PITTSBURGH, Pa. – When the Pittsburgh Penguins host the Columbus Blue Jackets next Saturday in the second hockey game ever at the brand-new Consol Energy Center, team CEO David Morehouse expects a full house of 18,000 and gate receipts of US$0.
He couldn’t be happier about either number.
In what’s believed to be a first-of-its-kind promotion, the Penguins are staging a free pre-season game billed as the “Ultimate Home Game.”
The team is forgoing more than $1 million in gate receipts by giving away tickets, including 8,000 to college and trade school students who will also attend an in-game job fair. The other 10,000 tickets are going to area youth hockey leagues, a charity that gives event tickets to underprivileged kids and members of the team’s Kids Club.
Where’s the catch?
“There’s no catch,” Morehouse told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. “Part of the reward of doing good things is that it makes you feel good.”
Earlier this year, the Penguins were ranked first in “fan relations” in an ESPN Magazine survey of all 122 North American major pro sports franchises, getting especially high marks for fan appreciation and player accessibility.
Mike Ozanian, a national editor and sports business expert at Forbes magazine, credits Hall of Fame player Mario Lemieux, who bought the team when it was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1999.
“I think he’s been unrecognized nationally for the great job he’s done with the franchise,” Ozanian said.
Morehouse, a Pittsburgh-area guy, remembers sneaking into poorly attended games as a kid in the 1970s, when ushers would sometimes let fans in for free after the first period. That’s not a problem these days.
The Penguins have sold out more than 160 straight games and built a season ticket waiting list of 3,800 people. It doesn’t hurt that the team used several high draft picks from their lean years to build a core of young stars who won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
Though he’s loath to take credit for it, Morehouse came up with the idea of a free pre-season game for young people. The Penguins added a third home pre-season game so they could give away free tickets without slighting season ticket holders accustomed to attending two pre-season games, Morehouse said.
When it became a question of how to attract a houseful of young fans—future ticket-buyers—the team turned to a business consortium that’s wrestling with how to bolster the region’s economic future: the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which runs a website devoted to trying to keep students from leaving the region after they get their degrees.
The site, ImaginePittsburghJobs.com, lists about 22,000 jobs, more than half with salaries of at least $40,000, said Randy Dearth, CEO of Lanxess Corp., a chemical company spun off from Bayer. Dearth also chairs the conference’s workplace committee.
Since the beginning of September, 18,000 young job-hunters have registered at the site. Nearly 4,000 of them won two tickets each in a lottery for the Sept. 25 game, where local corporate sponsors, including Lanxess, Bayer, US Steel, Westinghouse, PNC Bank and health insurer Highmark will be showcasing jobs and networking with potential hires.
“The ‘help wanted’ sign is out, and we’re putting it out in a very big way,” Dearth said.
Brandon Landfried, a 20-year-old management information systems student at Penn State-Behrend near Erie, is a lifelong Penguins fan. Saturday’s game will be the first he’s ever attended.
“I’ve always wanted to go to a career fair, but figured it would be kind of boring walking around to tables,” Landfried said. “Adding the excitement of a hockey game makes it better, that and all the other young people there.”
Dearth said that’s why he’s “absolutely convinced it will bea success.”
The mass ticket giveaway is just the latest unique marketing idea to come from the Penguins. Under Lemieux’s watch, such promotions have turned into fan favourites.
Players take off their jerseys at the last regular season home game and autograph them for fans chosen at random. Sidney Crosby and other players deliver season tickets to select fans each year. A giant TV screen outside the arena lets thousands of fans watch home and away playoff games together. Leftover seats are sold at steep discounts to students who stand in a first-come-first-served line before games—and the team sometimes sends players out to deliver pizzas to the students.
Ozanian, the Forbes sports business expert, said Lemieux is sending a valuable message with the free game.
“He’s not saying, ‘I’m looking to get every nickel I can.’ He’s looking long-term,” Ozanian said.
Lemieux knows a thing or two about sacrificing $1 today to earn $2—and untold goodwill—tomorrow.
The superstar was owed $32 million in deferred compensation when he first retired as a player in 1997, and took a lesser equity stake in the bankruptcy purchase. Years later, once the bills were paid and the team was again profitable, it was revealed that Lemieux was the only unsecured creditor who didn’t get all the money he was owed.
“That’s incredibly rare and I think it really signalled to a lot of people at the time that this is not just about the money; it’s about doing the right thing and long-term vision,” said Ann Dugan, a longtime season ticket-holder and executive director of The Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz School of Business.
Morehouse said the Penguins likely will continue to offer a free pre-season game each year.
Though the team CEO came up with the promotion, he credits Lemieux and co-owner Ron Burkle.
“The culture they’ve created is a culture of giving back to the community,” Morehouse told the AP. “If our ownership looked at this promotion and said, ‘This is a revenue opportunity that you guys are giving away,’ we wouldn’t be able to do this.”