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Pittsburgh Penguins' goal is to market to young fans, VP says

by SAM KUSIC skusic@indianagazette.net on February 01, 2011 3:00 AM

Oh, yeah, Tom McMillan remembers those days.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were at the bottom of the league. So was attendance. And the message to Pittsburghers was, "Please, for the love of Pete, buy a ticket."

And then came the 2004-05 lockout, the lost season, the draft lottery and the right to the first pick in 2005.

And then came Sidney Crosby.

"And everything changed," said McMillan, the team's vice president of communications, during a question-and-answer session Monday evening at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Since then the team has played twice for the Stanley Cup. It's sold out the last four seasons. And there's a waiting list of 8,000. This, it would seem, is the time to coast.

Not so, McMillan said, speaking to the aspiring public relations professionals in IUP's Public Relations Student Society of America chapter, which had asked him to talk about his job and the team's marketing efforts.

"When the most eyeballs are on us, we have to market the hardest because the inevitable cycle of sports will happen. We hope it doesn't happen for another 10 or 15 years, but it will happen and we want to be prepared."

McMillan said that with the team now winning, its focus has shifted from simply trying to sell tickets to building the brand and hooking a young generation of hockey fans, finding a way to keep them invested, even when the team hits a down cycle.

He said the Penguins are focusing on the youth market, those 35 and younger, something that happened unexpectedly.

He said the team had hired a firm to conduct brand research. And team executives thought the firm would advise them to pursue the small-town, blue-collar aesthetic that the Steelers have made effective use of.

But instead, the firm, after a year-and-a-half of studying the market, said that whether the Penguins had intended to or not, they had managed to connect to young Pittsburghers through programs such as its Student Rush, a program that provides discounted tickets to high school and college students.

"The brand changed because of that," he said.

That said, having the team featured in HBO's "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic" turned out to be a valuable opportunity.

"We thought doing something cutting edge was perfect. We thought it would be a great experience for the players. We knew that there might be some uncomfortable things because they're with you 24-7. In the end, looking back, no one regrets it. I think everybody really enjoyed the experience," he said.

He said the intended audience wasn't hockey fans.

"The target was to get causal sports fans interested in (the team) and the Winter Classic."

And it worked, he said.

McMillan also spoke about the negotiations that led to the team's new home, Consol Energy Center.

"We never wanted to leave. That would have always been a last resort," he said. "I think we always deep down believed we would get a deal done here."

But in 2007, with the lease on the old arena set to expire and no contract in the offing, the team needed a place to play. And some options.

Considering a move to another city that was offering an arena gave the team those options. And a place from which to negotiate, he said.

McMillan said those were difficult days, and uncomfortable ones because of the uncertainty. But, he said, for PR professionals, those are the times when they must work to earn their money.

"Everything is not always, 'Boy, we have a great player and we're winning a championship,'" he said. "It's easy to be good in the good times."

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