I was listening to my daily dose of sports talk radio one Monday morning many months ago during football season and the morning guys were debating whether or not Pittsburgh is a true sports town and getting pretty heated about it. Well, one guy was heated anyway. He was mad because of the pitiful attendance at the Pitt game that weekend. Pitt football is these days, in my personal observation, almost a second tier sport to their basketball program, which of course has to fill the need of all basketball fans in western PA since there is no professional team here (and there is no way we’re following a Philadelphia based team!). So, while even their basketball team has been less formidable lately than in the past, it gets a lot of attention and attendance, but the stands at Heinz Field are often embarrassingly sparse on Saturday afternoons. And that really torqued the one gentleman who said, in essence, in for a penny, in for a pound. If you want to call yourself a sports town, you have to embrace all of it. He argued that we’re not a sports town; we’re a Steelers town. And, I think he would have had to admit even at the time, a Penguins town, but he was on a football rant, so it didn’t come up. Also not discussed was baseball, at the time on hiatus. But while there is a grudging loyalty to the Pirates, the crowds are often sparse at games, despite PNC Park being arguably one of the most beautiful ballparks in the country, and the team is playing pretty well these days. And it is actually the state of the Pirates that got me to thinking about that morning rant recently. At 31-19, they are putting together a decent season, but people are slow to embrace it. There is a lot of hesitation after the collapse the team had last year, and the fan base seems to almost be punishing the team by staying away from games. I have to confess, I haven’t gone yet this season, and generally I’ve been to at least three or four by now. It almost feels like a lover cheating on you. You may still love that person, but it takes a while before you trust them again. But, does our reticence disqualify us as a true sports town? I guess it depends on how you define “sports town”.
Is it an unqualified embrace of all sports? Then Pittsburgh does not meet the burden. If the talking head on the sports station really wanted to nail his point home that particular day, he could have mentioned that even his own station, wholly dedicated to sports, never talks about the other professional sports teams in the city. I lived here over a year before I even knew there was a soccer team. Most of us could tell you that there is an arena football team (The Pittsburgh Power), but how many of us go to watch them? I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have been out in public and seen someone wearing a Power t-shirt or talking about them. But, I have not ever – not even at my daughter’s college graduation – gone somewhere and failed to see people decked out in Steelers or Penguins garb. And forget about the women’s football team, because most people do just that. I watched them on TV once, and I know they made it to their playoffs last season, but maybe you would think I would embrace it as a female football fan, but I don’t just honestly. I’m not alone: I’ve never heard it even mentioned on sports talk radio. Not even in passing. Come of think of it, I don’t recall seeing anything about it either local newspaper.
Is it strictly based on attendance? Well then, he’s right, as I’ve discussed above, we don’t meet that burden either. Not if you have to take it in aggregate. The Steelers sell out every game and have a season ticket waiting list that I didn’t even bother getting on once I got here because it’s so absurdly long. I am on the Penguins waiting list, with about nine more years to go. (I’ll still be able to walk up the stands when I finally get my tickets, unlike how I would have been for Steelers games.) Most high school football games are pretty well packed on the home side at least. But, outside of that, it’s not hard to walk up to a venue right before a game and get in.
Is it the number of championships a city has? Well then Pittsburgh definitely qualifies, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Dallas has a fair share of championships, but I’m not sure I’d put it front and center as a sports town.
I finally decided that the sports town debate is one that can’t really be won – or lost – because it’s too subjective. But, I would argue that Pittsburgh gets the nod as a true sports town because, while we may not embrace all sports all the time, the ones we do, we embrace fully and wholly. If you ask someone to state something about Pittsburgh, one of two answers will likely be given: football or steel. Or, if you ask a hockey fan, maybe a third response will spring forth. But, point being, we’re defined maybe not by all our sports franchises, but definitely by a couple of them. If there is an embarrassment of riches in a town to where we can’t possibly afford the time or the expense to go to all the games all the time, then I hardly think that disqualifies us. And if we’ve got so many options that we demand a high standard of play and conduct before rewarding a team with our support and attendance, then maybe that bolsters the argument, not erodes it. Bottom line for me, of course, is I live here to be near the two teams I love. For me, this is a sports town.