Forged in Pittsburgh: The Football Industry & The Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers.jpg

When will the Labor Department come up with a statistic (GEP or Gross Entertainment Product) to measure to extent to which the economy is dependent on fun? The Pittsburgh Steelers are, at the very least, the emotional heart of Pittsburgh. In season on Sundays, the faithful wear their jerseys to church, and the city takes a reverential pause during the games, as it did during last Sunday’s AFC championship competition. Football wins in Pittsburgh are best understood as divine rapture, delivered by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, despite his pre-season time in purgatory.

The football industry has its factory lines across the river from downtown Pittsburgh. A joint venture between the Pittsburgh Steelers, the University of Pittsburgh, and local government accounted for the financial package that replaced Three Rivers Stadium with Heinz Field, a hulking monolith that, instead of producing steel by night, hosts football games on about twenty days a year.

At the same time, the city replaced the baseball stadium and added on to the convention center, for a total expenditure of $809 million. Costs allocated to Heinz Field are estimated to be $281 million, although the accounting is more impenetrable than the Steel Curtain.

Why would a city struggling to replace jobs lost to Asia put millions into two stadiums that are little more productive than Crusader fortresses in the Levant?

Some answers might be found in the Obama appointment of the Steelers’ owner, Dan Rooney, as U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Presumably, Rooney and some local unions had delivered Pennsylvania to the Democrats over the course of many elections, and their reward was a sweetheart contract to build a football stadium and an ambassadorship.

The arrangement casts professional football in the guise of a protected guild, although perhaps one as vulnerable as steel tubing is to competitive destruction.

Were professional football not to enjoy an antitrust exemption, the Koreans and the Chinese might be supplying games for costs far less than those requiring a publicly funded stadium ($158 million directly) in which the Rooneys pocket the $125,000 per year from each of the high-end sky boxes.

The first time I went to Pittsburgh, in 1972, I came up the Ohio Valley on a series of buses that stopped in places like Moundsville, Wheeling, Steubenville, and Weirton. Pittsburgh was an iron and steel city, although the London fog of soot no longer hung over the downtown. Still, it looked more like the past than the future, with the riverbanks lined with rusting barges and empty steel mills as forlorn as an Edward Hopper painting. The trip came after two weeks in Appalachia, studying coal mining for a High School project, together with my friend and classmate, Kevin Glynn.

Approached from the south, Pittsburgh felt like the coal and iron ore capital of America, where train, road, and river traffic came together to form the crossroads of the carbon revolution. Opposition to cap-and-trade explains why Pennsylvania recently voted Republican.

As we made our way up the Ohio Valley, Kevin and I went by car plants, rail yards, smelters, and gas flares, which, had I known more about economics, I might have recognized as the eternal flame of industrial America. Heavy industry was then moving to the Far East, which left downtown Pittsburgh with the air of a frontier settlement in which the saloon and the company store had closed.

We stayed in a shabby hotel, went to a baseball game, and caught a night train home to New York, having liked Pittsburgh more than we expected. After the narrow valleys of West Virginia and claustrophobia of the fading coal mines, Pittsburgh had felt expansive, and the three rivers that converged off Fort Pitt suggested that the city had currents to wider worlds, as Abraham Lincoln found when he drifted from Kentucky to New Orleans.

Thirty-eight years after my first visit, I recently came back to Pittsburgh, this time on the aft, open deck of a private railroad car, as if whistle-stopping in a political campaign.

Although the private rail car offered excellent food, wine tasting, and good company, what interested me most was to see how Pittsburgh had changed since 1972. A friend who owns the car, New York Central 3, invited me to join him, and the excursion gave me the feeling that I was touring Rust Belt America in a steel gondola.

I made much of the trip west on an outdoor folding chair that gave me a box seat as the train crossed the Alleghenies and moved toward Pittsburgh through the historically drenched valleys around Conemaugh and Johnstown, site of the flood, nature’s 9/11. At each stop I wondered the extent to which Smokestack American was underwater.

In 1889 the dam of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, above Johnstown, is said to have contained 20,000,000 tons of water before it broke, equivalent to the amount that goes over Niagara Falls in 36 minutes. A wind tunnel preceded the wall of water that killed 2,000. Another kind of tsunami has since swept over the modern American steel industry.

Along the banks of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, the Pittsburgh steel mills that once belched fire are gone, replaced by highways, empty spaces, apartment blocks, and hotels. Much of the local steel production has been outsourced to Eastern Europe, reminding me that I had seen a train emblazoned “US Steel Serbia,” on a trip to the Balkans.

The extent to which Pittsburgh has shifted into the service economy was clear, with universities, hospitals, government office buildings, and sports complexes accounting for the local growth industries.

At the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, I collected some notes on the extent to which football is among the region’s thriving investments. A wall map shows the location of the many local quarterbacks exported to the professional ranks. I marveled at finding names like Dan Marino, George Blanda, Joe Montana, and Jim Kelly in places that once produced things like barbed wire.

My Pittsburgh touring ended in nearby Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, in homage to quarterback Joe Namath (of the New York Jets), who grew up on several of its gritty streets. A steel products company still operated in the town, but the mill appeared to be closed. Beaver Falls lives on the fumes of a community college and its sporting legends. In his memoirs, Namath writes that the area is “the home of more All-Americans per square mile, I’ll bet, than any other section of the country.”

I found the houses where Joe Willie grew up, including rooms over a bar & grill then called the 1223 Club, which may explain Joe’s remark that he liked his girls blond and his Johnny Walker Red. Inside the bar both are still available.

On the way back to the station, I drove past the location of Fort Pitt, the battles for which, as Fort Duquesne, had ignited the global Seven Years War (1756 - 1763) between the English and the French. A young officer, George Washington, conducted a blundering campaign against the then-French held fort, but his reputation survived.

In the 1750s, Pittsburgh was the heart of the New World, as it was later the industrial capital of an industrial nation. Today, the only wars being fought around the Ohio Valley relate to foreign trade and the Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by pitt6rng

Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical essays. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine.

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