Pittsburgh's Internationalization, Again

I have one foot on the Penguins' Stanley Cup bandwagon these days. I really don't get ice hockey, and I don't get the fanaticism of its fans. But I watched some of a couple of the games of Penguins/Flyers series, and I'm happy that the team won. Remember, though, that in most of the United States and in most of the world, professional ice hockey is not a major sport.

Around most of the world, though not in the U.S., soccer is a major sport, and in most places, though obviously not in the U.S., it is the major sport. And soccer has a substantial tradition and a substantial following in the Pittsburgh region, especially if we focus on Pittsburgh's various international communities. All over the region yesterday, there were bars and family rooms filled with fans screaming at their televisions while watching what some Americans refer to as the Super Bowl of soccer, the UEFA Champions League final.

The Champions League is a tournament in European club soccer that features the top teams from the previous season in the top division of the various European domestic leagues. Given the quality of European club soccer, in effect, the Champions League final pits the two top club teams in the world against one another.

Yesterday, those two teams were Manchester United and Chelsea, two top-flight English Premier League clubs which, not coincidentally, also dueled to this finish this season in League play. By day's end, Man U had accomplished a rare double: It took the League title last week, and yesterday in Moscow it topped Chelsea to take the Champions League title as well.

In this morning's media, the game and the result attracted major coverage in The New York Times. If that's consistent with the stereotype of the Times as serving the elite and effete consumer (even though soccer is traditionally a working-class sport in most of the world), then note that the game and the result also attracted major coverage in USA Today. The final play of the match, in which the Man U goalkeeper stopped a spot kick by Chelsea's Anelka and decided the game on "penalties," was the number one play of the day on ESPN's "Top 10 plays" this morning.

If you get your news from Pittsburgh's print media standard bearer, the Post-Gazette, you would know little of this. Coverage of the Champions League final was relegated to Page 9 of the P-G's Sports section, in the "Morning Briefing" column, in the third item of the column, and in a single short paragraph.

The Post-Gazette wants to sell newspapers, and clearly it believes that it will sell more newspapers to hockey fans and baseball fans and golf fans and basketball fans and football fans and high school sports fans than it will to soccer fans. In business terms, the paper isn't xenophobic; it's rational.

Neither is Pittsburgh xenophobic, despite occasional evidence to the contrary. Rather, the major institutions that shape Pittsburgh's public sphere often seem to be completely unaware of the fact that there are large constiuencies of people here who don't care about hockey, or the future of Downtown, or the Allegheny Conference's celebration of Pittsburgh's 250th birthday. There is an international population in Pittsburgh and a population of people here who are deeply involved in international business, culture, and even sport. And much of the time, they are invisible in the broad public portraits of the region that we watch and read in the media.

Soccer coverage in the Post-Gazette, in other words, is a symptom rather than a problem in itself. With the Internet, cable TV, and other newspapers, I can find all the soccer news I want in other places; its absence from the local paper just gives me another reason to ignore the irrelevance of most of the PG. (As an aside, the frustrating thing about the paper, which I'll write about eventually, is that it has some extraordinary but underused writers; it occasionally turns them loose on real and important stories where they do amazing work, as in the WVU degree scandal; and the publishers' fundamental instincts about urban journalism are mostly sound.)

So I'll close with a related anecdote. The other day I met a colleague for a meal Downtown, and we were talking about the entrepreneurial landscape in Pittsburgh, from professional services firms to funding infrastructure to successful and up-and-coming entrepreneurs. This lawyer works for one of the top high tech law firms Downtown and is very knowledgeable about the well-known players and their strengths and weaknesses. And then I mentioned the Indian tech community here. This drew a blank stare. Again, this is not xenophobia, and it's not really ignorance. This person wants to know what's happening around town, and generally does a pretty good job keeping up -- no doubt better than I do. Instead, I believe that it's the failure of the public sphere to tie together some less visible but important strands of regional culture. TiEPittsburgh, the local chapter of an international organization that supports entrepreneurship, especially among Indian communities (TiE stands for "The IndUS Entrepreneurs"), was last mentioned in the Post-Gazette, according to its search engine, in March 2007.

Let's go Pens. What the hell.


9 Responses to "Pittsburgh's Internationalization, Again"

Jefferson Provost said... 5/22/2008 1:31 PM

Slightly off topic, but...

Regarding "not getting" ice hockey, You're not being helped much by Versus. Their abominable broadcasts are about the worst imaginable introduction to the sport.

The Versus play-by-play announcer only calls about 10% of the on-ice action. He often fails to mention such basic information as the names of both players participating in a pass, leaving you to wonder if they name he mentioned was the passer or receiver. The games are called as if everyone watching is a hockey expert and already knows all the players' names, numbers and positions. He rarely mentions line changes, never mentions defensive changes, and almost never mentions which three players are together on a line. Yet he and his partner are happy to blab non-stop for minutes about random off-ice crap that nobody cares about.

To make matters worse, they often conduct interviews while play is going on, and the video crew will even sometimes put up graphics that cover up the puck on the screen!

The NBC broadcasts are somewhat better, though the play-by-play is still pretty sparse on information.

If possible, and if you're not already doing it, try turning off the sound and listening to Mike Lange on the radio instead. I'm actually not much of a fan of Mike's trademarked post-goal sayings anymore, but the difference in the quality of the play-by-play is really like night and day. Mike gives you about 10x as much information per minute than you get from the bozos on Versus.

Unfortunately, I usually DVR the games, so I can't listen to the radio, and when I did get a c hance to try, the Versus picture lagged the radio action by 2-3 seconds. (Maybe extra satellite delay from DirecTV? I need a DVR for radio.)

Maybe, though, the only way to really "get" hockey is to go to a bunch of games. There's tons of interesting stuff going on away from the puck that even the best broadcast crew just can't catch on camera.

Mike Madison said... 5/22/2008 9:20 PM

Going to hockey games is obviously the best way to learn the game (if you're not a player), but going to hockey games -- at least NHL games -- is all but prohibitively expensive. So that's not an option for me.

Many years ago (we'll say about 35 years ago) I went to a few NHL games in California. (It was cheaper then, and I had adults to buy tickets for me.) I didn't get the game then, either. I hypothesize that it's difficult to be a serious ice hockey fan unless you really grow up with the sport.

I've listened a bit on the radio, and I find hockey-on-the-radio to be absolutely incomprehensible. I hypothesize that hockey-on-the-radio, like just about any-sport-on-the-radio, requires the ability to visualize the action simultaneously. With hockey, I can't do that. TV hockey + radio hockey requires an investment that's just not worth it for me. (I'll do that for Steelers games, which are big social occasions.) But if I'm going to make a marginal investment in sports fan-dom, I'm going to make it in soccer, where I know the game pretty well. No disrepect to hockey fans; I also don't get NASCAR or cricket or team handball, and I politely tell Jehovah's Witnesses that I'm not interested.

Adam said... 5/23/2008 8:24 AM

I've recently started paying attention to hockey (I wonder why) and find that it is probably the closest sport to soccer out of the big 4 in the US. Little time for commercials, few goals scored, complicated plays, and lots of drama. The penguins play a lot like the last Argentinean world cup team by taking their time to let plays develop and then putting together a string of ridiculous passes.

Another thing about hockey is that though it is not a major sport internationally, it certainly is more so than American Football, and probably gives basketball a run for its money and slightly behind baseball.

Anyhow, I know that hockey wasn't exactly the point of the article, so I'll stop now.

Greg said... 5/27/2008 9:04 AM

I really enjoy the fast pace of hockey and hope the Pens can bounce back. Glad to welcome a new fan.

John Morris said... 5/31/2008 1:30 PM

Great post. The symbolic message sent by the press here is we don't care about the world, but we would like a job that lets us watch a lot of football. Not surprisingly, the world gets that loud and clear doesn't care much about Pittsburgh either.

I can't fully agree that Hockey is not a heavily followed sport. My guess is that it's well in the top ten globally, It's the national sport of Canada and close to that for most of Scandinavia, Russia and many countries in Eastern Europe.

Obviously nothing comes close to soccer as a world sport. Auto Racing might come a distant second, but that sport is very divided with America being all about Stock Car and most of the rest of the world following Formula One or other types of racing.

I do like Hockey as a game, very fun to play like soccer. I think it relates closely to Soccer in that it takes a lot of commitment and concentration to watch.

Sus said... 6/01/2008 9:39 AM

I got here via Pittsburgh Arts.

Listen, this was a really fascinating analysis. I can see how this same thought-provoking approach could be applied in several fields. I am looking forward to reading your additional posts on this subject.

Mike Madison said... 6/01/2008 7:12 PM


These are all apples-and-oranges armchair estimates, which are entertaining but neither important nor useful for either soccer fans or ice hockey fans! When I wrote "rest of the world," obviously I was aware of ice hockey's place in Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia. But I was also aware of its utter absence in the Southern Hemisphere, and its relatively modest presence (compared to soccer/football, for example) in China.

angela said... 6/01/2008 7:13 PM

I've just discovered your blog and am estatic to hear someone discussing the Champions League in Pittsburgh, no less! Alleluia! I originally come from a country where football and I do mean "football" is the only sport that will bring a nation to a standstill if an important match is on. Meaning that when there's an exciting match on the television, the whole neighborhood is dead silent until there's a goal and the neighborhood awakens into this impromptu festival of cheers. Awesome! I have to say, I don't understand hockey at all but I think it also has to do with the fact that my first memory of snow was when I came to the States. I have tried watching games and constantly have to make sure I get the lingo, as in I can't say "matches" and I can't say "keeper" and I can't say "manager" when I'm talking about the coach. But there you are, I agree with the comment made that it might only get you if you grew up with hockey. Well, as for me, football is in the blood and will probably remain the only sport that renders an other-wise well-adjusted person into a raving maniac anytime a match is on. Go Gunners!

Jefferson Provost said... 6/01/2008 11:11 PM

The symbolic message sent by the press here is we don't care about the world, but we would like a job that lets us watch a lot of football.

This is interesting in light of Paul Graham's recent essay about the value messages that difference cities send to their residents, e.g. in New York: you should be richer; in Cambridge: you should be smarter.

I hear a message of ambition from one part of Pittsburgh: Around Oakland and the surrounding neighborhoods, I feel like the message is something like a dilute version of Graham's assessment of Cambridge. From the much larger remainder of Pittsburgh, what is the message exactly? Whatever it is, it doesn't seem to involve being smart or rich, or even living well.

The messages from the two Pittsburghs mimic the last mayoral election: the wonk with national policy and business experience vs. the local dude who tripped and fell backwards into the mayors office. Is it any surprise that the PG and other local institutions tailor their content and message to the side that won?

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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