Forum: The birth of Penguins Nation
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Now is the time for all good men and women and waterfowl to come to the aid of their city, their county and their uncertain state of taxpayer-subsidized construction. It is the time for loyal citizens and sports fans of Pittsburgh to put aside their differences and work toward a more gainful, glorious future.
Michael Madison, who blogs at "Pittsblog" and Madisonian.net, teaches intellectual property and technology law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law (Madison@law.pitt.edu). Chad Hermann, who blogs at "Teacher. Wordsmith. Madman." and The Huffington Post, teaches management communication at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business (email@example.com).
We're speaking, of course, of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the newly struck deal that will build an arena to house them and all the rhetorical mucking and grinding on both sides of this still-simmering debate. We're writing as two local bloggers and university professors -- one a Penguins season-ticket holder and funding advocate; one a funding skeptic who hasn't been to a professional hockey game in more than 30 years -- who've argued these issues for the past few months. And we're thinking that with a little bit of effort and creativity, the deal's opponents and proponents can, just as we have, find some common (and perhaps even profitable) ground.
However you characterize the various financial contributions of state and local interests to the arena deal, a significant amount of funding from the public treasury will go into this building. To many Pens fans, this is as it should be. To people who see other fiscal priorities in the Pittsburgh region, it's a missed opportunity at best; a waste of money at worst. But look ahead. If the deal is going to make sense for the region, passion and sentiment should be put aside. The bottom line is the bottom line: Can it generate revenue for the region?
Most of the number-crunching associated with the regional value of the Penguins franchise doesn't make a key distinction.
On the one hand are ticket sales and concessions and entertainment taxes paid by city and regional residents. This isn't new money for the region; it's already here. If these fans don't spend their entertainment dollars on hockey, they'll spend them on something else. The region's revenue pie doesn't grow. Its pieces just get shuffled around.
On the other hand are ticket sales and concessions and entertainment taxes and other purchases paid by Penguins fans who come to games but do not live in Pittsburgh or in Allegheny County. These fans travel, eat, drink, shop and often stay overnight here, bringing tourist dollars to the city that most likely would be spent elsewhere, were it not for the likes of Sid and Jordan and Geno. These extra ingredients grow the region's revenue pie, allowing us to slice it into more and bigger pieces.
We're not foolish enough to suggest that all these road-trippers and weekend visitors and people just curious to see what all the buzz is about will generate huge, budget-shaking amounts of revenue for the region. But we're observant enough to see that the Penguins play in a league that, more than any other, sports a kind of cultish, die-hard, Grateful-Dead-style traveling fan base. The team generates money for the region that is not already here.
For example, at the March 24 game against the Atlanta Thrashers, at least three different groups traveled from Ontario to watch the Penguins play. The group from Brantford -- sporting a sign that read, "We came from the hometown of The Great One to see The Next Great One" -- stayed in Pittsburgh hotels Friday night. Two groups from Toronto checked into hotels later that day. At the game on March 16, a few rows of French-Canadians cheered for Montreal while sporting freshly purchased Penguins merchandise; they'd come to see the game, were staying in hotels both Friday and Saturday nights, and, if their alcohol consumption at the arena was any indication, bought an awful lot of green beer all across the city on St. Patrick's Day.
Go to any Pens game throughout the season, and you'll meet (or see, or at least hear) more people like them. Last year, a sign hung from the north balcony proclaimed that a group of fans had come from Japan just to see Sidney Crosby. You can bet they didn't go straight home after the game.
So what should we make of this? Here are a few key questions that the Penguins and the city should ask and answer:
First, are there any numbers on this? Has anyone counted bodies or dollars connected with hockey tourism in Pittsburgh?
Second, if those numbers are significant, or if they at least have the potential to be significant, can a hockey arena be not just a community resource but also an economic-development resource? The new arena could be useful precisely because of its appeal -- added, of course, to the Penguins' appeal -- as a draw for out-of-towners. And all those "Keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh" arguments for public money could turn into something more than just saving the team for loyal locals. With a local team for local fans spending local money, the case for public funding just about collapses; that money could be better spent on all kinds of more pressing civic needs. But if this deal also saves the team for outsiders, for tourists and hockey fans from Toronto to Tokyo, then public funding of the arena could perhaps be justified, or at least qualified, as an investment in attracting new money to Pittsburgh.
Third, can our economic-development hypothesis take pressure off the argument that Pittsburgh needed to retain the Penguins because young people are more likely to move to a city with a young, exciting NHL team? As young as the home Pens crowds are, we're skeptical that the presence of the team is itself likely to draw people to Pittsburgh, or to keep them here once they already have one foot out the door. If the Penguins are an economic-development resource, then this question is much less important.
Fourth and finally, as an economic-development resource, can the team expand its marketing, and can its fans, here and elsewhere, coordinate themselves accordingly? Can we identify and nurture and even cultivate a Penguins Nation, a following for the team -- and, by extension, the city -- with a size and scale and intensity that tracks, even if it can not approach, the Steelers Nation?
The building blocks already are in place. This season, the Penguins have consistently been a top-three road attraction in the NHL; when they come to town, home teams sell about 1,000 tickets more than average. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury jerseys are in the top 20 of league-wide sales. Malkin's was often in the top five, and Crosby's has been No. 1 every month this season. The Penguins support youth hockey, businesses and charities in Pittsburgh. They treat their season-ticket holders well, and they've done a nice job of marketing both the franchise and its young players here in the region.
So let's take it to the next level:
Publicly embrace hockey-starved fans in Cleveland, Baltimore, Harrisburg, Erie and Morgantown. Encourage them to catch a game in Pittsburgh. Court casual or curious fans in the mid-Atlantic states and bring them to the city. Organize hockey charters for Canadian and even European fans. Build business-and-hockey relationships with professional and amateur clubs around the world. Work with the VisitPittsburgh team. Use the Penguins' Web presence to organize and cultivate your fan base across the country and around the world.
This is, in short, our rink of dreams. If we build it, they should come.
Of course, the Penguins themselves don't need to monopolize the market for the emerging Penguins Nation. (Calling all entrepreneurs!) But take advantage of it we should. Because the Penguins, with the best hockey player in the world and the potential to be one of the best teams in the NHL for years to come, are poised to become the best flightless ambassadors in the history of Pittsburgh. Creating and sustaining a Penguins Nation may be the best way for the team, the city and the taxpaying public to see real back-end value from our shares of the arena deal.
First Published April 1, 2007 12:00 am