What happened to sports in Pittsburgh?

Pittsburgh was dubbed the “City of Champions” at the tail end of the 1970s. In the years since 2009—when they became the first city to hold both the Stanley Cup and Lombardi Trophies in the same year—the town’s competitive success has grown dormant, and their moniker is beginning to fade. 

Scything the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers is a steel playground we know as Pittsburgh. Suburbs and knolls dot its circumference; bridges and skyscrapers lay the interior. The city breathes a saturated hue of blue and white-collars, uncertain of itself yet comfortable in its peculiarity. Atop Mt. Washington’s vista—a booth wedged between the Duquesne and Monongahela Inclines—you can smell the Norway Maplewood-floored boats and the aluminum-sided duplexes. You can listen to the softest war you’ve ever heard.

While battlefields stretch the boundary of the city, colloquially referred to as “The Golden Triangle,” if there are trenches, they’re found in Pittsburgh’s athletic arenas. It can be easy to confuse them for coliseums.

Since the American Civil War, sport has been lodestone for city residents. When the economic crisis of the 1970s hit, fans rallied around sport like a deep-ocean buoy, regional pride and cultural identity only magnifying the obsession. That decade—nobody won like Pittsburgh, and the second-largest region in Ohio was branded “The City of Champions.”


Few places have shaped contemporary sport more than Pittsburgh: First semi-pro hockey league, first indoor artificial ice rink, first modernized concrete and steel baseball stadium, first modernized stadium in the Negro Leagues, first paid participant in an American football game, first professional football game, first franchise to win four Super Bowls, first national high school all-star basketball game, first and only team to win a World Series on a home run, first city to ever hold the Lombardi and Stanley Cup trophies at the same time.

It’s also the only city in which all professional sporting teams—Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins—don the exact same colors: black and gold.

Dec 15, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; A Pittsburgh Steelers fan cheers against the Cincinnati Bengals during the second half at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 30-20. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Folks there tell stories of honey-voiced athletes and time-freezing flashes that will forever remain in the city’s sports lore: Barry Bonds, Terry Bradshaw, Roberto Clemente, Sidney Crosby, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Ralph Kiner, Mario Lemieux, Willie Stargell, Honus Wagner, Jack Lambert, Tony Dorsett, “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” the “Steel Curtain,” Santonio Holmes’ catch in the corner of the end zone.

Each franchise carries as notable a resume as you’ll find in present-day sports: Nine pennants and five World Series titles in baseball; eight conference championships and six Super Bowl titles in football; four conference championships and three Stanley Cup victories in hockey.

Sport at its root may be a collection of zero-sum games, but Pittsburgh has worked diligently for more than a century in an attempt to refute the theory.

The yardstick for fandom is fully dependent on who’s holding it, but it’s often gauged by outright stupidity or complete devotion. Lifelong Steeler fan Tony Modzelewski jumped off the Fort Pitt Bridge while celebrating Pittsburgh’s first Super Bowl victory in January 1975 alongside numerous others.

In 2005, James Henry Smith was displayed at his wake propped up in a recliner as if he’d fallen asleep watching his favorite team play. Daniel Spuck, an inmate at the State Correctional Institute at Mercer, Pa., attempted to file a suit against Roger Goodell and the NFL after the team lost in Week 17, eliminating the Steelers from contention.

The motion was, as expected, denied.


Forbes ranked the town as having the best fans in the NHL in 2012, and despite filing for bankruptcy in the early 2000s, the club sold out their 300th-consecutive game last season. The Steelers are sitting on a 348-game streak of their own.

High identifying fans have permeated the city, and Pittsburgh starts them young.

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In 2008, the Steelers won the Super Bowl; in 2009, the Penguins took the Stanley Cup. However, a dry spell has befallen the city ever since.

The Steelers hold a 602-540 all-time record, but haven’t topped .500 since 2011 when the Denver Broncos bounced them in the Wild Card Playoffs. Since 1970, the franchise has had consecutive non-winning records just three times; 2014 marked the first time in nearly two decades that the Steelers missed the playoffs two years in a row.

For a team holding the most championships in league history (6), the stretch has felt more of a lurid delusion than a bad dream.


Although the Pirates hurdled over twenty years of drought by making the second round of the MLB postseason last year, they haven’t won a pennant since they beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1979 World Series. For a team with five championships, No. 8 all-time, that’s quite a drought.

Hockey, though, has kept the city upright: The Penguins haven’t missed the playoffs in nearly a decade. But mounting playoff losses coupled with outlandish excuses have fans calling for wholesale solutions aimed at fixing a trophy case growing dustier by the day.

May 11, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; General view from the press box as the Pittsburgh Pirates host the St. Louis Cardinals during the second inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Former Steeler safety Ryan Clark ranted this past season about vehement criticism by both the media and fans:

“You don’t hear the things about them [Philadelphia] in their media that you hear about us. So either we’re held to a higher standard or the people that write about us are (expletive)…This year, increasingly, it’s made me realize that you have to play for your organization, you have to play for your teammates, you have to play for yourself, for your family, because the people on the outside don’t understand the frustration you go through, they don’t understand the work you put in every day.

A lot of people think we come in here and practice a couple of hours and then go out on Sunday and play this game. That’s not how it is. This becomes your life… You get hate mail from fans, they tell you that you (expletive) and all that. And that’s fine, because there’s a reason they watch the game.”

Clark’s claims are applicable anywhere that sport is considered a major platform, which, in our country, is virtually everywhere. In a city with such a rabidly supportive fan base, Pittsburgh’s decline over the past few years must be altered soon.

The fans won’t allow it to continue, but they must also be willing to hold themselves accountable, to lift the team rather than pigeonhole it. Cities complaining about playoff runs coming up short are certainly rights reserved for the privileged. It is perhaps more conceited than agreeable.

But as one of the greatest sports towns in the world, Pittsburgh has, in a way, earned that right. They can be distraught and wounded and weep through hours of fist-pounding prayer and find their resolve the next morning. Fandom is fundamentally irrational after all.

In the cubicle amid Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley lies Pittsburgh, a city uncomfortable with ordinary. A cultural fandom refusing to grow complacent; a town denying typicalities.

Tags: Pittsburgh Penguins Pittsburgh Pirates Pittsburgh Steelers

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