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Not long ago, Dan Rooney, the president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, handed me a copy of Sports Business—The Management Newsletter for Sports Money Makers. He pointed to an item he knew would interest me. Under the advisory "Watch for Fans," Sports Business confided to the moguls who subscribe to it: "Special, almost unclassifiable gimmicks like the Steelers' 'Terrible Towel' are a fan turn-on. The keys to the most successful of these devices seem to be 1) Color and 2) Motion. Crowds dressed in the same color clothing can make an impact, but it is passive. Color plus motion in the stands creates a kind of framework for the contest itself, making the entire experience more memorable for the spectator. We suggest a look at the Japanese and British sports crowds for examples of dynamic display of color and motion."
I, as the creator of the Terrible Towel, an instrument with which Steeler fans had flogged their team to victories in Super Bowls X and XIII (the Steelers somehow won Super Bowl IX without it), could not decide which impressed me more—Sports Business' expertise in determining that color plus motion had made the towel a success, or my audacity in creating the towel while ignorant of the fact that I was mixing a precise formula that would produce a "special, almost unclassifiable gimmick."
During the NBC telecast of Super Bowl XIII, Curt Gowdy had referred to the towel as the "dirty towel," an allusion that did not especially annoy me inasmuch as Gowdy had botched the names of legions of professional football players. Let him know that Sports Business, which gets $60 for 24 issues from sports moneymakers, perceives the impact of the Terrible Towel, which, dirty or laundered, is held to be good reason for the moneymakers to take a close look at Japanese and British crowds. Lord, that I had known all that at the beginning!
"Your idea was pure genius," said Rooney. "But you were too stupid to know what you were doing."
Here I should explain that I am a Pittsburgh radio/television sports commentator and an analyst of Steeler games on radio. Late in November of 1975, I received a call from the secretary to the vice-president and general manager of WTAE-Radio, who said, "Can you step over to Ted's office?" Crossing the hall, I found the burly figure of Ted J. Atkins. He was huddled with the vice-president for sales, Larry Garrett. Atkins said, "The Steelers are going into the playoffs. As you know, the first game will be here in Pittsburgh. As the Steelers' flagship radio station, we think we should come up with some sort of gimmick that will involve the people."
Then Atkins barked, "Come up with a gimmick!"
"I am not a gimmick guy," I replied. "Never have been a gimmick guy."
"You don't understand," said Garrett. He explained that were I to promote some kind of object that the fans would wave or wear at the playoffs, advertisers would be so impressed by my hold on the public that they would clamor to sponsor my various shows.
"Besides," said Garrett, "your contract with us expires in three months."
"I'm a gimmick guy," I shrugged.