent on food and housing, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Spending, however, was down as much as 20 percent on New Year's Eve festivities because people opted to party at home, according to Kevin Joyce of The Carlton Restaurant and former chairman of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association.
But if merchants call their most profitable shopping day Black Friday, tomorrow could be called Black Sunday, or more appropriately, Black and Gold Sunday, because of the boost to the local economy.
"It's certainly good for our city, and we need a little dose of good business," Mr. Joyce said. "Every establishment is different. For me, it might mean another 75 dinners served on Saturday night. And these are the patrons who tend to order the better wines. Even in difficult times, people still find ways to party. In this town, they'll always find a way to celebrate the Steelers."
Even from the national perspective, it's clear that a home playoff game is a major event.
"The NFL had a major consulting firm study the markets to see how well a team is doing and how well it should be doing. The interest level in the Steelers is one of the strongest in the NFL," said Marc Ganis of Chicago-based Sportscorp Ltd.
"Even in a bad economy, sponsors see the benefit of putting their money into something that's going to get a lot of local attention and national attention," he added. "Frankly, the bigger issue may be when the collective bargaining agreement ceases at the end of the 2010 season. It won't affect this game, but the economic downturn could have a significant impact on the 2011 season."
But that's down the road. A more timely point is setting aside the resources for as long as the ride lasts.
Football fans in all of the playoff cities are put on the spot this time of year. Because a set percentage of Super Bowl tickets are reserved for the two teams involved, season-ticket holders are asked to plunk down $800 per ticket request and pay a handling fee of $26 to enter a ticket lottery. If they don't get picked, the money will be applied to next year's season tickets. For those who remember that a Super Bowl ticket in 1979 cost $43, it's hard not to feel the squeeze.
"Not to get ahead of ourselves, but I guess we would just consider a Tampa trip as our vacation for the next two years or maybe we won't buy birthday gifts or we'll go a summer without eating out," said one fan. "We'll borrow the money if we have to. But you know Steeler fans, we'll get there somehow."
One local attorney -- a superstition about talking about the Super Bowl makes some fans reluctant to use their names -- put in for six tickets, which meant laying out $4,800 just to enter the lottery.
"I promised to take my son, and you never know when they might get there again," he said.
The local DNA always had a dominant practical gene. So instead of having to choose between, say, Christmas presents and the Steelers, why not Steeler presents.
The shopping lists of Fred and M.J. Burger included the Steeler gnome and the black and gold Santa that says "Here we go, Steelers." The also bought slippers, pajamas, hooded sweatshirts and tree ornaments adorned with the team logo, and coasters that say Yoi and Double Yoi.
"The box of Steeler goodies might be lighter this year because money is tighter," Mrs. Burger said. "But when we send Steeler gifts to out of town relatives, they say it's like being home again, and they're thrilled even if it's just a Steely McBeam ornament.
"You know, the tailgating space gets smaller every year, and the rules are so strict in the lots that you can't have an open flame even if it's 9 degrees below zero," she added. "But all you need to feel is the playoff excitement in the stands and see 75,000 towels swirling, and you know you have something in common with every person there and every person in a Steeler bar in any city in America -- our love of the Steelers and our pride in Pittsburgh."
Following the Steelers always required a certain resilience and resourcefulness, starting with the weather. The forecast calls for snow showers and biting cold at game time. But when the Steelers played the Chargers here on Nov. 13, and heavy snow began to fall, a spontaneous roar arose from the tailgating lots to herald the arrival of Steeler weather.
Some of those cheers came at the tailgate party attended by Kevin McKeever, manager of The Saloon in Mt. Lebanon. If the snow and cold can't keep fans from gathering to twirl their towels, economic concerns won't either.
"Actually, the party will be a little bigger," he said. "It's the playoffs. People find a way."
The Terrible Towel has been in the news because of what happened in a loss at Tennessee. After convincingly beating the Steelers, Titans players LenDale White, Jevon Kearse and Keith Bulluck giddily rubbed it in by defiling some terry cloth.
The towel made its first appearance in a 1975 playoff game and has achieved the status of icon. This post-season, one of the most popular images making the rounds in cyber space is a picture on the cover of The Steeler Digest. It shows the pilot and weapons systems operator in an F-15 Strike Eagle displaying their towels while on combat air patrol over Afghanistan.
"Will a bad economy cut down on what we spend to watch the Steelers? Maybe. But as long as Isaly's makes chipped chopped ham and the rivers flow, we'll have money for the malt beverages before, during and after the game," said Bob Pegritz, an Air Force veteran from the North Hills. "And by the way, I wonder why it's not raining frogs in Tennessee yet."
First Published January 10, 2009 12:00 am