Number six. Six championship victories for one of the most storied and successful sports franchises in North America. Steelers fans all over the world are reveling this morning in their victory. Knowing Pittsburgh fans, they will surely be gloating at this success, as well. No doubt there are scores of new Pittsburgh fans being created every hour, running to stores to get Roethlisberger and, especially after Sunday evening, Santonio Holmes jerseys. A hint for picking out the real ones is to listen for ridiculous words such as “pop” (soda) “gum bands” (rubber bands) or passing up perfectly good beer for cans of Rolling Rock or Iron City.
I was chatting with my cousin, a native Western-Pennsylvanian, and he asked me if there were Steelers’ bars in Vienna where I could watch any of the Steelers games during the playoffs. A Facebook friend chimed in and said, “of course there are, there are Steelers bars everywhere!” Well, the Vienna starting time inhibited more than anything my ability to watch Super Bowl XLIII (the NFL is getting my complaint letter now), but it really is true that virtually anywhere one goes, there are rampant (some would say obnoxious) Steelers fans. Why are they everywhere? Why can the Steelers have a significant cheering section on the road virtually anywhere in the country for 8 (or hopefully more!) road games per year?
There are plenty of ways to answer the question. For one, who can’t resist wearing the black and gold uniforms. They just look cool. For another, the Steelers, dating back to the 70’s, have been a no-nonsense, hard-hitting, and respectable team, as well as a franchise. The same family, renowned with Rooney humility, owns the team, even as idiot millionaires such as Daniel Snyder and conglomerates are buying out sports franchises all over the country. But, this can’t explain everything. What else is going on?
As it turns out, a big chunk of the answer is economics. My parents, looking for, well, jobs, left Pittsburgh in the early 70’s. So did every other member of my family except for the g-rents. We are all still rabid Steelers fans, but just not in Pittsburgh. Multiply this on a scale of thousands over decades, and one starts to see where all of these people came from, or went, depending upon your perspective. The classic image of Pittsburgh as a blue-collar, industrial, dirty town came crashing down around it as the U.S. started losing manufacturing industries to cheaper competitors. For Pittsburgh, it was mainly the steel industry. For other cities, it was automotive, electronics, whatever. Luckily, the U.S. as a whole did not collapse in on itself. In fact, it emerged stronger, leading new technological revolutions in computing, information technology, banking, and other industries that required different education for high-paying jobs. These jobs were decidedly not to be found in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, or other industrial belt cities, however. Thus, while Pittsburgh developed in the early- to mid-twentieth century world-class cultural institutions (theater, arts, music) as well as excellent educational opportunities (Carnegie Mellon, University of Pittsburgh) that still persist today, once its young people graduated, they looked around and couldn’t find a job within fifty miles. Job creation was in Boston, Silicon Valley, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Phoenix, or other areas of economic growth. Thus, the Pittsburgh youth of the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s went where they could better use their new-found degrees.
Pittsburgh’s population decline was significant and prolonged. Starting with the 1970 census, the city showed continual population decreases through the 2000 Census. Between 1980 and 1990, the only age group to show a positive migration percentage into Pittsburgh was the over 85 crowd, not exactly your most productive economic sector. As explained well by the Carnegie Mellon Center for Economic Development, the reason for this was plain and simple economics. The region lost significant numbers of manufacturing jobs while not having anything immediate to replace them. Moreover, while the 1990-2000 decade saw a small reversal in this trend amongst teenagers and 30-something’s, 20-something’s continued to leave in droves for the fourth straight decade. Richard Florida hits on this after his time at Carnegie Mellon, though it becomes inseparable from arguments for the Creative Class in his framing of the issue. In any case, add up this demographic shift over time, and you get a crazed diaspora, fanatical in supporting the most memorable parts of their (or their parents’) hometown, while perhaps using it as a bit of a shield to forget why they left.
How long must this go on? Must the country continue to endure throngs of Pittsburghers, raised in a fanatical football town, rocketed all over the country as a sort-of underground campaign to undermine all other NFL teams? Well, luckily for Pittsburgh, and perhaps everybody else, the city has actually benefited from the on-going urban renaissance throughout the world, while also working hard to cultivate new markets such as health care technology and high-tech manufacturing centered around its indigenous centers of excellence. It is obvious that the precipitous population decline has leveled, though the city still has much work to do to continue to revamp its downtown, attract jobs, repair aging infrastructure, and promote its new-found clean image. It is a city rediscovering itself. Do not, however, think that any of the three Steelers bars around the corner from you will be closing any time soon. For me, I’m just hoping for one in Vienna, preferably showing the games on Sunday afternoons. I won’t be holding my breath.