On the Penguins: Winning with 'youth'

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Few, if any, professional teams have marketed themselves more aggressively, and creatively, to young fans over the past decade than the Penguins. • They pioneered the often-replicated concept of the student rush, which sets aside relatively inexpensive tickets for high school and college students, in the 1990s and were quick to embrace social media to reach people in their teens or early 20s.

The early impact of the student rush was obvious, as the program helped to fill seats at Mellon Arena when more than a few were going unsold. Especially those hard-to-move single seats.

But the long-term payoff for the franchise to drawing young fans to their games is reflected, in part, by the Penguins' streak of 289 consecutive sellouts at home.

"I have people come up to me all the time and say, 'I'm a season-ticket holder, and I started coming to student rush,' " Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse said. " 'Saw my first hockey game when I was a freshman at Pitt or when I was a freshman at Duquesne and I've been coming ever since.' "

Now, it's possible the Penguins wouldn't need those young fans to pack the building these days, given that their season-ticket waiting list stands at around 9,200.

Still, the foundation of their fan base has been bolstered and expanded by younger people, many of whom seem to follow hockey -- and, specifically, the Penguins -- more passionately than other sports.

Which is pretty much what the Penguins have had in mind.

"We target younger people," Morehouse said. "Our target audience basically, for our marketing, is for a younger crowd."

What impact, if any, the Pirates' success this season will have on the Penguins isn't clear, although Morehouse doesn't seem concerned that it will erode support for, or interest in, his team.

Quite the opposite, actually.

"It's too early to tell, quantitatively, but qualitatively, it's helped energize young people," he said. "The success of all three sports teams has a positive impact on all of us, especially among young people. Just getting them involved and active and excited brings a new energy to the region, I think.

"You can look at the younger fan base of the Penguins and, now, the Pirates and some of the young fans of the Steelers -- but more specifically, I think, the Penguins and the Pirates -- and see the transformation of Pittsburgh. You can see a new face of Pittsburgh, a new energy.

"We kind of stumbled on it a few years ago in some of our research, but we've been seeing it more and more, subsequent to that research."

One major difference between the Pirates and Penguins, of course, is that the Pirates just qualified for postseason play for the first time since 1992, while the Penguins, whose payroll includes some of the game's elite talents, are expected to contend for the Stanley Cup every spring.

No exceptions.

No excuses.

Given that the Penguins haven't earned a Cup since 2009, losing to lower-seeded opponents in each of the past four playoffs, it seems logical those disappointments might prompt some fans to take their interest, and disposable income, elsewhere.

Morehouse said that has not happened, and makes a vigorous case that it shouldn't, regardless of the lofty expectations so many have for his team.

"Quite frankly, we've been in the conference final three of last six years, two Stanley Cup finals in the last six years," he said. "I would argue about whether or not we've had a reason to have any kind of [erosion].

"[The bar] is set higher, but it's been an unprecedented level of success. Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and we will continue to put teams on the ice that are built to win a Stanley Cup."

He also offered a fierce defense of the Steelers, a perennial playoff contender that has started this season 0-4.

"When you look at the overall record of the recent Steelers and Penguins, it's an unprecedented level of success, especially given the context of the market," he said.

"Look at the Steelers. I think they've been in an AFC championship every three or four years, it averages out to. ... The Steelers, in a salary-cap system, have been able to maintain that level of success. I don't think they get as much credit as they deserve for that steadiness.

"You're gong to have up and down years. It's going to happen. No one in history has won every year on a balanced field."

The week ahead

Tuesday: Edmonton ... A rare visit from some of the most exciting young players in the NHL.

Thursday: at Philadelphia ... Sidney Crosby has 13 goals and 20 assists in 21 regular-season games on the far side of the state.

Saturday: Vancouver ... Can you tell the Sedin twins apart without checking uniform numbers?


First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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