Jim Coen spent years as a street vendor in the Pittsburgh area, selling keychains and T-shirts and other merchandise celebrating the region’s sports teams. He had some pretty rough times during the early 2000s.

But after the 2008 NFL season — when the Great Recession was pummeling the nation’s economy — his accounting reports documented his most successful season financially up to that point in his career.

Mr. Coen had opened Yinzers, a Strip District-based sports merchandise store, in 2007 after years of being a street vendor.

The Steelers won the Super Bowl on Feb. 1, 2009, making what could have been seen as bad timing to open a store look like a great decision.

Dylan Brooks, 11, of Youngstown, OH.,  tries a Penguins knit hat at Yinzers while his mom Nichole, 32, on Friday, March 30, 2018 in the Strip District. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Dylan Brooks, 11, of Youngstown, OH., tries a Penguins knit hat at Yinzers while his mom Nichole, 32, on Friday, March 30, 2018 in the Strip District. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

It turns out the sports economy doesn’t always sync in a direct correlation with the overall financial scene. Sports, historically, have served as a distraction for cash-strapped consumers during times of financial hardship.

And Pittsburgh teams delivered lots of invigorating distractions for fans through the recession. In addition to the Steelers’ Super Bowl win, the Penguins made a Stanley Cup appearance in 2008 and won the Cup in 2009.

More than 350,000 Steelers fans reportedly marched Downtown during the 2009 Super Bowl parade — about 100,000 more than the amount of people who showed up for the 2006 Super Bowl parade. The Penguins’ Stanley Cup parade in 2009 drew an estimated 375,000 fans.

Pittsburgh lived up to its “City of Champions” nickname during the recession, and despite rising unemployment numbers, Pittsburghers celebrated at bars, restaurants, and hosting tailgates.

Steelers’ average attendance has held steady, despite the economy

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Rally House CEO Aaron Leibert said during times of economic hardship, sports merchandise stores in smaller cities like Pittsburgh typically perform better than those located in larger cities, such as New York or Chicago.

“It’s the getaway from reality,” said Mr. Liebert, who oversees three stores in the metro Pittsburgh area.

“In a recession, we typically see that sales are very positive.” he said. “Actually, we’ve found that the when the economy is booming, our sales kinda taper off a little bit because people have income that allows them to buy computers and iPhones and nicer stuff.

“We’re kinda in a strange spot. We’ve seen typically when the national economy’s down, they kinda galvanize around their city and around their local teams.”

Penguins fans Josh Butenko, left, 4, of Delmont, and his twin brother Luke shop at Yinzers with family friend Dave McDowell, left, of Erie, Pa., and their aunt Sarah Calabrese  of Greensburg at the store on Friday, March 30, 2018 in the Strip District. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Penguins fans Josh Butenko, left, 4, of Delmont, and his twin brother Luke shop at Yinzers with family friend Dave McDowell, left, of Erie, Pa., and their aunt Sarah Calabrese of Greensburg at the store on Friday, March 30, 2018 in the Strip District. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Even sports stores with looser affiliations to the larger Pittsburgh sports scene enjoyed growth during the recession.

Fleet Feet, a running store located in Bethel Park, doesn’t see its sales fluctuate depending on how the Steelers or Penguins are performing, according to store owner Bob Shooer.

However, the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon, which was revived in 2009, was a “Super Bowl moment” for Pittsburgh’s running community, according to Mr. Shooer. He had purchased the store in 2007, and the marathon created a previously unseen level of demand for running gear.

“Pittsburgh had not, prior to that, had been known as the fittest city in the world,” Mr. Shooer said with a laugh. “It was not known for the attention we pay to fitness now.

“Bringing back the marathon really just elevated the running business in the city and again brought attention to fitness in general. And it’s really been uphill ever since then. We’ve really enjoyed tremendous growth in the store.”

Some of those marathon runners may sport black and gold as they cover Pittsburgh streets. Passion for the region’s professional teams seems built into the community’s identity.

The Penguins were one of five teams to average an above-capacity crowd in 2008-09

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The Pittsburgh Fan, a sports merchandise store across the street from PNC Park, where the Pirates have played somewhat less successfully than the other professional teams in town, had a big sales year in 2008.

Eric Castellucci, the operations manager, said the combined success of the Steelers and Penguins helped the store, which opened in 2005.

An aerial view of the  downtown skyline as a background to PNC Park and Heinz Field, Tuesday April 10, 2018 in Pittsburgh. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

An aerial view of the downtown skyline as a background to PNC Park and Heinz Field, Tuesday April 10, 2018 in Pittsburgh. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

“It’s definitely an advantage, especially when you see the two teams win back to back,” Mr. Castellucci said. “Some cities, obviously they go for a long time without winning any championships. It helps us.”

Steelers fans, in particular, are known for being distributed across the country, even around the world — a legacy, in part, of the steel industry collapse in the 1980s when many people had to leave the area to find work. They hung onto their black and gold shirts and their loyalties to the hometown teams.

“Just the fan base itself is huge. They’re such a dedicated fan base for the most part,” said Mr. Castellucci. “Especially Steelers fans, pretty unique in that sense.”

Enter our In The Lead special section

The football team has rewarded that loyalty. Since the mid-2000s, the Steelers have been one of the most successful franchises in the NFL. The franchise hasn’t suffered a losing season since drafting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, and the team has been a perennial Super Bowl contender with him under center.

Mr. Coen dreads the day that Mr. Roethlisberger, who turned 36 in March, decides to hang up his football cleats.

“I’ve been buying a lot of Pittsburgh-oriented goods, keychains, buttons, pins, spoons, cups, clothing,” he said. “I feel there’s going to be a point where Roethlisberger is going to retire. We had some pretty rough years in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you know?

“I’ve been slowly diversifying into more touristy-type merchandise. Honestly, we’re not going to do the same amount of numbers with that, but I still think that will keep me in business until they get their stuff back together.”

Omari Sankofa II: osankofa@post-gazette.com and @omarisankofa


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