When people think of the city of Pittsburgh here in 2013, very rarely does the industrial past of the region influence the opinion of people from around the Country. Pittsburgh, once known as the most important city in America doing the World War II era, has come along way from its smoke-filled past and steel forged history. While a great deal of the world now knows Pittsburgh as a leading provider of health care treatment, rarely do people refer to our city without bringing up professional sports. The Steelers, Penguins and Pirates have all built legacies that span decades. The Steelers are still the heart and soul of our area, a “drinking town with a football problem” as the saying goes. The legacy of the gridiron hinges on the Steelers, and on the amazing continuous array of football stars that have grown up here on their way to becoming bona-fide superstars. It has a lot to do with the amazing tradition of football in Western Pennsylvania, a peerless obsession that grasps us from the time we are able to understand the game. We race home on Fridays to partake in the high school game. We spend our Saturdays doing yardwork or running to the store at 7 a.m. so that we are able to crack open that first beer in time for the noon kickoffs on college football Saturday. On Sunday, forget about it; the Steelers own this town.
Hockey has become the number two sport in town because of a few reasons. Paramount would be the success and tradition of the Pittsburgh Penguins – a franchise that has just 46 years of history in a city that leads the nation in age per capita. A couple of guys named Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby have bridged the generations of hockey fans in this city, and the game itself has increased in popularity ten-fold amongst the coveted 18-36 year old demographic since the 1980s. Hockey has also become very popular with female fans, and as the Penguins success continues to build, the sport makes even more strides locally.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have been a fixture in the city since the late 1880s, and for many decades baseball was the absolute king of the sports world in this country. The Pirates have experienced many periods of success throughout their history, winning World Series titles in 1909, 1925, 1960, 1971 and 1979. The last Pirates teams to win over the adoration of the city were the 1990-1992 teams, which won three straight division titles but were never able to go the distance and win it all. Since that time, the historic failures of the franchise have done major damage to the connection between the fans and the team. While it appears the Pirates are on the verge of returning to relevance, it will take a great deal of time to truly win back their place in the pecking order of Pittsburgh sports. The team continues to draw decent crowds, and does so in part due to their beautiful stadium and fan-friendly promotions. As the young stars develop, the Pirates are slowly rebuilding their relationship with the city. Regardless of the failures experienced by the team, people continue to flock to PNC Park to experience the thrills of major league baseball. A professional baseball game continues to be a mainstay on any bucket list for a father and their children, and the family-friendly atmosphere of a major league game is what differentiates the experience from an NFL, NHL, or even college football game.
For years, Pittsburgh has been a three-team town. The Steelers, Penguins and Pirates are the crown jewels of the Pittsburgh sports domain. That dominance is slowly being challenged by secondary sports that are starting to find their foothold in the region. On the baseball front, the Washington Wild Things have been a popular destination for families since the franchise was moved from Canton, Ohio in 2002. Not only are the games affordable – ticket prices range from $5.00 general admission seats to the “elite” $15.00 Premier Box seats – but the team has been very successful, winning five division titles since 2002. The Wild Things play their games at Consol Energy Park (formerly Falconi Field), located right off Exit 15 of I-70. Affordability and prime location are both factors that make Wild Things games a solid family event all summer long. A family of five can take their crew to the game – park ($5.00), buy general admission tickets, enjoy some snacks and a few sodas, and perhaps even take home some souvenirs – all for under $100. Minor league baseball has always been considered a great value and a fun product to enjoy, and fans of the Pittsburgh region are lucky enough to have their own Frontier League team within an hour drive for anyone in Beaver, Allegheny or Washington counties.
The year 2013 may go down in history as the year in which professional soccer became a mainstay in the Pittsburgh region. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds have been playing professional soccer since 1999, playing currently in the USL Pro Level. The USL Professional Level is sanctioned as the third-tier professional league in the United States, behind Major League Soccer (MLS) and the North American Soccer League (NASL). The USL Pro Level includes teams in Charlotte, Orlando, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Richmond, Tampa Bay, and including Pittsburgh calls 13 cities home. A team in Sacramento, California will join the USL in 2014. The USL has become a feeder league to Major League Soccer, and the logical next step for the Riverhounds is to eventually move up to the MLS level of play. This idea seemed to be a distant dream just a few years ago when the Riverhounds were playing their home games at local high school stadiums in Bethel Park, Moon Township, and Chartiers Valley. However, in 2011 the final arrangements were revealed to build a new stadium at Station Square that would be primarily used as the home for Riverhounds soccer. The construction of the brand new Highmark Stadium broke ground in July 2012 at the former site of the former concert amphitheater located right along the bank of the Monongahela River. When the stadium finally opened – many delays were experienced due to political mumbo-jumbo – the Riverhounds become just one of three teams in the USL to have their own home stadium (Charlestown, SC and Rochester, NY being the others).
With the building of Highmark Stadium, which opened on April 13, 2013 to a sold-out crowd of approximately 4,000 fans, has sped up the eventual goal of moving the franchise up to the top-tier Major League Soccer ranks. The new timeline is just under a decade, with several planned phases of expansion to Highmark Stadium already in the works. The location of the stadium will allow for massive expansion to an 18,000 seat venue. Besides the Riverhounds, the stadium will also house the Pittsburgh Passion of the WFA, high-school championship games in many sports, concerts, cultural fairs, and special events that will be able to utilize the size of the stadium. Highmark Stadium becomes the forth professional sports venue inside the Pittsburgh city limits, joining Heinz Field, PNC Park and Consol Energy Center. The stadium has already made it possible for the Riverhounds to invite many international soccer clubs for exhibition games, another major step towards eventually joining MLS. The Riverhounds newfound success will also bring with it an expansion to the year-round play of youth soccer leagues in the region, and Pittsburgh has become a leader in the nationwide amplification of soccer, a sport that dominates the world stage. The building of Highmark Stadium was seen as a long shot to occur originally, and its completion should be considered a breakthrough for secondary sports in the Pittsburgh region.
Mentioned earlier, the Pittsburgh Passion women’s professional football team will also call Highmark Stadium home. The Passion was founded in 2002 and as expected, the franchise become successful – just another example of the dominating force that is football in the Pittsburgh area. The Passion play as part of the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), which they joined in 2011 after leaving the Independent Women’s Football League. The WFA is considered the top-tier league for women’s football, with over 50 teams playing across the country. The Passion have been wildly successful on the gridiron, finishing their first WFA season with a perfect 8-0 record and a Mid-Atlantic Division Title before succumbing to the Chicago Force in National Conference quarter-final game.
The Passion is partly-owned by Steelers Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, and have played their home games at Cupples Stadium on the South Side since 2006. They opened their 2013 schedule on April 6, losing their Highmark Stadium debut opener to the D.C. Divas. The team followed that up with three consecutive shutout wins over Toledo, New York, and Columbus (its first Highmark Stadium win). The Passion outscored its last three opponents by a combined score of 126-0, and now have four games remaining on their 2013 regular season campaign. The football-crazed fans have supported the team, regardless of where they were playing their home games, but now having a stadium to call their own should really begin to solidify the Pittsburgh Passion brand name.
Staying with the gridiron, the Pittsburgh Power of the Arena Football League arrived with much fanfare two years ago. Now owned by former Steelers wide receiving great Lynn Swann, the Power were the beneficiaries of the upgrade to the old Mellon Arena to the new Consol Energy Center. Established in 2010, the Power are not the first Arena team to call our city home, as the Pittsburgh Gladiators were a mainstay in the city from 1987-1990 before packing up and moving to Tampa Bay. The Gladiators were one of the “original four” Arena Football League teams when the league founded, and they were successful – playing in both the initial ArenaBowl in 1987 and ArenaBowl II in 1988. Both games were in a losing effort, but the franchise was successful behind owner Robert Ninehouser and head coaches Joe Haering and Darrel Jackson. It was long rumored that the AFL was looking to expand to Pittsburgh again in early 2010, when principal owner Matt Shaner and Lynn Swann began to push for the creation of a Pittsburgh Arena team.
The Power share the Consol Energy Center with the Penguins and draw on average between 9,000-10,000 fans per game despite ticket prices that are very expensive and hardly competitive with other entertainment value during the spring and summer. The Power have been unsuccessful in their short history, going 9-9 in their 2011 debut, following that with a 5-11 2012 campaign, and starting 2013 with a 1-5 record through six games. They have yet to reach the postseason, but so long as attendance stays high enough to sustain business, the Power are dedicated to the city. The highlight (or lowlight, as it is) of the short history of this team occurred in March 2012, when due to a labor disagreement, the Power released their entire roster of 24 players. Eventually, 18 of those players returned, which allowed the franchise to finish the season and avoid being retracted (a possibility that loomed large foe a time). The current Pittsburgh Power do not have much in the way of star power – QB Jordan Jefferson and WR Mike Washington are the offensive stars (Washington is a native of Aliquippa, where he starred for the Quips before a college career at the University of Hawaii). On defense – which is almost an afterthought in a league where combined final scores rarely fail to top 100 points – the Power are led by LB Alvin Ray Jackson, DB Sergio Gilliam, and pass rushing specialist DL Dominie Pittman. Not exactly household names, even in a league where the “big stars” are guys like Spokane Shock QB Erik Meyer and Chicago Rush WR Reggie Gray. Regardless, the Power are another Pittsburgh sports team, wearing the traditional black and gold and representing the city.
In the past, the city has fielded teams in just about every conceivable sports league. The Pittsburgh Maulers were a staple of the very popular USFL (United States Football League), the league that gave the NFL a legit run for its money from 1983-1987. The Maulers made one of the biggest splashes, signing Heisman Trophy winner RB Mike Rozier. Other players who chose the USFL route were Georgia star Herschel Walker, Boston College QB Doug Flutie, and even future NFL Hall of Fame players QB Jim Kelly, QB Steve Young and DE Reggie White. It seemed for a while that the USFL – playing professional football in the spring – would become a viable alternative to the NFL. The Maulers would last just one season, finishing 3-15. Despite selling out their home opener at Three Rivers Stadium (a 30-18 loss to the Cliff Stoudt-led Birmingham Stallions), attendance dwindled downward. The team would draw an average of 22,858 per home game in 59,000+ seat Three Rivers. The fans – football-crazed Steelers fans that were used to a winner – never fully embraced the Maulers. The team was gone after 1984, and the loss of Pittsburgh was cited as one of the ultimate factors in the failure of the league.
Pittsburgh has also seen its share of oddball sports teams. The Pittsburgh Phantoms were a roller hockey team that lasted one season (1994), and included former Penguins players Bryan Trottier, Alain Lemieux (Mario’s older brother) and Warren Young. A piece of trivia will always follow the Phantoms – they were the only Pittsburgh “hockey” team to ever field a female goaltender. Erin Whitten would go on to play for various minor-league hockey teams, but she was the starting goaltender for the Pittsburgh Phantoms. She even pre-dated Manon Rheaume, the female goaltender who actually signed an NHL contract and played preseason games for the Tampa Bay Lightening in 1992. Another interesting note, the Civic Arena last opened its steel roof in 1994 for the Phantoms game with the Minnesota Artic Blast. While the roof was opened during the final maintenance prior to demolition, this is the last time I recall the roof being opened for entertainment value.
The Pittsburgh CrossFire was an indoor lacrosse team that played in the National Lacrosse League in 2000. The Pittsburgh Bulls pre-dated the CrossFire, introducing the city to professional lacrosse from 1990-93 at the Civic Arena. The Bulls actually drew decent attendance figures for a sport that at the time was the equivalent of having a professional alligator-tossing team. The Steel City Derby Demons were a roller derby team that lasted one season – 2006- and spawned a roller derby league that still competes in the city to this day.
So far we have discussed recent teams, leaving out those that competed prior to the 1980s. Let’s quickly give them their due before tackling the last real issue. The Pittsburgh Colts were a semi-professional football team that competed in the region since 1979, playing in various leagues and winning championships in many seasons. The Colts were an outlet for numerous local football products that were unable to play college football due to financial or other issues. Players coming out of smaller schools that had no future in professional football would find themselves being able to continue playing as a member of the Colts. Up until 2008, the Pittsburgh Colts were still playing and were calling Ambridge High School home. While I can find no legitimate information on the team (folded or otherwise), there is no doubt that for many years the Colts were an established semi-pro football franchise that seemed to always give back to the community. If any readers have information on the Pittsburgh Colts current situation, please pass it along and I will be happy to add it to a future column.
If you grew up in the 1980s, you probably remember the commercials for the Pittsburgh Spirit indoor professional soccer team. From 1978-1986, the Spirit competed in the Major Indoor Soccer League and were graced by the presence of Stan Terlecki, one of the great players in the history of the league. The 1981-82 MVP and multiple time All Star was a fixture on the Spirit, who had several great seasons during their run. In the mid-1970s, professional tennis attempted to create a league of their own, placing a team here and calling them the Pittsburgh Triangles (a play on the “Golden Triangle”). The World TeamTennis League continues to exist to this day, although the Triangles only played from 1974-76. Evonne Goolagong – the 1971 women’s Wimbledon singles champion – and local product Vitas Gerulaitis were the stars for the team.
Pittsburgh was home to numerous basketball teams, including the Pittsburgh Pipers, the first American Basketball Association champions in 1967-68. Led by Connie Hawkins, the Pipers claimed the only Pittsburgh basketball championship. For some odd reason, the ABA decided to move the Pipers out of the Steel City after that championship season. The team was relocated to the ABA’s home city of Minneapolis for the 1968-69 season, where they floundered. Piper’s co-owner Gabe Rubin then led the charge to return to Pittsburgh, quite possibly the only time a professional sports team would return to the city they left after just one season. The team came back and retained the Pittsburgh Pipers name and colors, but the team was terrible and attendance was awful. In 1970, the team was renamed the Pittsburgh Condors. Nothing the franchise did to draw fans worked, from changing the uniforms and colors, to changing coaches, and instituting several terrible marketing campaigns that did nothing but further damage the franchise. Eventually, the team was drawing such bad attendance numbers that they started to play home games in other cities. The team folded completely in June 1972, and several players ended up having decent careers in both the ABA and eventually, the NBA.
The Pittsburgh Piranhas were a Continental Basketball Association team in 1994-95 that played their home games at the A.J. Palumbo Center on the Duquesne University Campus. The Piranhas actually played in the CBA Championship Series during their only season, losing a best of seven to the Yakima Sun Kings (The Piranhas vs. The Sun Kings – this actually happened).
In 2005, the Continental Basketball Association decided to place another team in Pittsburgh, although they were not smart enough to know they would never draw enough fans to fill the Civic Arena. The team was named the Pittsburgh Xplosion, and despite playing in a league nobody had ever head of and filling a roster with players who would have a hard time being drafted in a YMCA pick-up game, the team took to the court at both the Civic Arena and eventually the Peterson Events Center. There is convoluted history regarding this franchise (at times referred to as the Pittsburgh Hardhats and the Pennsylvania Pit Bulls), but suffice to say that it took just three long miserable years to disband the team.
Basketball would again rear its head in the Steel City in 2009-10. The Pittsburgh Phantoms (yes, another Phantoms) began play in the American Basketball Association in 2009. They actually played their games at both Langley High School and the Carnegie Library of Homestead (an athletic club). The plan was for the team to be a charter member of the new Global Professional Basketball Association, but the team folded after one season and the league never got off the ground.
So there you have the history of professional sports in Pittsburgh, leading us to commonly asked question among local sports writers. Could an NBA team be successful in Pittsburgh? This is a question that has been asked many times over the years with a resounding “NO” always the answer. However, recent NBA history and the local vibe have possibly changed the landscape.
First off, there is the success of the University of Pittsburgh basketball team. Despite neither Ben Howland nor Jaime Dixon being able to get the program into a Final Four, this is a program that is one of the most successful in the country since 2000. Pitt has 336 victories since the beginning of the 2000-01 season, has spent a total of 183 weeks ranked in the top 25, has been ranked as the No. 1 team in the NCAA (2008), and the No. 2 team (2002, 2006, 2010). They have won the Big East Championship twice (when it meant something). They have been to five Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight, and have consistently been considered a top-recruiting team. Pitt Basketball may have frustrated the hell out of its fans and alumni, but there is no doubt that the program has keyed the rebirth of basketball as a sport of meaning in the Pittsburgh area.
Reason number two is easy: The Consol Energy Center. A brand-new facility with state-of-the-art amenities and the seating capacity for over 19,000 when set up for basketball. This immediately places the arena at No. 4 in terms of seating capacity among current NBA facilities (Air Canada Centre in Toronto, American Airlines Arena in Miami and American Airlines Center in Dallas would be the top three). The city also has the Peterson Events Center, a top of the line basketball facility that can be used in a pinch for practice or exhibition games. No city has two better arenas within their city limits than Pittsburgh at this juncture.
The Pittsburgh of 2013 is not the Pittsburgh of 1985 or even 1995. Pittsburgh is a city that has been consistently ranked as one of the best places to live, it is a city of culture, and sports-wise you would be hard-pressed to find a city with better all-around sports fans than our town. This is a city that is ready to support their own NBA team, and for a league that is trying desperately to keep its slot as a top-tier pro sport, adding Pittsburgh to its roster of franchise cities would be a stellar move. The league works with a salary-cap (not a perfect situation, but surely better than the one the Pirates struggle with year after year in MLB). The local youth basketball scene is at an all-time high in terms of enrollment and enthusiasm. If the NBA was ever going to expand to Pittsburgh, now is the time to do it.
So there you have it folks, a brief timeline of the professional sports history of our fair city and the question that we will continue to hear raised for years to come. Is Pittsburgh ready to become a professional basketball town? I leave it to you, the readers, the true judge and jury. Please send your comments and suggestions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we may use them in a follow up column here on “The Yinzer.”
Photo Credits: Melart