Steelers Nation a superpower

The Baltimore Sun

They will flock from every direction, clad in black and gold, hungry for pierogi and eager to watch their beloved Pittsburgh Steelers win a record sixth Super Bowl.

Sure, that scene will unfold at countless Pittsburgh bars and eateries today. But it's also a pretty good guess of how things will look at Harold's Corral.

Why is that remarkable? Well, because Harold's is on the outskirts of Phoenix, about 30 miles from where the Arizona Cardinals play their home games. Yes, it's very possible that the most raucous collection of football fans in Arizona will not be rooting for the Cardinals today.

"We're very passionate people," Harold's owner and Pittsburgh native Danny Piacquadio said. "We'll have more than 3,000 people out here waving their Terrible Towels, doing the Steelers polka and making it feel like we're at Heinz Field, even though we're 2,500 miles away. I love it."

In many ways, that sums up what is special about the Steelers. They are not often lumped with the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Lakers among the nation's great sports franchises. But consider the team's record of on-field success, its fan base that sprawls to all 50 states and several foreign countries, its ability to sell merchandise, and the images it evokes of physical toughness and consistency. Put all those factors together and it's hard to argue that the Steelers belong anywhere but the American sporting pantheon.

"Success has had something to do with it," Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said when asked about his team's following. "They have had difficult times in Pittsburgh, and we sort of filled the void - they could have something for their pride. That has something to do with it. You know they moved. Everybody sees that when we go to Arizona, there are a billion Steeler fans out there."

The Steelers don't have a national fan base on par with the Yankees but compare well with a team such as the Lakers, said John Moag, chairman of Moag & Co., a Baltimore investment banking firm that specializes in sports.

"The Steelers have a pretty strong non-Pennsylvania fan base among the generation that remembers the old Steel Curtain days - just as the Lakers have a national fan base among NBA fans who remember the Showtime Era of the '80s," Moag said. "Their local fan base is among the strongest and most loyal in the league."

Steelers Nation shows its strength by traveling in force, kind of like the fan base for a major college program. Fans in Steelers jerseys have outnumbered their Cardinals counterparts at least 3-to-1 in Tampa, Fla. Signs on several local houses proclaim, "Welcome to Steelers Country."

"Whenever you go somewhere, I'll bring a hat or a shirt or something, and whether I'm in the airport or running on the street, I'll see another one of us and they'll yell, 'Go Steelers!' " said Chris Sarne, a Philadelphian who traveled to Tampa not to attend the game but simply to party with fellow fans.

Sarne was drinking at O'Brien's, a Steelers-friendly bar in Tampa packed with fans Friday afternoon.

"Every Sunday, no matter what the record is, they all show up," said the proprietor, Bernie O'Brien.

No one will be surprised if today's game is a repeat of the 2006 Super Bowl in Detroit, where Steelers fans swarmed the stands and drowned out Seattle Seahawks supporters.

"My last experience was from the other side of it, and it was sort of like a home game for us in Detroit when I was coaching for Pittsburgh," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Their fans travel well. Hopefully that's something that we're establishing with our fans. But I do anticipate they will have a big following."

Steelers players know they're blessed with unusual support.

"Our fans are the greatest in the world," safety Ryan Clark said. "They follow us everywhere. It's a great feeling to play in someone else's place and they have to use a silent count."

On the field, the Steelers have been one of the NFL's most consistent franchises, suffering only seven losing seasons in the past 37 and winning five Super Bowls in that stretch. Beyond wins and losses, the Steelers epitomize a certain kind of football - smothering defense backed by a strong running attack and the occasional big pass play.

Off the field, the Steelers are a revenue juggernaut despite hailing from a small market. According to figures compiled from NFLShop.com, they ranked third in merchandise sales behind the Cowboys and New York Giants between April and the end of 2008. They ranked first in the six months after their last Super Bowl win in 2006.

They consistently draw higher television ratings in their own market than any other franchise in the NFL. (The 15 highest-rated shows in Pittsburgh in 2008 were Steelers games.)

The Steelers Nation section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Web site lists fan clubs in 20 states and four foreign countries. From Hawaii to Monterrey, Mexico, to Baltimore, if you want to find a pack of black-and-gold nuts with whom to watch a Steelers game, one is waiting.

That's where places such as Harold's come into play. They serve retirees from Western Pennsylvania, who left in search of warmer climates, or younger transplants, who had to leave to find work. You can take such people out of Pittsburgh, but you can't take their passion for the Steelers out of them.

Piacquadio can identify. He grew up in Pittsburgh but attended college at Arizona State. So for every game, he strives to make his average crowd of 650 Steelers fans (he sells season tickets so regulars can retain their seats) feel as if they're back home for three hours. He plays Steelers fight songs over his loudspeakers and serves Pittsburgh treats such as pierogi, kielbasi and sandwiches stuffed with fries and coleslaw.

At the heart of Steelers mania is a passionate connection between Western Pennsylvania and football. The region has produced some of the game's greatest names, from John Unitas to Joe Montana to Dan Marino. For a long time, however, the pro team's records failed to keep pace with the area's lust for great football.

That all changed in the 1970s, when Terry Bradshaw, "Mean" Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and six other Hall of Famers arrived to make the Steelers one of the most talented teams in NFL history. Led by taciturn coach Chuck Noll, they reeled off four Super Bowl wins in six years and became the symbol for excellence for a generation of football fans.

Almost anyone born to a Pittsburgh family since then has inherited a love for the Steelers.

"It goes back to the '70s, when they were closing down the steel mills and everybody would rally around the Steelers," Piacquadio said. "Maybe people would get laid off during the week, but on the weekend they could root for the Steelers, and the Steelers would win. Those people will root for the Steelers forever, no matter where they are."

Rooney believes the passion has been passed to Pittsburgh's next generation.

"We had a pep rally before we came down here, and it was terrific," he said. "It's all young people, so you can see that the next generation is going to be there, too. It was just great. I talked with many of them, and they look at Ben [Roethlisberger] and Hines [Ward] and all these great players that we have and they relate to them, so it is a terrific thing."

Baltimore Sun reporters Jamison Hensley and Rick Maese contributed to this article.

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