Sports Business

Q&A: How The Pittsburgh Steelertown-Based Penguins Became A National Success

Despite being a small market team, the Pittsburgh Penguins have positioned themselves as one of the NHL’s true on-ice and national business success stories.

The franchise has gone from Stanley Cup champs to bankruptcy to Stanley Cup, now skating on firm ice under the direction of team co-owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux at Consol Energy Center, which opened last season.

With the 2011-12 NHL preseason underway, the team is still awaiting the on-ice return of Sidney Crosby, who has still not been cleared for games as he recovers from the effects of concussions suffered last season.

Meanwhile, despite playing in a market often dominated by the NFL’s Steelers, the Penguins continue to be among the leading NHL teams in fan engagement and social media, as well top-tier marketing partners such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Verizon and the recently signed deal with Crons.

Big Lead Sports spoke with David Peart, the Penguins svp-sales and service, about the team, marketing and the upcoming NHL campaign.

Big Lead Sports: What is the strategy behind Pittsburgh investing so much time and money in social media?

David Peart: Despite Pittsburgh’s medium market size, the Penguins are one of the most popular teams in the NHL, as demonstrated through ticket sales, broadcast ratings and digital media metrics. That popularity has carried over to social media as well. As our Facebook and Twitter numbers grew, we realized that social media is not a fad or a trend, but rather a powerful engagement tool. Social media provides a way to take part in and help shape fan dialogue while providing real-time feedback and sentiment. For these reasons we have chosen to take an active role in social media.

BLS: How has digital media and technology helped with the fan experience at the Consol Energy Center?

DP: Moving into a state-of-the-art facility [from Mellon Arena] has provided us the ability to offer much more digital fan interaction. Visually, fans are drawn in by the massive HD video board, LED rings and nearly 900 video monitors located throughout the building. There are touch-screen interactive zones focusing on Penguins’ history and local amateur hockey. Fans can participate in contests and promotions via text message and can even bypass concession lines by ordering food and beverages through a mobile app.

BLS: How has the presence of Mario Lemieux in an ownership role impacted marketing the team in the digital age?

DP: Mario Lemieux is a legend of the game of hockey and one of Pittsburgh’s most beloved figures. As a player he saved the franchise, won Stanley Cups and helped build hockey’s foundation in the region. As an owner he has transformed the franchise into one of the most respected in sports. When you add in the exciting young stars on the Penguins current team, fans young and old appreciate the past and look forward to the future.

BLS: One of the teams you worked with prior to the Penguins was the San Francisco 49ers. What are the biggest differences in marketing and building the brand of an NHL team vs. an NFL team?

DP: We work a lot harder to promote our brand to casual fans. In Pittsburgh, sports matter a great deal and the Penguins have a large, strong and loyal following . . . Having said that, we still work hard every day introducing the team and the sport to young fans thru open practices, our annual free game for kids and one of the most expansive youth hockey programs in the states.  This is all a part of our effort to be a part of the community and sports landscape to ensure that we continue to grow our fan base throughout the region.

To be honest . . . our fan engagement here and use of technology to connect with our fans is far more significant and deeper here than it was in the Bay Area. Our fan base here with the Penguins is much younger and a lot more engaged thru social media and mobile platforms that with the 49ers. We are doing things here with CMU and our technology partners and even traditional partners that serve as benchmark activities in sports.

BLS: How does a small market team become more of a national player?

DP: The Penguins are at the top of the NHL in number of displaced fans and out-of-state merchandise sales. In fact, 60% of all traffic to our Web site pittsburghpenguins.com comes from outside of Pennsylvania.

BLS: How have you been able to engage so many fans in a region and during a time in which the Steelers attract so much attention?

DP: With 210 consecutive sellouts, the opening of a brand new arena, record TV and radio ratings, two Winter Classic appearances, two Stanley Cup Final appearances and a Stanley Cup championship in the past four years, we think it’s fair to say that Pittsburgh is also a Penguins town in the winter.

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