Pittsburgh Steelers fans have a sterling reputation around the NFL as far as their dedication to the team. Maybe they shoudn’t anymore.
On Sunday night, the Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals in front of 45,873 partisans, the smallest crowd in the 12-year history of Heinz Field. Pittsburgh improved to 6-8 with the 30-20 win, avoiding its third straight loss to Cincinnati and preventing its AFC North rival from moving closer to a division title.
Despite all that, from a Steelers perspective it was a relatively meaningless game – Pittsburgh needs a statistical miracle to make the playoffs and the game-time temperature was in the low 20s with a wind chill in the single digits. To put it a different way, there were plenty of excuses to not go to the game if you had tickets, and a remarkable number of Steelers fans took advantage of that.
Once the Steelers raced out to a 24-point lead, some of the fans who did show up started leaving. By the fourth quarter of a game that was still in doubt, more than half of the 65,050 mustard yellow seats at Heinz Field were empty, imbuing all the atmosphere of a Pitt Panthers matchup with Youngstown State.
I understand that in this modern era, the number of people who attend a game has little correlation with the popularity of a team. There are more ways that ever to follow a sports franchise, and in many respects the television presentation of an NFL game surrounded by the comforts of home is more desirable than being there in person.
However, I’m not arguing the Steelers are unpopular. I’m saying that for a fan base that’s widely considered one of the most devoted in all of sports, scenes like Sunday night’s in front of a national audience don’t reflect well on Steelers followers in general.
The Steelers have traditionally used turnstile count to determine attendance, while some NFL teams simply go by tickets sold. Because of this, it’s tough to get a measure of how Pittsburgh stacks up when it comes to showing up. By this admittedly flawed system, the Steelers rank 28th out of 32 teams in percentage of seats filled this year, which is surprisingly low even when considering the inconsistent accounting methods throughout the league.
The Steelers are about to miss the playoffs for the second straight season, the first time that’s happened this century. They started 0-4 and 2-6, not exactly the most effective way to engage fans. But Pittsburgh pro football fans shouldn’t have to be engaged, right? They should support their team no matter what, because they love the Steelers so much.
At least that’s what I’ve been told.
It’s not like the Steelers don’t have any exciting players, either. They still have one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger, an emerging star receiver in Antonio Brown, and although the defense is going through a transitional period between experience and youth, Troy Polamalu is still undeniably fun to watch, not to mention a charismatic personality.
Also, when a franchise has won a pair of Super Bowls in the past decade and played in a third three years ago, one would expect some goodwill to carry over for at least a couple seasons. Whether you call it high expectations or just being spoiled by success, that hasn’t happened at Heinz Field.
I’ll never be in the business of telling people what to do with their money, but in this case the tickets are already sold, it’s just a matter of making the effort to go to the game. If ticket holders can’t be bothered to do that, I suggest they step aside and let the folks who would love to see the Steelers have an opportunity.
And if others don’t want to come out in a down year, maybe it’s time to downgrade Pittsburgh’s reputation as a football town. As Sunday night demonstrated quite literally, there’s a large contingent of fair-weather Steelers fans walking among us.