- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2006

George Kupets, Seattle resident and die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan, felt slightly alone when he boarded a recent flight south to watch his team play the San Diego Chargers.

After all, he thought, how many other Steelers fans will be making this trip?

His loneliness subsided when 15 Alaskans, all dressed in black and gold, made their way down the aisle.

“They were all natives that had never set foot in Pittsburgh,” Kupets says.

Steelers supporters are among the most devoted and widespread in sports. They can be found just about anywhere, from Alaskan outposts to basement dens in South Dakota, from bars in Qatar to saloons in Hong Kong.

Those fans will show up in droves this week in Detroit, where the Steelers face the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL on Sunday.

“Steelers fans are rabid fans,” says John Mansell, an analyst with Kagan Research, a firm in Monterey, Calif., that specializes in appraising sports teams. “They do travel a lot and are very loyal.”

That would seem to be an understatement.

There are more than 6,000 members of the Black and Gold Brigade, thought to be the largest unofficial fan club of any NFL team. The majority reside outside the Pittsburgh area, founders say.

There are more than 900 “Steelers bars” around the world at which fans gather to watch games, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That list includes 57 in Virginia, 28 in Maryland and three in the District, as well as more than 80 outside the United States in places like Great Britain, St. Croix and Portugal.

“I know a lot of people in the club that have no connection to the city except the Steelers,” says Rick Deloia, who helped found the Black and Gold Brigade in the 1980s while he lived in California. “There are a lot of people who say they started watching football when they were the best team, so they liked them and stuck with them.”

Deloia, now a teacher in suburban Pittsburgh, says the group attracts hundreds of club members to preseason gatherings in that city and a postseason banquet in Los Alamitos, Calif.

“I spend way too much time on this, and every year I say I’m going to give it up,” he says. “But we do a lot of great things, and I’ve made a lot of friends.”

It is impossible to determine just how many Steelers fans there are or where they are, but there are some measures that shed light on the team’s popularity. When Heinz Field was built in 2001, the Steelers sold the 45,000 personal seat licenses faster than any team in history.

When the Steelers are on television in Pittsburgh, nearly everyone watches. For the second straight season, the Steelers drew higher local television ratings than any other team. Ratings in the Pittsburgh area for the game against the Bengals on Jan. 8 drew a 54.9 Nielsen rating, representing 76 percent of the people who had their televisions turned on at that time. Nationally, each of the Steelers’ three playoff games this season was the most watched game during that week.

Theories abound as to why Steelers fans are so numerous and widespread. Many fans said they grew up in Pittsburgh but were forced to move elsewhere for work after steel mills closed in the 1970s and 1980s. Other fans said they grew up during the Steelers’ dynasty years in the 1970s, when the team always was on television.

Charles Wake, a teacher in Minneapolis, grew up in southwest Iowa, which is known as Kansas City Chiefs country. But he has vivid memories of Super Bowl XIV, won by the Steelers over the Los Angeles Rams in 1980.

“That Super Bowl did it for me,” says Wake, who became a lifelong Steelers fan and is now refurbishing a section of his basement into a “Steelers Room.”

“Bradshaw, Lynn Swann. … I never changed teams from then on.”

Satch Abukutsa, a Kenyan-born English teacher living in Hamburg, Germany, says he latched on to those same Steelers teams because of their resemblance to some rugby stars.

“I come from a rugby-playing family, and it was the legendary ‘70s heroes, Bradshaw and the like that first propped up my interest in American football,” says Abukutsa, who catches games on a satellite pay-per-view system in Germany. “At about that same time the New Zealand rugby team ‘The All Blacks’ were on a similar run.”

Even in the Baltimore area, where a Steelers fan is sure to face an assault of vitriol from Ravens supporters, there are plenty of black-and-gold devotees: The Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Baltimore has about 3,200 members.

“They can be rough,” says Amy Sepan, a native of suburban Pittsburgh who lives with her brother in Glen Burnie, Md. Sepan has six older brothers who live in Colorado and also are Steelers fans. She says their is no chance any of the family would bail on the team just because they live in hostile territory.

“There are two things I knew I was before I was even born: Catholic and a Steelers fan,” Sepan says.

The Steelers have been one of the most consistent teams in football. They have reached the playoffs in four of the past five seasons and 10 of the past 14 led by coach Bill Cowher. In that span, they won eight division titles and made two Super Bowl appearances.

Cowher is just the second coach — Chuck Knoll is the other — of the team since 1969. He is the longest-tenured coach in the NFL and has the third-longest tenure of any coach in professional sports. In addition, the Steelers always have been owned by the Rooney family, which bought the team in 1933 for a mere $2,500.

“When you have a top-notch organization and top-notch owner, it’s like a respect issue,” Wake says. “They’ve done more for the NFL than most people have.”

Marketing experts agree that the team’s stability has been a key reason for its popularity.

“Heritage is directly tied to brand value,” says Rob Frankel, an independent branding consultant in Los Angeles. “People who constantly change or update are doing themselves a disservice. There are some teams in the NFL that are simply better at this than others. Pittsburgh is one that comes to mind.”

In the end, though, fans have their own reasons for wearing black and gold.

“More than anything I love the Steelers’ work ethic,” Abukutsa says. “I root for the Steelers because they are more down to business-type fellows. [It is] ‘let’s get the job done.’ It reminds me of my own philosophy on life.”

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