The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, Part VI

[Part I is here] [Part II is here] [Part III is here] [Part IV is here] [Part V is here] [Part VI is here] [Part VII is here] [Part VIII is here] [Part IX is here] [Part X is here]

This ten-part series is devoted to the topic: How did Pittsburgh get revitalized? If there is a sense that the city and region have an esprit and momentum today that was lacking in Pittsburgh even ten years ago, where did those things come from? So far, I've written about historical factors, livability, sustainability and the environment, Pittsburgh's "character," and politics.

Today's topic is sports, and the relationship between Pittsburgh's sporting successes -- and failures -- and the city's and region's sense of themselves. Certainly, when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Penguins win championships, Pittsburgh residents and ex-pats share an intangible collective sense of pride in the city itself, as if they had something directly to do with what happened on the field or on the ice. The same feeling extends to professional baseball, though a dwindling number of living Pittsburghers remember the championship seasons of 1979 and 1960, or the near-misses of the early 1990s.

In other words, today's aura of Pittsburgh success owes no small debt to the recent successes of its professional athletes. It also owes no small debt to long-ago athletic successes. The Pirates won the World Series over the Yankees in 1960 under circumstances so miraculous that fans still gather on the anniversary of the deciding game to relive the deciding moment. The Steelers won four Super Bowl championships during the 1970s, and the Pirates won again in the 1979, at a time when it might be said that the city had virtually nothing else going for it. Pittsburgh was the City of Champions then, as some say it is again. But then the point was simply survival. Without the Steelers and Pirates of the 1970s, and the Penguins of the early 1990s, I wonder whether there would be have been much to revive in the late 1990s. [Updated: Chris Briem and Martin Andelman try to refine the timing of the region's industrial decline relative to the success of the Steelers, a mapping that my original post left vague. The Super Bowl years concluded before the region really imploded, but after reading both of their posts it seems likely that Pittsburgh had already absorbed a sense of economic foreboding as the Steelers came to prominence -- even if that foreboding had not matured fully in economic terms. As regional mythos, Steelers invincibility gradually took the place of steelworker invincibility.]

If you live here or grew up here, you don't need me to tell you any of that. Today is the opening game of the Steelers' campaign to make Pittsburgh "Seventh Heaven" (in recognition of the team's anticipated seventh Super Bowl victory), and like many residents, as I type this entry I'm wearing my jersey.

If you're an outsider getting caught up on the mechanics of Pittsburgh's renewal, then it's likely that the hold that sports have on this area is not a complete mystery. The fan support should seem familiar. All but two of the G20 nations that will descend on Pittsburgh later this month compete today or have competed previously at the top levels of international soccer, and the passion of Pittsburgh sports fan is matched, if at all, only by the passion of football supporters for local clubs around the world. To a G20 visitor, the meaning of a Steelers jersey on game day, and the value of Steelers supporters to the aura of the city, translates roughly into the meaning of a ManU jersey for Manchester, or a Barca jersey for Barcelona.

But the sport itself, and the implications of the sport for the region, require some untangling.

On the implications:

Pittsburgh's present aura is enticing, but in the abstract, it doesn't mean much. Does the aura translate into economic good fortune? Not as directly as you might think. To the extent that professional sports have a direct bearing on the economic fortunes of a city, the balance of payments decidedly favors team ownership and the athletes themselves. The Steelers don't create wealth; they redistribute wealth. To a team owner or player (or broadcaster or other rights-owner), the obsessive loyalty of fans is highly lucrative. For us fans, being fantastically and obsessively loyal is expensive. Being a supporter sucks up time. It can suck up relationships. It sucks up money.

If you're a Steelers fan, ask yourself how much money it would take to persuade you to give up all affectations of your support for a year. No watching or listening to games. No tailgating or parties. No talking about games with buddies. No reading about games or the team online. No black-and-gold stickers or clothing or beer mugs. $1,000? $5,000? No amount, because the sacrifice would be just too great? In economic terms, if not in actual cash, that's the transfer of wealth from you to the Rooneys and to the team's staff and players, and that's the amount of wealth that you might otherwise save for your future or invest in the region -- via your job, your family, or your hobbies. Is Pittsburgh better off with all of that wealth going to a football team? (To a lesser extent, to an ice hockey team? To a baseball team?) Lots of people would answer "yes"; Pittsburgh is an ecstatically tribal place, and Steelers support is simply and importantly a bonding ritual. Without it, who knows whether the city would hang together as an integrated cultural entity. (It is difficult to imagine the same tribal/economic case being made for fan support of major soccer clubs elsewhere, though the distinction may be one of degree rather than one of kind.) But consider the "no" answer, and consider how well off the region might be if all of that money were invested elsewhere.

And on the sport:

G20 journalists trying to decode the meaning of football in Pittsburgh might plausibly ask -- in fact, they should ask, and will ask -- what about football in Pittsburgh? The kind that the rest of the world understands, the kind played with your feet ("foot"ball), with a round ball? It's a curious thing that a city that aspires to a global presence has no professional soccer team to speak of. How many genuinely global cities can you think of that do not? Even in the US, whose First Division soccer league is hardly a major sport by American standards, New York, DC, Chicago, Houston, Columbus (Columbus?) -- all of them have pro teams. Los Angeles has two. Pittsburgh? None. Or nil, in soccer-speak.

Pittsburgh has a long and glorious soccer history, much of which is unknown to most residents. Its oldest, most prestigious, and most successful soccer club, Beadling, has been in operation roughly as long as American football has been played in Pittsburgh, more than 100 years. Today, Beadling fields boys' and girls' youth teams and men's and women's adult teams. Harmarville Soccer Club placed two players on the 1950 US World Cup squad that shocked England.

But efforts to sustain modern pro soccer in Pittsburgh have struggled in the face of an indifferent media, the absence of appropriate venues, and a fan culture that is saturated with American football, ice hockey, baseball and, increasingly, college basketball. During the 1980s, the Pittsburgh Spirit played "indoor" soccer in Pittsburgh. Beginning in 1998, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds brought the outdoor game back to the region, but the Hounds have struggled financially and now compete in the Second Division of the United Soccer Leagues -- the third division of American pro soccer. The Riverhounds are semi-pro -- at best.

Under the surface, however, the growing visibility of international club soccer in American media -- even in Pittsburgh -- means that in today's Pittsburgh I am far more likely to see a European club jersey being worn on a sidewalk in Oakland, or even Downtown, than I was 10 years ago. There is a lively and internationally flavored soccer scene among pickup games in Schenley Park and among the over-30 and over-40 soccer leagues in the region. Many Pittsburghers are dismissive of soccer. The notion that football and ice hockey are authentic Pittsburgh sports, and soccer is not, remains lodged in the regions' collective sporting consciousness even if it is historically inaccurate. Someday, it is possible to imagine, Pittsburgh's sporting culture will catch up to its global ambitions, and the revitalization of Pittsburgh will be not only an American story but a fully international story.


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About Pittsblog

Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

Chris Briem of Null Space drops by Pittsblog 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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