Training Camp for Fans, Part Five: A Take On Steelers Nation

by Ivan Cole

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AP photo

The idea of this series is that players aren’t the only ones who have to get in shape for football season. Fans need to sharpen their skills of discernment as well.

My first thought was to start fresh for the 2016 season. But even though the previous entries were made last August, they have, for the most part, held up well and some benefit may be derived from reviewing them as we begin to gear up for the new year. So we pick up where we left off. [These links will take you to the previous articles: Part 1: The Myth of the Knowledgeable FanPart 2: The TrapsPart 3: Why Drafts Will Never Be Perfect; Part 4: The Ahistorical Fan.]

Who are we?

Nation: “a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory”.

A couple of things. Obviously, Steelers Nation is a metaphor, as are similar fan references, but it is a particularly clever one because there are a number of common characteristics that allows us to think of our shared affiliation in grander terms than just that of a loose collection of fans. Which leads to the second point. The commonalities are easy to discern and celebrate, but what gives the concept its heft is the diversity it represents.

We’ve all come to our citizenship in different ways and at different times. Our heritage is black and gold, but of varying shades and textures. The purpose of this particular segment is a “Know Thyself” exercise. It will lack the rigor that Rebecca would bring to this sort of undertaking. I’m making this up as I go in an attempt to stimulate thought and maybe a little conversation. If it happens to feel accurate, great. If not, please feel free to re-conceptualize in any manner that makes sense to you.

I believe the two most influential elements in how you view your relationship with the team is how one comes to Steelers Nation and when. The categories listed aren’t rigid. Many of us occupy two or more groupings simultaneously, and the boundaries of the different eras are flexible.

Citizens of Steelers Nation

1. The Indigenous Citizen

To qualify one has to have been born and raised in what was referred to as the Tri-State Area when I was growing up. Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio or West Virginia. Extra credit if you are from Allegheny County, and bonus stars if you actually hail from the City of Pittsburgh. Not that I care, but just as a matter of accuracy for the uninitiated, claiming that you are from Pittsburgh when you are, in fact from Johnstown, Erie, Wheeling, WV or Steubenville, Ohio is stretching things a bit.

What is important about this designation is that the team ownership and its culture is indigenous as well. As I have mentioned in previous writings and will address in Part Six, what has been identified as the Steeler Way, can be more broadly understood as the Pittsburgh Way. The roots of the professional game itself go back to the 19th century and grew out of the culture of the area. Like all deep, pervasive cultural characteristics, it is an understood truth, not necessarily spoken of much (no need in most cases). Points of conflict sometimes arises with the non-indigenous when they try to introduce what can only be characterized as alien concepts into the mix. Its fair to say that a lot may fly over the head of some Steelers fans not rooted in or unfamiliar with Pittsburgh area culture.

2. Expatriates

Speaking of flying over one’s head, if you are unfamiliar with the history of Midwestern cities in the latter half of the 20th Century then you may be unaware that large numbers of Pittsburgh residents have emigrated from the city over the years. Terms such as expats or economic refugees would not be too extreme a description of those who left due to seismic changes in Pittsburgh’s economy. The city has borne its scars well and has bounced back nicely, especially when compared to other places such as Detroit, which has served to obscure the reality of things.

These are often referred to, incorrectly, as the fans who travel so well to follow the team. The truth being that they are for the most part already there, dispersed by economic necessity throughout the country and appearing in support of the team when it visits their region. The skeptic wonders if ignorance of this fact is contrived to avoid uncomfortable conversation about the roots and consequences of large scale dislocations that have been experienced over the past couple of generations. Diaspora may be the more accurate description. And it would explain the powerful, stubborn ties to the team since theirs is the status of exiles. The expats have not so much abandoned Pittsburgh as they have been banished.

Some expats such as myself and Homer J left before the troubles but also maintained strong ties to the team. Even those who left simply to pursue better opportunities continue to have strong ties to the community of their birth.

3. Legacy Fans

The descendants of the indigenous or expats, sometimes having never set foot in the city, following the Steelers is a matter of continuing family tradition. This would be Hombre.

4. Immigrants

It hasn’t been all losses as far as residents have been concerned. Individuals like Rebecca move in and adopt the team as part of adopting the city in general.

5. Converts

This is a rich, highly diverse and a somewhat peculiar fan category that not every sports organization enjoys. Most fans follow a pretty simple logic in terms of their sports loyalties; they support the team(s) in or near the communities in which they live.

There are any number of exceptions. If you live, say, in Canada or Mexico, the easy logic of geography may not apply. Some are seduced by a team’s success, an attraction to a specific player, their style, even just the color of the uniforms.

Because they have been the most successful organization in the 50-year Super Bowl Era, the Steelers enjoy having a segment of their fan base who attach themselves to teams who consistently perform at a high level. Only a handful of teams achieve this status. It is also worth noting that they attract more than their share of haters for the same reason.

What is particularly interesting about this in the context of this piece is that it points to an inevitable area of conflict in that the success of the team attracts fans who want to be associated with a winner, but have no interest in the values or processes that made that success possible. Having said that, care must be taken to not be too dogmatic about this. BTSC founder Michael Bean, as dedicated and knowledgeable a fan as you could hope to find, is a convert, and there are plenty of later generation indigenous fans who are essentially entitled bandwagon types who care little about the traditions or values of the team.

The team’s success leads to a certain amount of contamination of the fan base by those who are not particularly interested in what makes the team successful, perhaps are even openly hostile to such, but continue to want to be seen as part of a winning organization.

to be continued

 

7 comments

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    I fit a rare profile as I am a pity convert who started cheering for the team when they were terrible because I felt sorry for them. The modern equivalent might be someone who is a convert Cleveland Browns fan.

    Speaking of Cleveland, I was amazed to learn the population of Cleveland has dropped to the 400k range which makes it almost half the size of Winnipeg. I have to assume there are a lot of people living in nearby suburbs for the city to be able to support NFL, NBA and MLB teams. Most of Winnipeg’s suburbs were incorporated into the city in 1972. It wasn’t popular at the time but it turned out to be the right thing to do.

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  • @COSF: Both Cleveland and Pittsburgh have less than half the population they had in the 1950 census. In both cases, the first big exodus was to the suburbs in the 50’s and 60’s. A second exodus occurred when the steel industry and other heavy manufacturing collapsed in the early ’80s. The people who left in the second wave left the area to find work. Pittsburgh has recovered better than any major rust belt city for a number of reasons, not the least of which is a sense of loyalty by our civic and business leaders. The old housing infrastructure in Pittsburgh has survived rather well, and industrial neighborhoods like South Side and Lawrenceville have become magnets for millennials seeking reasonably priced housing. Companies such as Google have located new facilities in Bakery Square, near the site of the old Nabisco Plant. The old industrial sites are being repurposed, and the areas along the rivers – once the domain of big steel – are now parks. When Big Steel died, the ‘burgh bet it all on medical, education, and high tech. So far, they’ve hit the trifecta.

    Cleveland also has an outstanding medical infrastructure, and has come back somewhat from its nadir. But the housing stock is not nearly as good (much of the “forest city’s” housing stock was wood), and the Cleveland has social problems far more serious than Pittsburgh’s.

    Both cities are easily able to support pro franchises because they are sports mad northern cities with enthusiastic fan bases. There’s no beach in the ‘burgh or Cleveland (spare me Miineral Beach or that North Coast crap), and in November, the NFL is king. I could write more on this and bore you to death, but the takeaway is simple: Cleveland and Pittsburgh both lost a lot of population in the last half of the 20th Century, but there’s still a good number of people left, especially in the ‘burbs, with a lot of money, and loyalty to their teams. And that’s why they’re still there, Art Modell notwithstanding.

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  • I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, suburbs actually, and left during the economic depression of the 80s. So I am an ex-pat. While I was living in Chicago after leaving Pittsburgh, I adopted the Bears for a bit and later when I was living in Miami Beach I adopted the Dolphins as my second favorite team. But nobody could ever replace my Steelers.

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  • Pingback: Training Camp for Fans Part 6: The Emergence of Steeler Nation | Going Deep:

  • Pingback: Training Camp for Fans, Part 7: Fandom At The End of an Era? | Going Deep:

  • Pingback: Training Camp for Fans Part Eight: What is the Steeler Way? | Going Deep:

  • I was born and raised in Allegheny County (Partially – moved from Bethel Park to Peters Twp when i was 8). Moved to DC after college though for work and have been there ever since. I tried to root for the Redskins when i first came down here, but it only took half a season for me to give up and have pity on their fan base. The Steelers and Redskins are like night and day, complete opposites.

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