SBJ/October 18 - 24, 2004/SBJ In Depth

When it comes to this promotion, McArthur Towel cleans up

There are almost as many names for rally towels as there are teams using them. Pittsburgh’s “Terrible Towel,” created during the Steelers’ first championship run in 1975, is the granddaddy of them all. Minnesota has the “Homer Hanky,” while Carolina Panthers fans receive the “Prowl Towel.”

Rally towels are the fern bars of promotional giveaways; they’ve endured through thundersticks, bobbleheads and Celebriducks. Like fern bars, they’ll always be around and there are rudimentary reasons for their endurance.

“You don’t have to worry about people throwing them; they have a large surface area for corporate sponsorship identification; they look great on TV; and they promote fan involvement — these are things every team is looking for,” said Gregg McArthur, president of McArthur Towel, whose Scottish antecedents probably did not envision that the mills they founded in Baraboo, Wis., in 1885 would someday be filling arenas and stadiums with towels.

An idea hatched in Pittsburgh has since spread to stadiums across the country.
McArthur Towel, which was bought by Action Performance in 2002, does as many as 50 promotional giveaways a year. Generally, the towels come sized at either 11 inches by 18 inches or 15-by-18 and cost from 75 cents to $1 or more per piece, depending on the quality of the graphics.

McArthur Towel is the longtime official supplier/licensee of locker-room towels for MLB, NBA and NFL (not to mention those ubiquitous Gatorade sideline towels). That gives them an advantage. Players are sometimes seen on TV with the giveaways, which authenticates them and can lead to further sales, since giveaways can be paired with a retail play, as Target did when McArthur ran off three colors of “Purple Pride” towels during the Minnesota Vikings’ 16-2 season in 1998.

As originators, the Steelers have taken towel merchandising to unforeseen levels. offers 12 “Terrible Towel” inspired items in its “Terrible Stuff” section. The towels sell for $6.95. Offline, the Steelers have 500 wholesale customers for Terrible Towels — a staple at local sporting goods stores. And, of course, they are sold at Heinz Field.

“Half the people at our home games have towels,” said Tim Carey, the Steelers’ merchandise manager, “and we’re hoping the other half buy one.”

Tens of thousands are sold annually, Carey said.

The most remarkable fact about the towel that started it all is that none have ever been given away. They have always been sold, and the money given to charity. Perhaps that explains why Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope, who’s credited with inventing the “Terrible Towel,” doesn’t think highly of towel giveaways.

Cope originally exhorted fans to bring their own colored towels to Three Rivers Stadium before Gimbels started selling them the following season. Cope gave the “Terrible Towel” trademark to the Allegheny Valley School for the mentally retarded in 1996, which subsequently made the Steelers exclusive marketer.

Just don’t tell Cope he started a promotional trend by promulgating the most famous piece of laundry in sports.

“Those [giveaway towels] are rags — people wipe their seats and then throw them away,” said Cope, a Steelers broadcaster for more than 30 years. “They might wave ‘em a couple of times, but they don’t have much use for them once they sit down. We made sure what we did was gonna be nice, not just some damn old rag.”

Cope’s feelings aside, the promo towel game seems anything but washed up. If everything goes right, towels will be given away at every Nextel Cup race next year. McArthur is working on a towel with a belt clip.

“They’re an extension of cheering,” said Carey. “Everyone wants more excitement in their building and they always will.”

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