I am not unlike many area residents. I have been a Pittsburgh Steelers fan since I was a kid growing up on South Wells Street in Sistersville listening to games with my dad on KDKA radio and later watching on television. My wife, who I used to tease and didn’t own a single pair of tennis shoes until she met me, has also become a loyal fan over the years. We both cheered through the 70’s for Terry Bradshaw, mean Joe Green and that brutal Steel Curtain, still regarded as the greatest defensive unit in NFL history. We are just a small part of what is known as one of the most devoted fan bases of any NFL team in the country. The majority of that fan base is made up of hard working blue collar individuals. Although the steel industry has taken its hits in recent decades, when you think of Pittsburgh, images of the working class celebrating their football team still come to mind. Pittsburgh is known for its steel mills, local pubs, winding rivers, many bridges and a well traveled, hard working fan base.
Heck, even the name of the team reflects the kind of work that was done in the area at the time. Although initially called the Pittsburgh Pirates when the football team was founded by Art Rooney in 1933, it then became the Steelers in 1940 when fans were asked to participate by sending in their suggestions for a new name for the team.
And maybe you recall the story of the team logo? The Steelers got their insignia from Republic Steel of Cleveland of all places! That’s the home of our hated rival, the Cleveland Browns. The company suggested the team use the Steelmark which was and is three diamonds with inverted, curved edges in yellow, orange and blue as their logo. It also happened to be used by the American Iron and Steel Institute. Executives for the team were not sure about the use of the logo, so in case it wasn’t well received by fans, they only printed enough for one side of the Steelers’ helmets – the right side – just in case they had to replace it. The rest is history. The logo stuck, the Steelers finished 9-5 and became the winningest team in franchise history. The helmet today reflects the way it was originally designed and has never been changed. The Steelers remain the only NFL team that sports their logo on one side of the helmet. I didn’t know that history until I started writing the Press Box and found it while doing research. It’s amazing what you can find on the internet.
Although the Steelers and other NFL teams like the Green Bay Packers, named for the laborers of the meat packing industry, were originally associated with the working man, that doesn’t ring as true today. When did costs to go to a game sky-rocket to the point that attending is out of reach for many average Americans? So high are the costs for your ticket, parking and an adult beverage or two inside the stadium, it will set you back about $350 to $400 to take your family of three to a game at Heinz Field, according to Katherine Ross of the Value Penguin for Lending Tree. If you ask me that cost is worth it, but it wasn’t too long ago I lived in Pittsburgh with two young kids.
My career was just taking off, and being able to pony up cash like that, even adjusting for inflation, we would have had to settle for watching the game on TV. The reality is the cost to attend a pro football game is just too high for the average American and his/her family.
Why is that? Each franchise is facing salary costs in the excess of $100 million so to get the most bang for their buck they want the most cash they can get for each seat in the stadium… and for parking… and for your trip to the concession stand. Attending a pro football game is more like a mini vacation. You have to plan well in advance if you are taking the family, and you better put some money aside months in advance especially if you plan on buying any souvenirs like a Big Ben jersey. Do I like it? No. Would I go if I could get my hands on some good Steelers tickets? In a heartbeat.
As much as I am complaining about the costs to attend a game, it would be hard to find anyone willing to drum up sympathy for the athletes that play the sport professionally. We, the average fan, perceive the players as superstars pulling down astronomical salaries. So what is the reality? The median salary for all NFL players is $860,000. Not too shabby but still way below the 2 million that gets reported often in the press. Most of the attention of media is on the sky high salaries of the top quarterbacks. A few have contracts that pay upward of $25 to $30 million a year! On the opposite end are the running backs. They get banged up in every game and only last about three years in the league with a median salary of $630,000. Again, not too shabby, but consider this: Yes, these incomes do seem like winning the lottery on a yearly basis, but they pay a 37 percent tax rate and 6 to 10 percent of their salary goes to their agent. For many, they never finished their college education. The average NFL career lasts 3 years due to the high amount of brain and leg injuries. Here’s a sobering fact: According to Working Class Perspectives, as many as 78 percent of most NFL players leaving the league early are bankrupt within two years.
Like most flashy and overblown institutions, there is often an underbelly. Pro football is no different. The league continues to clean up its act from drug testing to protecting players by establishing penalties for improper player conduct and dangerous plays. Do they have more work to do? Of course, but I don’t see franchise owners or the fan base changing their feelings about high ticket costs or rate of pay per player as long as stadiums continue to be packed every Sunday.
And this Steelers fan has a tender spot for one up and coming Steelers coach. Blaine Stewart is the son of West Virginia’s own football coach, the late Bill Stewart. Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin was first hired by Coach Stewart during Bill’s stint at William and Mary. Bill Stewart and I played football together at Fairmont State, and even shared an apartment for a couple years. My wife and I followed Bill and his family each year trying hard to get to at least one of the games where Bill was on staff. We watched Bill and Karen’s son, Blaine, grow up looking forward each Christmas to the card showing Blaine sitting near their Christmas tree. To say I feel proud of Blaine and all he has accomplished is an understatement, but I also feel protective of this fine young man, too. There are several more just like me that were part of that same Fighting Falcon team. Every Sunday while cheering on the Steelers, Mary Ann and I have one eye glued on the sidelines hoping to catch a glimpse of that same young man and our favorite coach, Coach Stewart. Go Steelers!