Tonight’s Super Bowl features two of the NFL’s oldest teams and the two perhaps most associated with their communities. They were named decades ago for the workers that once defined Pittsburgh and Green Bay: the steel workers and the meat packers. That began a connection that ran deeper than sports; it was a bond. Men raised their sons to follow them in the family business, and they taught them to love the same teams, too.
The match up as context helps to explain the tremendous impact of Chrysler's "Imported from Detroit" ad. (Read about the back-story in this Forbes blog post.) On the heels of President Obama's State of the Union address, I expect the Super Bowl to serve as a spark for a Rust Belt renaissance.
Rust Belt Chic sells. It attracts talent. Consider the National Football League on the bandwagon:
The league is also in the preservation business, exploiting our collective need for shared ancestral traditions, for deeper roots. The NFL is much less concerned about whether a city like Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area, ever gets back in the game than it is about how to preserve franchises in lesser cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Green Bay. These cities have declined in the real world, but, as an embodiment of certain ideals, they have never been more valuable to the NFL brand.Football’s ethos, after all, was shaped by cold, broad-shouldered cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland – cities that loom large in our narrative of shared origins. This isn’t only a question of geography, but also of values. In our elegiac imaginations, America’s fading industrial cities embody a back-to-basics work ethic and a determination to overcome adversity. (It’s no accident that Steeler and Packer jerseys are reliably among the top-selling NFL gear nationwide.)That’s why fans all across Southern California routinely cram into Packer and Steeler bars, as they did again yesterday, to watch the games. Whether these California-based Steeler and Packer fans have personal links to Western Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or not, they have an aspirational link. It’s about yearning for a shared tradition and a grittier three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust version of life—not to mention single-digit temperatures in which you can see your own breath. These are spectacles best witnessed from a bar in L.A., of course, but spectacles that nonetheless link us to our past, and to one another.
Rust Belt talent and money built the Sun Belt. I'd go so far as to argue that the Rust Belt gave birth to globalization. Deep down, all Americans know that to be true. That's the power of the Rust Belt brand that so many shrinking cities have worked diligently to reject. (Baltimore being the best example)
The NFL is more perceptive. Green Bay and Pittsburgh are small markets. They are also global brands. I've long appreciated that Pittsburgh's image abroad is much better than it is domestically. It is the Rust Belt cities themselves that are slow on the uptake. Stop trying to be an emerald city.