As a Steelers fan for the past 37 years, the idea of them moving to another city seems like a work of fiction akin to someone building a time machine.
After all, is there a fan base more passionate about and loyal to its favorite football team than the one that has supported the Steelers since 1972, when the winning tradition first started, as did the streak of sell-outs that has now reached 45 years?
It doesn’t seem that way, but then again, you could probably have said the same thing about the Cleveland Browns in the mid-80’s, when they reigned supreme in the old AFC Central, and the Dawg Pound, the nickname for the late Cleveland Municipal Stadium, was maybe the most intimidating home field advantage in the NFL.
Unfortunately, by the mid-’90’s, Art Modell, the now deceased former owner of the Browns, was clamoring for a new Pound, complete with luxury boxes and other such amenities familiar to modern sports facilities. Modell didn’t get his wishes (like every other professional sports owner, he wanted the city to pick up most of the tab in the form of public funding), so he uprooted the Browns, moved them to Baltimore in 1996 and re-christened them the Ravens.
[Editor’s Note: An fact often forgotten, thanks to Modell’s PR spin machine, is that the city of Cleveland was working aggressively on a stadium package to keep the Browns in Cleveland during 1994 and 1995. During the early summer months, Modell broke off negotiations saying he felt he had a Super Bowl team on his hands. Instead, Modell had actually begun secretly negotiating with the Maryland Stadium Authority to move the team to Baltimore. The city of Cleveland continued with its plans, and put in place the package that built the stadium that houses the Browns today.]
Speaking of Baltimore, just 12 years earlier, that city, home to one of the most storied franchises in the NFL–the Colts–lost its professional football team, when then owner Robert Irsay moved it to Indianapolis.
- I can go on and on listing the number of teams that have relocated to other cities over the years, but the point is, when it comes to history, loyalty and passion, they all lose out to money.
You see, despite their statuses as billionaires, most sports owners–in this case, NFL owners–simply refuse to do the bulk of the funding when it comes to building brand new stadiums.
- In most cases, if they don’t get their way, they move their team to a city willing and able to give them what they want.
Such was the case for Raiders owner Mark Davis, who won NFL approval last week for the right to move his team to Las Vegas starting in 2020. By then, the Raiders (or whatever they’ll be called) will have a sparkling new home thanks to $750 million in tax funds.
For years, the Raiders couldn’t get their current home city–Oakland, California–to fork over public funding for Oakland Coliseum (nicknamed The Black Hole for its intimidating look and intimidating and passionate fans).
The Coliseum opened in 1966 and became home of the then AFL Raiders. After a decade and a half of almost uninterrupted success–including two world championships–Al Davis, Mark’s late father and legendary former owner of the Raiders, clamored for upgrades to the Coliseum and ultimately agreed to move to Los Angeles.
- After a lengthy and furious battle with other NFL owners and then commissioner Pete Rozelle, Davis got his way and moved his team to L.A. in 1982.
But Los Angeles, for all its glitz and glamour, didn’t possess the passion, love and loyalty for the Raiders that Oakland did.
According to the Raiders wikipedia page, Davis moved his team back to Oakland for the 1995 season, after the city agreed to upgrade the Coliseum to the tune of $220 million.
However, by modern NFL standard’s the Coliseum just didn’t cut it in the long run, and a new facility was the only thing that would appease the Raiders.
But to the city’s credit, the demands to build a new stadium were met with resistance by local politicians, and now the Raiders find themselves as lame-duck residents in a city filled with fans who have always loved them.
Will Vegas, with all of its diversions that include gambling, nightlife and endless entertainment options, even notice that it has an NFL franchise in its backyard?
Oakland will surely notice that the Raiders are missing, and if the city follows the same path as Cleveland in the late ’90’s and Houston in the early 00’s (let’s not forget about the Oilers relocation to Tennessee in 1997), those same local politicians will have to relent and agree to fund a brand new stadium in-order to get another team (possibly one of the expansion variety) to come to town.
Yes, while Baltimore got the old Browns and ultimately two more NFL titles (the Colts won two NFL Championships and a Super Bowl before they relocated to Baltimore), Cleveland was awarded a new Browns team in the form of an expansion franchise in 1999.
Of course, this deal could not be finalized until a new facility (today its corporate name is FirstEnergy Stadium) was built–at the taxpayers expense, of course.
Same held true for the City of Houston, who was awarded an expansion franchise–the Texans–in 2002 along with, of course, a brand new home in the form of NRG Stadium (its sponsor name at the moment).
- As for the Oilers, they’re now the Titans and play in NissanStadium (current sponsor), home of the team since 1999.
It is worth noting that the late Bud Adams, former owner of the Oilers/Titans, moved his team out of Houston when the Astrodome, once called the Eighth Wonder of the World, didn’t receive the financial upgrades that would have put it back on par with the more modern stadiums of the day.
So what does this have to do with the Steelers? Nothing, other than to point out that if teams like the Browns, Colts, Oilers and Raiders can all leave their respective cities filled with very passionate and loyal fan bases, perhaps the same could happen to the Steelers one day.
Sure, Heinz Field is a rather modern stadium, but it doesn’t take long for a sports facility to either begin to show its age or seem out-dated, when compared to even newer places.
Heinz Field opened in 2001, so in terms of buildings, it’s practically a baby. But in terms of newer revenue streams? Don’t be so sure.
The old Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, home of both the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings, opened in 1982 and hosted several big time events–including the Super Bowl, two World Series and two Final Fours. By the early 00’s, however, the stadium was seen as antiquated, and the Vikings then owner, Red McCombs, petitioned then governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura for a new stadium.
The Body refused to back down, and as recently as 2012, there was talk that the Vikings could relocate to Los Angeles.
That never happened, as both the Twins and Vikings received new facilities with the help of public funding.
The Vikings now call U.S. Bank Stadium (current sponsor) home; with its modern look and valuable revenue streams, it should keep the Vikings owners happy…for at least a decade or two.
NFL owners are always looking for new revenue streams; such was the case for the Steelers owners a few years ago, when the Rooney family engaged in a very public battle with the city of Pittsburgh over the cost of adding 3,000 extra seats to Heinz Field.
- What happens in another five, 10 or 15 years, when Heinz Field is perhaps seen as out-of-date and all new revenue streams have been bled dry?
Would the city and state be willing to publicly fund yet another NFL stadium in order to keep the Steelers happy…and in town?
You might say so now, but who knows what the financial climate will look like in the future.
History has shown us that relocation can happen to just about any team, and the Pittsburgh Steelers may be no exception.