Every year – heck, every week – we hear about how this team or that team has such great fans. National publications attempt to quantify with metrics to what will always be a highly subjective topic. Message board and internet columns will argue endlessly about how their fans are so great while their rival’s fan base is pathetic, in search of the invisible Best Fan Base Trophy.
So what makes a great fan, or a great fan base? Rooting for a team that has been successful and competitive for forty years is easy; that holds true for fans of the Yankees, Red Sox or Lakers. Rooting for a team that has had a long history of winning seasons sprinkled with some championships that is not local to you begs the question: is it admiration for their success, or is it simply being a fraudulent front runner attempting to align yourself with a winner?
One fan base gets continuously paraded in the “great fans” category by the networks that broadcast NFL games every time they appear on television: Pittsburgh fans. But is that a truly accurate portrayal?
If the Steelers were to go through a stretch of several losing seasons that included season like the Colts are experiencing, what would happen? Perhaps for an answer we can look at how Pittsburgh Fan has responded to his baseball team.
From the start of the century to the 70’s the Pirates were the only professional team Pittsburgh Fan cared about and followed. Only when the Steelers came out of nowhere and finally turned thing around after four decades of futility did Pittsburgh Fan suddenly care about his NFL team. Then BOOM, just like that, everyone in the area is a football fan. Attendance goes from somewhere in the 20,000’s to triple that, and the team remains competitive for the next forty years.
Back to what had been the primary sports team, the Pirates. Loyal Pittsburgh fans continue to follow them since they’re such solid fans, right? Out of 30 teams I see rankings of 22, 26, 27, 27, 27, 27, 28, 28, 27 and 22 this past decade. Crap, they typically draw fewer than the much maligned Tampa Bay Rays.
But what about that uptick to a #22 ranking? Well, they started out with fewer than 10,000 fans four times in their first month of play. Then they played well and consistently drew over 30K – and then after losing a few games went right back to crowds of 9,000 and 12,000.
If this is the way Pittsburgh goes hot and cold over one sports team, is it unreasonable to expect them to do the same when the day comes that the Steelers should falter? And if so, then how does that make them to be such a great fan base? If anything doesn’t this make them pink hats?
There are two primary reasons that the media – and Pittsburgh fans – latch onto this ‘great fans’ concept. The first is because so many Steeler fans show up in opposing stadiums when the team has an away game. The other is a long streak of games being sold out at home. Let’s take a closer look at these two pieces of evidence.
The steel industry collapsed at the same exact time that fan interest in the local pro football team was piqued for the first time in their existence. People leave the area to find jobs elsewhere, all across the country, but still follow their local team because they are doing well, and remind them of home. They win a couple more championships, and the love of the team they left behind grows. Why change hats and root for the new local team you’re not familiar with when the team whose bandwagon you just jumped on is doing so well?
Fast forward and the team remains very competitive for forty years, with rare, minimal and very short downturns; again, no reason to jump off the band wagon except for the very worst front runners – and they or their children quickly return with two more recent championships.
As for the other reason, the sellouts, a couple things to consider. First, this is Pittsburgh, this isn’t Miami or San Diego; similar to Green Bay, your options for other entertainment are relatively limited. I suppose you could go water skiing on the Allegheny now that local hero Dave Wannstedt is no longer coaching the Pitt Panthers, but I suppose there’s a limited interest in that exercise. Second, I somehow think the streak would have been broken a long time ago if there were a few more final results from 1920-1970 interspersed in the 1990-2010 time frame.
So what we have is a fan base that ranks near the bottom in their leagues in attendance when they lose, and three to four times as many as those team win. To me you can call that fair weather fans, you can call that band wagon fans, you can even call that a typical fan base – but please, spare me the soliloquy Â on how this base of sports fans are so much more loyal or in some way better than any other group of fans. They are there when the team wins and if not for four championships that they did not witness because they happened before they were born, then they would already have departed for the latest flavor of the month. Basking in the glory of something you were not there to see is lame, and something shared by only one other equally arrogant group of fans – Yankee fans that pat themselves on the back for 26 championships that they too did not watch.
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