Penguins scoring goals with tech crowd
If Carnegie Mellon University associate professor Priya Narasimhan launches a company this year called Yinz Media, she'll award points to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who gave her a place to test her idea -- the team's home games.
The hockey team has been working this season to drive both its goal of being a cutting-edge operation that connects with a young fan base and creating goodwill and opportunities in the business community.
Even as the team took the city through gut-wrenching weeks of almost too many losses and then a storybook save to make the playoffs, the Penguins' business staff was experimenting with technology add-ons -- from online games to Web polls to Twittering.
Since January, about 12,400 fans have been playing a beta-version of an online game developed by the same start-up company that created a game kiosk for Children's Hospital.
More than 300 unique users at an early April game were using wi-fi enabled phones to check out angles of interim coach Dan Bylsma and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury not typically available on the Jumbo-Tron but made possible by Dr. Narasimhan's Yinz Cam project.
More than 50 people have RSVP'd to attend a Tweetup party tonight at the T.G.I. Friday's restaurant in Robinson. That one wasn't officially part of the team's experimental programs. The league is trying to get this going in each hockey town.
The Penguins use of the Twitter site that allows people to share micro-posts had already attracted about 3,500 fans. So when the team saw that some of its Twitter followers planned to gather, it worked out a spot with a sponsor and set aside prizes.
Earlier this week, the only city with more people signed up for a Tweetup was New York, according to an NHL spokesman.
More ideas are in testing, and still more may become part of the new arena now under construction.
To hear those involved tell it, the project came about because of brainstorming last spring between the Penguins, who wanted a new arena, and the Pittsburgh Technology Council, which had a new leader.
The Penguins wanted to build an arena ready for whatever the future brings, something that can be hard to do as technology evolves at light speed. The tech council had 1,400 members who didn't always connect but who had lots of ideas.
The two organizations decided to see what ideas those members might have for the new arena. A 45-minute Tech Council interview made available as a podcast brought in more than 100 proposals. The Penguins gave almost everyone who responded time to make a pitch.
"People came like it was a real pitch," said Audrey Russo, tech council chief. And it turned out to be one.
The Penguins chose several ideas to try to use immediately. An online poll on the team's Web site is a variation created by Strip District-based Civic Science that helps build a profile of the fan base. Content Vision, on Penn Avenue, gave them the ability to manage multiple video feeds.
In some cases, the team looked past a proposal to the skills. East Liberty-based Electric Owl Studios, a 2-year-old start-up founded by CMU grads, suggested the Penguins might install one of its game kiosks in the team's children's area.
The team later called to ask Electric Owl about developing a fantasy game specific to the Penguins, to appeal to the 25- to 34-year-olds the team sees as the 'sweet spot' of its market.
Electric Owl -- whose partners are all 26 to 28 -- jumped at the chance, said Fred Gallart, president and CEO. "We're all such hockey nerds."
Extra Attacker, now on the team's Web site, looks simple, but the better a fan knows the players, the more strategic his play. "It also drives our fans to watch the complete game," said Jeremy Zimmer, director of new media.
Already, improvements are planned for next season, including more social networking functions. Mr. Gallart, whose company isn't profitable yet, could see taking the game to other teams or even other sports.
The Yinz Cam project is all about making the experience at the game more compelling. "They essentially decided to take a chance on us," said Dr. Narasimhan, whose team includes another faculty member and about 10 students.
They had a wireless network installed inside Mellon Arena accessible only to those at the game.
Initially, the project just streamed live video. But it took off after cameras were set up to capture intimate views of the coach or other nontraditional scenes. Fans with wi-fi-enabled devices can choose which angle they see, or capture a replay.
In the next six months, Dr. Narasimhan said, she'd like to ramp up the project into an official company that could serve other teams, even those in Pittsburgh.
She couldn't drum up sponsors for the experiment so she funded most of the work through her own accounts.
So far, nobody seems to be making a lot of money off these projects. The team's business staff was willing to devote countless hours to development and testing but didn't have a big budget.
"What we're doing is giving them the opportunity to showcase their product with a professional sports team," said Dave Soltesz, the Penguins' vice president of sales and marketing.
The companies may develop products that can be sold elsewhere while the team could start lining up sponsors.
First Published April 15, 2009 12:00 am