NFL's plans to introduce Trophy Towel draw cries that it's a ripoff
In a Steelers-obsessed city where the fabric of society is terry cloth, a new twist on the towel will be on display at the conclusion of the American Football Conference championship game today.
The National Football League's marketing geniuses will magically produce Reebok hats and shirts, licensed and authorized by the league, for every winning player to entice fans to rush out and buy the same merchandise.
Now, for the first time, they will also hand out to players something called the Trophy Towel, a bath-sized textile in basic white. And that means a licensed NFL towel will share Heinz Field with a Pittsburgh original, the gold cloth with the global reach that has been twirled for more than 30 years by the Steelers faithful.
Yoi and double yoi.
The new product retails for $24.99 and -- at 24 inches by 42 inches -- may be too big to wave. The NFL does not believe that it will siphon sales from the Terrible Towel, which costs about $6, with the proceeds going to charity.
"We're well aware of Steeler history," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "We think it will add to the celebration and give fans another way of sharing in their team's accomplishments. We'll test it out."
The official marketing kicks off at the Super Bowl, with the NFL to air a commercial on NBC promoting the Trophy Towel. About 50,000 or so will be available at NFLshop.com and retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods, JCPenney and Kohl's.
To give customers a glimpse of them -- and the NFL hasn't released images yet -- a smaller number have been made for the AFC and National Football Conference champions. They will be brought out today in Glendale, Ariz., and then Pittsburgh, where passions have long been terribly fanned by The Towel.
The Terrible Towel is a symbol, and, like all symbols, it is profoundly personal for many Steelers fans. Described as the perfect blend of color and motion, it is tough, ubiquitous, resilient to abuse, utilitarian, portable and the most recognized fan accessory in the world of sports. This being Pittsburgh, a towel-come-lately is sure to evoke strong passions.
Steelers Nation symbol
Bill Hillgrove and Andy Russell had special relationships with Myron Cope, the Steelers radio color commentator and inventor of the Terrible Towel, who died 11 months ago. The former is offended by an idea that he thinks is, well, terribly crass; the latter holds to the principle that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; others think it's downright, um, terrible. And the unanswered question is whether the NFL would throw in with the idea if the creator of the Terrible Towel were still alive.
"I think he would be insulted. It's a shame," said Mr. Hillgrove. "The towel had magic with Myron, and it's become a symbol of the Steeler Nation. Fans know their money is going to charity, and now this one is being sold for profit. I have an ethical problem with that.
"Like all the other towels that have surfaced out there, it's a cheap imitation," he added. "I think it's a dumb idea. It's a ripoff. A copycat."
Mr. Russell, who was present at the creation as captain of the Steelers when the towel was introduced at a playoff game in 1975, sees it differently.
"I think he'd be proud that his legacy is still growing after his death," he said. "It may seem like they're cherry-picking Myron's patent, but the NFL has been very smart about the way it promotes the game. It's hard to argue with their decisions."
The original concept of a towel did not appeal to Mr. Russell. But in that playoff game against the Colts, the lumbering linebacker set a record that still stands with his 93-yard return of a fumble for a touchdown, towels all aflutter.
"It's kind of embarrassing for me," he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. "I told him I thought it was a gimmick, and the Steelers aren't a gimmick team.
"But when you see all those towels waving in the stadium now, and all those towels displayed at bars around the country and around the globe, it's safe to say I was wrong."
The Terrible Towel's legacy
In triumph and in tears, the towel has waved its way into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, along with its creator. It has been twirled by active and retired players, punctuating parades and serving as proof of citizenship for tribal members in other cities. It gave Mr. Cope a sendoff at his funeral, and it has been buried with mayors.
But its greatest contribution has been to improve the quality of life for children and adults with intellectual development disabilities through the Allegheny Valley School, where Mr. Cope's son has been a resident since 1982.
Mr. Cope turned over the trademark to the school in 1996. Since then, the cash cow towel and its satellite products have generated $2.2 million for the school, including $1 million the year the Steelers won Super Bowl XL.
Given that kind of validity and support, nothing can displace its legacy, said Regis Champ, president and chief executive officer of Allegheny Valley School.
"The Terrible Towel has been around for decades," he said. "Nothing can replace an original. The Terrible Towel rules."
The Trophy Towel is manufactured by Wisconsin-based McArthur Towel and Sports, which was already licensed to make the Terrible Towel and the later Green Bay version, Title Towel.
Company officials did not return telephone calls to request comment. But president Gregg McArthur told the SportsBusiness Journal, which first reported on the championship towels: "[The towel] has always been a great vehicle in sports. Anyone at Gatorade can tell you that. We're taking the next step by turning them into an authentic championship item."
It seems that, all of a sudden, the NFL is awash in towels. Blue ones that said "This Is Our House" were handed out before last weekend's game at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., where the home team Titans were defeated by the Ravens.
Just a few weeks earlier, the Titans did a Tennessee two-step on a Terrible Towel. Subsequently, they were shut out and then eliminated, and home field advantage was in the hands of the Steelers. 'There's only one'
At the Steelers' practice facility, printed on a grease board were these two thoughts: "Win!! Because going home is NOT an option," and "Whoever told you winning isn't everything lied to you."
Nobody has seen the NFL's towel, but at a time when even the NFL with all its billions has a budget shortfall and is laying off people, defensive lineman Chris Hoke saw no threat in the newcomer.
"In this economy, anything to make money, right? It's a money-making scheme," he said. "People aren't going to wave this towel. It's too big to wave."
And the chances of any Steelers waving the white towel?
"It won't happen," Mr. Hoke said firmly. "There's only one towel."
Robert Dvorchak can be reached at email@example.com.
First published on January 18, 2009 at 12:00 am