Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sex on the Bandwagon: Theorizing The Popularity of the Pittsburgh Steelers

 I know, I know, just don't look at the middle one.
“Pittsburgh Steelers fans travel well”

You probably hear it several times every football season.  It speaks to the abnormally large number of Steelers fans that can be found at every NFL road game.  I’ve been to two games in which the Steelers were the road team and in both cases I was blown away by how many fans they had in attendance.  Is it possible that it just SEEMS like there are more of them because they are also abnormally annoying?  That’s unlikely.  I wanted to think about the reasons the Steelers have been able to overcome their rather pedestrian market size (Pittsburgh is 22nd in the country) to have the NFL’s most rabid fan base.  These are my thoughts.

After World War II, American soldiers came home to their pining wives.  They hadn’t seen each other in quite some time and, naturally, both parties craved some sweet, sweet love making.  There was a lot of banging going on.  This resulted in what we refer to as “The Baby Boom.”  It was a major spike in our country’s birth rate.  The Baby Boom lasted from around 1946 to 1957 when women started faking headaches and “feeling tired” again.  Population rates started to dip back down to normal.  

Graph is purposefully huge

Flash forward, Lost style, to 1970.  The Baby Boomers are now between 13 and 24 years old.  By the end of the decade, they will be between 23 and 34 years old.  Prime time for them to start families of their own.  Corresponding with this exponential growth in population are several factors.

First off, color TVs became common in most American homes.  Cable subscriptions in America tripled between 1970 and 1979.  No longer were people forced to squint at Jackie Gleason, they could now simply enjoy how deliciously offensive Archie Bunker was (when you think about it, racially charged jokes become more diverse in color when you can differentiate between races more readily I am going to hell).  Yes, TV was maturing, but it was nowhere near the monster we have today.  The channel selection was minimal, only a few to go around, and so the big time networks dominated.

Secondly, the NFL became the NFL.  In 1970 the NFL and AFL merged, separated the league into two conferences with CBS broadcasting the NFC games and NBC broadcasting the AFC games.  ABC broadcasted Monday Night Football for the first time in…..yup, 1970.  So football is on TV in its modern format and it is in color.  Production value on TV is better and programs are more stimulating to watch.  We took a huge step forward in the quest to make watching games at home more fun than watching them in person (we are there now, but that’s an entirely different post).  

 Look at that little monkey broadcast

So far we have this run on sentence: This monstrous generation is now in a key age range (either highly impressionable teenagers or young adults getting their first taste of disposable income) with access to color TVs and the NFL looks AWESOME in color, way better than in black and white, and it is being shoved down their throats on two of their only handful of channels every Sunday.  

 Jack Lambert

You already know where this is going.  The Steelers were the dynasty of the 1970s.  How many things come to mind when I say, “70s Steelers”?  A dozen hall of fame names, one of the best nicknames in all of sports, 4 Super Bowl Championships, 7 division titles and other stuff I’ve left out.  The Steelers were great and they were on TV a lot.  The Baby Boomer generation fell in love with the Steelers.  

 This commercial would only work with someone the country loved.  Do you think Nixon could have sold Coke like Mean Joe?  Fuck no.

They had kids (those kids are now in their forties) and they had kids (today’s teenagers).  They’re likely to be Steelers fans as well.  It is perfectly natural for people to be attracted to winning teams, it happens all the time.  I've seen it first hand here in Philly as the city beams over the Phillies.  However, sports history has never seen a bandwagon born on this great a scale and it never will again.  The dawn of free agency and the salary cap make it nearly impossible for a team to have as dominant a 10 year run as the Steelers did, and a team that belongs to an entire generation is a freak thing of the past.  
So during the next week and a half leading up to the Super Bowl when you inevitably hear some say something complementary about the Steelers fan base, you can feel free to explain to that person why it is so: War, Sex and Television

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