The Battle Cry of Rally Towels


The rally towel is an item of team merchandise that hardcore fans hold up and wave for all to see at sporting events. As a fan ritual, the rally towel dates back to the mid 1970s, when a unique piece of paraphernalia dubbed the “Terrible Towel” originated at Pittsburgh Steelers games.

Since then, similar towels have become commonplace at games by other sports teams that typically give them out to fans during postseason. Today, the ritual is on display at NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB events. Teams that have embraced the ritual include the Seattle Seahawks, the Vancouver Canucks, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Philadelphia Phillies.

1970s and ’80s

At the tail end of 1975, a ritual was born during a game between the Steelers and the Baltimore Colts. As fans of the Penn. team cheered their heroes on to victory, the Terrible Towel made its first appearance. The event would later be recalled by the late Pittsburg-area sportscaster Myron Cope (1929–2008), who recalled seeing up to 30,000 towels being waved across the stadium by ecstatic Steelers fans. Buoyed by this over-spilling enthusiasm, the Iron City NFL team scored a decisive win in its quest for a second consecutive Super Bowl championship.


A number of seasons passed before the ritual of rally towels passed to other sports. In 1987, the iconic Homer Hanky made its first appearance as the Minnesota Twins notched a slew of victories in advance of that year’s World Series. Since then, the hanky has been distributed to fans during each season where the Twins have made the MLB playoffs.

Rally Towels in the MLB

By 2010, rally towels had become so common in Major League Baseball that there were now only three teams left — the Atlanta Braves, the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays — that still hadn’t taken to the ritual. Of the teams that squared off in that year’s World Series, the San Francisco Giants used orange towels during Game 2, while the Texas Rangers used towels in the colors of the American flag during all Arlington home games.

Aside from the Twins and Phillies, the MLB teams that most frequently distribute rally towels among fans are the Colorado Rockies, the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Since 2010, the ritual has also been enacted by the Cincinnati Reds, the San Francisco Giants, the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays — the last of which distribute towels during a regular promotion dubbed “Fan Fridays.”

The NFL and Rally Towels

Out of all the teams in the National Football League, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks have made the most notable use of rally towels. During the 2010 playoffs, fans of the Emerald City team waved their heroes to victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West. Later that season, the Seahawks triumphed — amidst cheers and waving 12th man towels — in the Super Bowl over defending titleholders the New Orleans Saints.

As a way to mobilize fans during the playoffs, a growing number of teams in the NFL have distributed rally towels at games. Prominent usage of such towels in recent years has been seen among fans of the Chicago Bears, the Dallas Cowboys, the Minnesota Vikings, the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles.


Rally Towels and the NBA

While the use of rally towels is less common at basketball games, a few teams have embraced the ritual, including the Boston Celtics, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Indiana Pacers, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Philadelphia 76ers. One of the most notable uses of such paraphernalia in the NBA is the “White Hot” emblazoned towels distributed to fans of the Miami Heat during playoff games.

During a victorious 2011 1st round series opposite the Portland Trailblazers, the Dallas Mavericks distributed towels to cheering fans, who in turn got to watch their heroes — towels waving in unison — beat the Thunder in that year’s West Conference Finals.

Rally Towels at NHL Games

Outside Major League Baseball, rally towels are most common among teams in the National Hockey League. As far back as 1982, fans of the Vancouver Canucks were setting the trend with their collective ritual known as Towel Power. In the decades since, other teams in the NHL have followed suit, including the Anaheim Ducks, the New Jersey Devils and the San Jose Sharks. Some of the most iconic uses of rally towels in hockey have been those that were distributed to fans of 1999 Stanley Cup winners, the Dallas Stars, as well as the “LET’S GO PENS” towels waved during playoffs by fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Rally Towels and Soccer

Beyond the realms of baseball, football, basketball and hockey, rally towels are seldom seen in sports. In Major League Soccer, the long-standing tradition of scarves has made the rally towel redundant. One notable exception in the MLS was during the 2010 playoffs, when towels were distributed to fans of Real Salt Lake. It was all to no avail, however, as the opposing FC Dallas won the playoffs and ultimately proceeded to the Cup Final.

The Terrible Towel

At Pittsburg Steelers’ games, there’s nothing that better signifies the enthusiasm of fans than the collective waving of Terrible Towels. As a ritual that has spanned four decades, the NFL team’s pioneering paraphernalia has become a symbol of participation among several generations of Iron City football fans. Ever since the Terrible Towel was introduced by Myron Cope during the December 1975 playoffs between the Steelers and the Colts, it has been a ubiquitous item for crowd display at home games, as well as a staple of living-room walls among football fans in western Pennsylvania.

The Terrible Towel is not merely a ritual among audience members, however. For nearly a quarter century, team members would often wave the Terrible Towel during pre-game introductions at the now-demolished Three Rivers Stadium.

Since 2001, the tradition has carried on at Heinz Field, where the Terrible Towel is seen in the hands of fans and players alike. The Terrible Towel has even been seen out on the streets, where this unique form of fan expression has been the envy of other sports teams, who’ve attempted to mimic the phenomenon with their own rally towels.

When romantically involved Steelers fans celebrate important milestones, the Terrible Towel is used to mark the occasion. Joyous waving of the Towel is said to occur at fan weddings, as well as whenever couples welcome new members into their broods.

The Towel Waved Around the World

Across the far corners of the earth, the Terrible Towel has made its mark on many harrowing adventures, such as mountainous ascents, deep-sea plunges, Arctic explorations and military missions. World-famous monuments where the Towel has been waved include the Great Wall of China and St. Peter’s Square. The Towel is even seen from time to time at international dining establishments. However, out of all the impressive heights, depths and distances the towel has traveled, the most remarkable of all has been outer space, where it was waved by Pittsburgh-born Astronaut Colonel Mike Fincke aboard the International Space Station.

Over the years, the Terrible Towel has seen numerous incarnations, but the most famous of all has remained the mustard-colored design in which the words are stacked in lower-case, outlined letters. Still, variants of the Towel are produced now and then, such as the pink-colored towel for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as well as assorted holiday-themed and Super Bowl commemorative versions. The Steelers’ rallying piece has even been produced in a camouflage style.


In perhaps its most charitable of uses, the Terrible Towel has raised more than $3 million since 1996 on behalf of Allegheny Valley School, a privately-funded care center in Coraopolis, PA, that cares for the mentally and physically disabled. For Myron Cope, these earmarks held personal significance since his handicapped son lived at the care center for many years. After the sportscaster’s passing in 2008, his daughter had his coffin draped in a quilted patchwork of fan-made, hand-sewn Terrible Towels.

Famed Fanfare

On the political front, the Terrible Towel has been held up proudly by one-term Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, who headed the Keystone State from 2011 to 2015. After the Steelers beat the New York Jets in a bid for the 2011 Super Bowl, the Towel was raised by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg along the entrance columns of the New York Public Library.

Since 2010, Heinz Field has called upon celebrities to usher in the Towel wave among game-goers in a ritual dubbed the “Terrible Towel Twirl.” Celebrities who’ve taken the honor include former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, comedian Larry the Cable Guy, rapper Wiz Khalifa, actors Channing Tatum and Joe Manganiello, and actresses Alyssa Milano and Tamara Tunie.

The Curse of Those Who Dirty the Towel

As the ultimate emblem of Steelers pride, the Terrible Towel has been subject to its share of disrespect from opposing teams and their fans. During the introduction to a 1994 playoff against the Cleveland Browns, the Towel slipped from the hand of Steelers defensive Brentson Buckner. In an ironic act of belligerence, Browns running back Earnest Byner stomped on the Towel while declaring that his team would beat Pittsburgh. However, the Steelers prevailed that evening, stomping the Browns instead, 29 to 9.

In an even sillier twist of fate, Jacksonville Jaguars mascot Jaxson de Ville wiped his under-areas with the Towel during an Oct. 8, 2008, square-off with Pittsburgh’s finest at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium. Following this mid-game act of overconfidence — up to which point the Jaguars commanded a 2–0 season lead — the Steelers leapt ahead to claim a 26-21 victory. Of the 11 games still ahead for the Jaguars that season, they would ultimately suffer eight defeats.

Apparently not one to learn from the faux pas — jaguar logic is never easy to analyze — Jaxson used the Towel as a prop for an off-color Ebola joke during an Oct. 5, 2014 game at EverBank Field, where the Steelers triumphed 17-9. Though the Jaguars quickly apologized for making light of the epidemic, they’d ultimately lose 13 out of 17 remaining games that season.

Towel Power

In the NHL, the most iconic towel-waving tradition was started by accident during an act of surrender by head coach Roger Neilson of the Vancouver Canucks. It was during the 1982 Western Conference Final, where the BC team was losing the second game 4-1 to the Chicago Black Hawks. Taking issue with the suspect number of penalties that his team was being assessed by referee Bob Myers, Neilson stuck a white towel atop the stick of Canucks right winger Jim Nill and hoisted it before spectators. Symbolically, the coach was waving the makeshift white flag in protest — but several players soon joined in, and a rallying ritual was born.

As Canucks goaltender Richard Brodeur would recount years later, Neilson’s gesture instantly resonated among the team and their fans. Even though they would lose to their Windy City rivals that evening, after-game sentiments clearly favored the Canadian team, which gained the upper-hand from there on out as fans adopted the white towel wave. While Neilson was fined $1,000 for the initial stunt, this new ritual ushered the Canucks to victory over three subsequent games, after which they proceeded to their first Stanley Cup Final.

Since then, the tradition continues among Canucks fans. For each playoff game at Rogers Arena, 20,500 white towels are produced in honor of Vancouver’s finest. Emblazoned with the team’s blue orca logo, the towels go up in unison each game, creating aisles upon aisles of visual solidarity that puts impetus behind each Canucks victory.

As such, Towel Power remains a phenomenal spectacle for each new generation of teammates. As right winger Alex Burrows related from his first playoffs with the team during the 2006-07 season, the sight of seeing all the towels on the chairs pre-game, and then seeing them waved in unison as games stretch into multiple overtimes, is almost as awe inspiring as the action on the rink itself.

Other teams in the NHL have since adopted their own rally towels, most notably the Fowl Towels of the Anaheim Ducks, though arguably none hold the same iconic prestige as the Terrible Towel. As for the stunt that spawned the Canucks’ tradition, Neilson’s legendary flag raise — chastised as a “bush league” act at the time by NHL executives — is now immortalized in an 11 ft. bronze statue that stands outside Rogers Arena.


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