Steven Ericson is an instructor at the University of Alabama and grew up near Atlanta. But he remembers always turning on the TV on Sundays for the Steelers game.
Steelers fans and bars in other parts of the country may not be unique to Pittsburgh’s team, but there are some reasons that no matter where you go, you’ll likely find a place where you can wear black and gold and not miss kickoff.
Ericson, who is based in Alabama’s Department of Geography, studies how cultures are impacted by geography and specializes in urban areas and sports. He told The Incline that he doesn’t know of an accurate count of Steelers’ bars across the country, or world for that matter, but there has been some academic research on the topic (more on that later). A quick Google search shows multiple sites dedicated to finding Steelers bars outside of Pittsburgh, with names including Planet Steelers, Steelers Addicts and Steelers Bars.
You could go the Famous Three Kings Pub in England, or Garden Bar in Thailand. Or, if you *have* to be in New England this weekend, there’s always Eli’s on Whitney in Hamden, CT.
So why can you cheer on the Steelers with other fans seemingly anywhere you go? There are several reasons, Ericson said.
First up: Tradition
That research that Ericson pointed to starts with the story of James Henry Smith, a 55-year-old man in San Diego, who died of prostate cancer in July 2005. (The journal article by Jon Kraszewski was published in May 2008 in the Journal of Sport & Social Issues.)
Smith grew up in Pittsburgh, but spent most of his adult life in San Diego. And he was a dedicated Steelers fan. So much so, that for his funeral, he was dressed in Steelers gear, and friends and family watched a Steelers video.
“People grow up with the sports fandom they have and very rarely do people give that up,” Ericson said.
As Pittsburgh’s population decreased in the 1970s and 1980s, Steelers fans found new homes in other cities.
Neil Conner, an assistant professor at Delta State University who also studies geography and sports, agreed. The geographic region where Steelers fans are from — spanning from Western Pennsylvania to Southeastern Ohio, Appalachia to Western New York — has seen an exodus of people, Conner told The Incline in an email. Teams from areas with similar emigration also have fan bases across the country — think: Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions — even if they don’t have the winning record that the Steelers have.
Being a Steelers fan was something people could take with them and pass down to their kids, said Ericson, a Steelers fan who grew up around Atlanta as the son of parents from the Pittsburgh-area.
If you think about connections to home, one big example is food, but that can be the toughest thing to get if you’re far away, Ericson said. So watching the Steelers creates that connection.
Speaking of watching the game …
Before TV expanded into what’s available now, fans could only watch the local team or the winning team, Ericson said. But now, TV packages allow fans to either watch all NFL games from home or to go to bars showing all the games.
And fans like to win, so it was easy to become a Steelers fan when they were winning Super Bowls, Ericson said.
“Nothing breeds fans across the country more than a winner,” Conner agreed.
And, yes, there is something special about watching the game at a bar with other fans. In his 2008 paper, Kraszewski wrote that, doing the math, the price to have all the NFL games at home was similar to the price spent on food and drinks if fans watched the game at the bar every week. But, fans seemed to pick the latter option “less out of their inability to afford Direct TV (sic) and more out of their desire to find a diasporic community.”
Sports = home
Sports alliances are one of the few interests that people externalize, Ericson said. People wear clothing for their team, but not so much for their other interests, like a favorite opera, he said. Even with universities, it’s more common to see someone with a T-shirt for the school’s sports team than their area of study.
When fans see other fans in gear for the same team, it creates a common interest, allowing them to talk about the team and its players, but also to talk about the town, he said. Regardless of age or income, people can relate to each other when they talk about their favorite players and team history.
In his research, Kraszewski pointed out that the only way he could tell the difference in the income of fans at a Steelers bar in Fort Worth was by their shoes, jackets and cars. Otherwise, he wrote, it was difficult to tell, because they all wore similar Steelers gear.
Sports — regardless of the team — is a great unifier, Ericson said.