The Roethlisberger Effect: Steelers Fans and the Marketing of a Regional Superhero

Submitted by Joshua Shuart, Ph.D.

ABSTRACT

This paper bridges a theoretical gap between early celebrity endorsement and hero worship literature.  Additionally, the model connects a successful, winning athlete with several established branding constructs.  The Roethlisberger Effect takes early theory proposed over 35 years ago in “The Namath Effect” and applies it with a modern touch.  Given that the NFL is often referred to as a “copycat league” – i.e. when something works, all other teams work quickly to replicate it – the impact that Roethlisberger has had upon other league and team management philosophies is rather profound.

This paper is an updated version of a poster presentation I authored for the 7th Sport Marketing Association (SMA) Conference (2009).

INTRODUCTION

Stephen Dubner’s (2003) “Confessions of a Hero-Worshipper”, regarding his childhood hero (running back Franco Harris), merely touches the surface regarding the grand appeal of the Pittsburgh Steelers to their rabid fans.  Dubner’s memoir recalls a youth spent obsessing over, idolizing and dreaming about a professional athlete.  While hero worship of celebrities is incredibly prevalent and common, especially among young adult males, the fervor with which Pittsburgh fans admire their athletes is not.

In a seminal 1976 book, Martin Ralbovsky coined the term “The Namath Effect”, elucidating the wide-ranging impact that Joe Namath had on the sports industry when he came to the NFL’s New York Jets.  Discussed are his impact on his team, the NFL and how it operated (scouting and drafting techniques), player salaries, and the world of endorsement.  On the surface, there is nothing remotely similar about Joe Willie Namath and Ben Roethlisberger, ninth-year quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  However, after taking over as a rookie starter early in the 2004 season, he compiled an NFL-best 13-0 regular season record.  The result was incredible and unexpected: the Roethlisberger #7 quickly became the top-selling jersey in the NFL.  Endorsement offers came in droves, although he and his agent Leigh Steinberg deflected most of them initially.  A local business began selling a sandwich named “The Roethlisberger” and it became such a sensation that fans traveled from suburbs of Pittsburgh, his old home state of Ohio, and crossed many other state lines.

The dichotomy between Namath and Roethlisberger is not nearly as pronounced as would first seem.  Namath was a brash, flashy, outspoken, cocky, goateed wildman with a golden arm.  Roethlisberger is a relatively quiet, reserved, confident, conservatively groomed and highly effective quarterback.  Beyond the physical differences, their impacts on the sport of football are nearly equal in importance.  Namath signed a contract that at the time was considered obscene, yet it forever altered the market value of athletes.  Modern day contracts and the curve on which they continue to grow exponentially can be traced back to that landmark $400k contract that Namath signed.  Namath is also credited as being the first real anti-hero to successfully endorse products (Burton, et al, 2001) and is thought to have tantamountly altered the way in which advertisers looked upon potential celebrity spokespersons.   He simultaneously galvanized 3 different communities, not to mention most of the nation.   The city of New York was enamored with Joe, quite obviously on the heels of a Super Bowl III victory – which Namath “guaranteed” in the media, something that is common practice on all levels today, but was considered risky and bold at the time.   Namath’s old hometown (Beaver Falls, PA) continued its love affair with long after he left, as did his college (Alabama).

Roethlisberger grew up in Ohio and played collegiately at Miami (Ohio).  When he was drafted by Pittsburgh, it was a popular choice, a “local” hero who was moving across state lines but not too far.  Pittsburgh insiders say that Roethlisberger was actually their preferred quarterback, over the two (Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) drafted ahead of him.  This was partially based on talent and potential.  But it also had to do with a consensus among their scouts that he would be a perfect fit for the team and city.  Ben’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, was quoted as saying “There was a time before the draft that we thought that Ben might go to New York. But there are many ways, from a marketing perspective, that Pittsburgh is better for him. He has the upbringing, temperament and toughness of this blue-collar town and (Steelers head coach) Bill Cowher’s jutting chin juxtaposes with the way Ben is willing to throw his body into the pile.”

METHOD

This paper explores material and a subject (Roethlisberger) that has not yet been studied in-depth in a scholarly manner. As such, this paper is predominantly theoretical and suggestive of further research streams.  The main focus is to explore the profound impact that Ben Roethlisberger has had in four major areas: 1) the nature and evolution of NFL scouting [ex: teams now ‘model’ what the Steelers have done, in terms of seeking a better ‘match-up’ (ex: Kamins) between player-city], 2) impact of players on their home city and market itself, 3) endorsements, and 4) the belief that ‘Winning absolves all sins’; Roethlisberger is not the flashiest but he and the Steelers win consistently. Additionally, a thorough analysis of “Scientific Football” was conducted, a study which actually rated Roethlisberger as one of the NFL’s poorest QB decision-makers.  The on-field results seem to seriously contradict the findings of this report, as he was able to win the 2006 Super Bowl (Joyner, 2006).

Figure 1-Shuart

FINDINGS

The Turnkey Team Brand Index (2007) further solidifies the theory that Roethlisberger and the Steelers are leading the way in terms of brand strength, both in and out of their home market.  This study covered 47 states and included 12,000 fan respondents.  Among further conclusions:

  1. The Steelers ranked first among 122 team brands in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB in home-market strength
  2.  “The Steelers are the model brand for a team.  Down through their history, ownership, players, coaches, stadium and style match the hard-nosed work ethic of their city.“ –Len Perna, President of Turnkey
  3. Survey tested 36 attributes, such as “family-oriented” and “blue collar,” and asked fans how well the attributes represented teams.  Included indexes of: team popularity, fan loyalty, assessments of owners & fan perceptions of teams and associated sponsors.
  4. Steelers have consistently remained wildly popular – with loyal fans and stable ownership.  The team reflects Pittsburgh’s sports-crazed population, which may be less transient than those elsewhere. “In other major cities, you have greater competition for the entertainment dollar. Pittsburgh and the Steelers have always gone together.” –David Carter (Survey, 2007)

Later, in August 2009, SportsBusiness Journal (SBJ) published an article that revealed the following:

  1. As of October 2009, the Steelers had sold out 283 straight home games.
  2. Their study showed that the Steelers have the #2 and #3 best-selling jerseys in the NFL, and three individual players in the top-11 jersey sales.
  3. The Steelers led all NFL teams in merchandise sales on NFLShop.com for the same period, according to SBJ’s report.

Capture

CONCLUSION

Most importantly, Ben Roethlisberger has led the Pittsburgh Steelers to Super Bowl titles in both 2006 and again in 2009 (and led team to a third Super Bowl in 2011 vs. Green Bay).  The facts don’t lie, and a look at some of those key facts helps to make the case that he has had a major influence on how other teams now operate in the NFL.  Some of the key supporting facts:

  • Pittsburghers “are the best traveling fans of any other team. No other team has a larger traveling base” (Fox, 2007).
  • In his rookie season in the NFL, Ben Roethlisberger started with a record of 13-0.  A local Pittsburgh business began selling a sandwich named “The Roethlisberger”  which became such a sensation that fans traveled from suburbs of Pittsburgh, his old home state of Ohio, and crossed other state lines to buy/eat.
  • In his 2nd NFL season, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory vs. Seattle, at a neutral site (Detroit) where it was estimated that Steelers fans comprised nearly 70% of all live attendees at the game.
  • In 2006, Pittsburgh had the best local TV ratings in the entire NFL, with 45.4% of all TV homes in their local area tuning in each week to watch their team.
  • In 2007, The Steelers ranked first among all team brands in the 4 major sports (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB) in home-market strength
  • In 2009, the Steelers – again led by Roethlisberger – won their second Super Bowl since 2006.

While Roethlisberger and his teammates have proven to be incredibly successful juggling their heroic on-field acts with off-field endorsement magic, it is manner in which they fit the mold of the ‘classic’ hero, one that conjures a strong emotional attachment via a fanbase that is loyal, supportive, and unparalleled in all of professional sports.

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