Monday, September 10, 2012

The NFL has Two Brands of Football

There is an NFL most Pittsburghers don’t recognize.  Yes, we see it in passing when visiting teams come to Pittsburgh.  And yes, we see it on television if we watch any of the national telecasts and sports coverage of the NFL, but even there, it’s not the same because Pittsburghers watch such coverage through the prism of being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

What does that mean?

It means when we think of NFL football, we think of the Steelers and the team’s rivalries.  We think of defense and power offense.  We harken back to a blue collar fan base that has since evolved and expanded, covering an entire country under the “Steeler Nation” banner.  The iconic Terrible Towel and those black and gold uniforms are a unifier.  We think of sold out stadiums and a waiting list for season tickets that is so long, many fans are more likely to inherit their tickets rather than simply purchase them outright. 

In Pittsburgh, the NFL means no cheerleaders or excessive glitz on game day.  No need for giveaways or fireworks displays to get fans to come to games.  No need for good weather as well.  In fact, as the temperatures drop and the weather starts to make life otherwise miserable, Steelers fans flock to the stadium in their own black and gold attire. 

When Pittsburghers think of the NFL, they remember seeing some of the league’s most dominant stars and Hall of Fame players as kids, playing in high school or college right here.  It seems rare these days to see a pro game without some Pittsburgh connection. 

What all of this adds up to is that collectively, Pittsburghers aren’t your typical casual football fan.  They know the game in ways most other NFL cities can’t relate.

This is why the NFL has done much to market itself as a sort of real-life comic book, complete with “superheroes” in spandex-style costumes thanks this year to Nike. Other NFL teams fill their stadiums with sights and sounds designed to capture and hold the most disinterested fans, from cheerleaders and pounding music, to super-sized inflatable football helmets to serve as “tunnels” for the players to emerge from before the game starts.  Of course, entrance wouldn’t be the same without the fog machine, and players customizing their entrances for full entertainment effect.

In Baltimore, aging linebacker Ray Lewis is known for his signature entrance dance.   Just yesterday, Antonio Smith of the Houston Texans made a statement of his own wearing a Spiderman-like red mask as he entered the stadium following a Ninja theme.  And then there are the wide receivers, each with his own way of celebrating a touchdown with moves and spikes and not uncommonly, violations of the league’s sportsmanship rules.

That is the NFL most Pittsburghers don’t know.  Yes, they see it on TV and on the Internet, but it’s not what attracts them to the game. Those are side shows, not the main attraction.  The main attraction is James Harrison sacking a quarterback five yards deep in the backfield.  Or nose tackle Casey Hampton playing the role of brick wall on third and short.  Or tight end Heath Miller making a name for himself as both a blocker and a pass receiver.

In short, the brand of football Pittsburghers like is a traditional one.  A more pure one, one that’s all about physicality and domination at the line of scrimmage.  One of incredible strategy that’s not beyond striking from the air as well as the ground, but always moving forward.

This is in contrast to the other brand of football NFL fans around the country seem to want.  The glitz.  The show.  The passing and the speed, and the occasional helmet-to-helmet collision that’s banned by the league but not from highlights reels.  They like the high impact and the high energy even if they don’t understand the actual purpose of playing tough within the confines of the game.  These kinds of fans tend to come and go, which is why stadiums in places like Tampa, Jacksonville, Atlanta and Phoenix don’t always sell out, and why when the Steelers play in those venues it can look like a Steelers home game.

To be sure there are a few other cities that see football the same way Pittsburgh does.  There’s Baltimore, of course.  Green Bay, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland and Dallas.  These are towns that show up win or lose, regardless of the weather.  The fans are often smarter about the game than some of the TV network personalities on the sidelines.  And while Dallas is famous for the iconic Cowboys cheerleaders, something tells me if they weren’t at the game, the stands would still be full.

There are two brands of football, one that is real, and one that is rooted in marketing to hold the attention of large media markets with only a superficial interest in the game.  Pittsburghers are fortunate enough to live in one of the few towns that when it comes to football, gets it.

It’s September.  Football season has started.  Have a great one.

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