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On Friday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Penguins gave a handful of bloggers (myself included) the opportunity to tour their new home, the future hockey palace known as the Consol Energy Center. Accompanying us on the tour: Pens VP of Communications Tom McMillan, Director of Media Technology Chris DeVivo, and a surprise guest, anthem singer supreme Jeff Jimerson, who came in his own customized Pens jersey:

I could repeat every minute detail of what we saw today, but instead, I'm choosing a different path. My thoughts will focus more on the bigger picture, and why the Penguins are one of the best-run franchises in not only the NHL, but in all of pro sports. Our tour guides may not have even realized it, but all of that came shining through on this tour.

The Penguins are an organization that is all about details, from top to bottom. They care about how they are perceived. They worry about the fans, about the players, about the experience. They are as consumer-friendly of a company as one will ever run into, even beyond their industry. And guess what? There's not another pro sports team in town that comes close. Oh, you bet I went there.

What the Pens did in opening their world to a handful of bloggers is not something I could ever see the Steelers doing, at least not in the foreseeable future. Why? Because they don't need you or me, and they could care less about us. Need a reminder? They come regularly. They are the Wal-Mart of pro sports, the 800-pound gorilla that can virtually do or say anything they want, especially since they know you'll keep coming back for more. Hit your child's mother? Well, we'd prefer you not, but can you still chase down the quarterback? Want to fool around with a drunk 20-year-old in the bathroom in the middle of Georgia? Well, we'd prefer you not long as you're ready for training camp....

I could go on and on, but you get the point. The Steelers are hovering near the league lead in bad judgment, and it's turned off many fans. But has the team made any gesture to show their customers they understand that sentiment, other than cut the occasional Cedrick Wilson or Richard Seigler? Not that I can see. In fact, they've actually rewarded some of these players with new contracts, such as a repeat offender of bad ideas named Jeff Reed. Even after the circus of an offseason, they brought in college players for visits the likes of LeGarrette Blount and Dez Bryant, who were both suspended last year - one for punching an opponent, and one for lying to the NCAA. If this is supposed to be image rehab, they're failing miserably. And if this is trying to throw off the rest of the league, congratulations - you just wasted two of your 30 visits with potential draftees.

If the Steelers are Wal-Mart, the Penguins are your local, family-owned business. You know them, and they acknowledge and know you. They get players to deliver season tickets to your front door. They bring pizza to ticket buyers standing in line. They set up Jumbotrons outside their arena for soldout playoff games, creating an entirely new fan dynamic. Would the Steelers do this for you? Have the Steelers done this for you? No, no, and no. They give you a parking lot teeming mostly with out-of-control drunks and public urinators and vomitors, all too ready to bring their antics inside the stadium. Is this an atmosphere where you'd want to take your kid? I know I sure wouldn't. For a reasonable fan, the NFL gameday experience is on the verge of ruination, especially in this day of incredible home theater technology and ridiculously-priced tickets. You don't like going to Heinz Field and paying $30 to park? Fine. They've got a waiting list that spans until the end of time. So despite your feelings, they'll just keep the status quo, thanks.

As for the Pirates, they're a completely different animal. It's hard to say you care about your fans when you've given them nothing but failed five-year plans, disastrous draft picks and awful trades since 1993. So while they have certainly have some fan friendly ways about them, there's not much else they have to sell beyond that. Take away their stadium, put them back in Three Rivers, and the attendance might be 5,000 a game at this point. 

But back to the Pens, which is why I was writing this in the first place. What transpired on Friday shed even more light into why they care so much about everyone connected to them, from the fans to the players to the media.

The Penguins are constrained by a salary cap. They can only spend so much money on players. But how can they pitch a potential free agent to join the Flightless Birds, other than cold, hard cash and the chance to play alongside two of the greatest stars in the game? How about the novel idea of giving the players an incredible work facility to use as a tiebreaker? A hydrotherapy room (below). A spacious player lounge. A state-of-the-art weight room, so nice that Paul Coffey remarked, "If we had this gym, I'd still be playing," when he toured recently. With all other things the same, if the choice came down to Team X that plays in a dump and the Penguins, it's no contest.

So we've made it known that the Penguins care about the players, as they should. It's their biggest asset. But the fans are their customers, and they are the ones who truly butter the Pens' bread. One thing I took from this tour was that each and every ticket holder, from the highest seat to the luxury suite owner, was important to the Penguins' design of their new arena.

See this? It's called Suite 66. It's going to be a place where you can watch the players enter the ice, along the lines of what they have in the new Cowboys Stadium. You can't get that on your plasma-screen at home.

And below? That's the new concourse areas. No more shoe-horning thousands of fans in between periods and after the game. There's ample space for people to, you know, actually walk around without bumping into someone and spilling their $20 worth of nachos.

And in another novel touch, when you turn around from buying your snacks and are on your way back to your seat, you won't see giant slabs of concrete. Instead, you'll see live NHL action on your return trip from the concession stand. Gotta love the open concourse. And if that's not good enough, there will be a minimum of 500 TVs placed around the arena, up from the 100 or so in Mellon.
Make no doubt, the presence of high-rollers is certainly a major consideration for the Pens. After all, they're not running a charity, they're running a business. They are entitled to make some money. There will be 66 suites (below), and they are already sold out. There will also be 32 loge (and yes, it's "loge" and not "lodge") boxes for smaller business needs, another nice touch. The Igloo Club will get a makeover and can be rented out on off-nights. A variety of ticket offerings should work with the budgets of many a Pittsburgh company.

Before we all hate on corporations, keep in mind that we probably wouldn't have pro sports in this town without them. They are an integral part of a franchise's health, and they will be treated royally in this new hockey heaven.

Yes, even media and officials will have a more comfortable surrounding in the Consol Center. These enormous TV screens will make life easier for off-ice officials and media members to get a better close-up of bang-bang plays (such as the flip-flopped Crosby/Guerin goal on Thursday).

I could go on and on, but I'll wrap it up soon. Simply put, everything from the sound to the big-screen to the gift shop will be better in the Penguins' new home. Of course, that doesn't mean I won't miss Mellon Arena. It was like the old car in your garage that you loved and didn't want to part with. Yeah, a shiny 2010 would be cool, but there was something unique about the old one you drove. It had memories. It had charm. But the problem is that we're not talking about cars. We're talking about a business where you need every competitive advantage possible. The Penguins have flirted with bankruptcy before, and while I don't think that's happening again, I'd prefer not to even come close. So I'm welcoming the new arena with open arms.

You don't want your team to become a slave to a facility at the cost of winning. Sure, it was hard for Yankee fans to part with The House That Ruth Built, but they're awash in new stadium cash and they won a World Series in their first year there. Would Red Sox fans trade that for another year of sitting in their outdated, cramped, overpriced Fenway? Really? 

As I said, I'll miss Mellon Arena - a lot. But I realize that the Penguins were at a significant disadvantage in a number of ways working out of it. If you thought they were dangerous before, wait until they move across the street. You ain't seen nothin' yet.

For a team that seems to care so much about everyone it comes in contact with, they deserve all the good things that come their way - and I expect many of them for the organization in the years to come.

For more info on the Consol Energy Center, click here

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Unknown said...

Talk some more. I'm up for reading a Part 2

SantoGold said...

I'm going to miss the Civic Arena as well (it will always be the Civic Arena to me). The dome was such a unique design and played nicely into being called The Igloo. Still, its time has come and the Consol Energy Center looks impressive. Great time to be a Pens fan.

Don, others are doing this, maybe have a top 10 readers poll on favorite arena moments? I was there Easter Night for Game 4 of the 1982 playoffs against the dynasty Islanders, which we won 4-1. Wow, was the place loud that night. Denis Potvin commented about having to "spend Easter in [bleeping] Pittsburgh" and everyone let him have it for that comment.

misterjamo said...

kind of amazed you went ahead and totally crushed the steelers here. i'm not sure what a few steelers' off-field issues have to do with consol energy center. especially when ben and santonio have clearly not been charged with anything. there was a fairly lengthy period of time where you didn't cover the pens at all. now they have a sick team, new arena, the steelers are struggling, and you're calling the pens the best organization in all of sports?

Dom Errico said...

If you read, he said ONE of the best run organizations in all of sports.

It's possible that two of the very best reside right here in Pittsburgh. Of course we're offset by arguably the WORST organization which resides at PNC Park.

Koz said...

It's no secret the Steelers do little for their fans other than providing a consistent on field product.

Now that's certainly job #1, but the service level and appreciation for fans just isn't there, just how Mondesi describes here.

We take for granted that the Steelers are always competitive, I hope we never experience a dark decade again like the Browns or Lions have been going through lately, but it would be interesting to see how the organization would react to that.

larry said...

I hope I'm wrong, but if and when the Pens start to have losing seasons, you'll see less and less people filing into the Consol Energy Center.
Every town thinks they have the best fans. The ones that can truly say that, are ones that have fans that fill the stadiums and arenas of perennial losers. (maple leafs in hockey)
You used to be able to yell across the ice at Pens games during the late 70's and early 80's.
We can only hope that Mario and the management can continue to put a consistant product on the ice like Koz writes about the Steelers.

Chip said...

You could yell across the ice at Pens games in the early 00's, too. I can't believe how quickly people forgot how little the Pens mattered in the era after Jagr and BC (Before Crosby).

Pittsburgh has been and always will be a front-running town. All they care about is winning. If Ben was McNabb, a guy who won some games and had some success but never got all the way to the promised land, the fans would've run him out of town after the McNulty case. But he contributes (however slightly) to a couple rings and he can do no wrong.

Even though the Steelers vs Pens rant reads like something Mark Madden would write, I do agree with it 100%. I'm slightly surprised Mondesi would write it but it is spot on.

The Steelers are arrogant and horrible when it comes to respecting their fans. They've just had so much luck (I mean, when you make a playoff run with BUBBY F'N BRISTER you know you lead a charmed existence) that they get away with it. Even when they have down years, they usually hover around the .500 mark so it's never without hope. As Koz correctly pointed out, if they ever hit 00's Pens or current Bucs level of suckiness, like 4-12 or 3-13 for five or six straight seasons, the management would be shellshocked at how the ship is abandoned in droves.

Despite my disgust with Ben and despite what other may think, I will always be a Steelers fan and can't ever bring myself to root for them to fail. But it would be a fitting comeuppance for that organization.

expectingrain said...

You nailed it. The Pens constantly raise the bar for team/fan interactions. I'm always going to be a Stillers fan but the off-field antics of them (and the rest of the NFL players) is wearing thin. Half the league gets arrested every off season. The Consol Energy center looks great and congrats to you for the invite to see it.

Michel Briere Lives said...

Dominic Errico, there is not NO possible way that Pittsburgh has two of the best run orginizations in all of sports. The Steelers may do pretty well in the player personel department, but they couldn't give three squirts of sh!t about you, or any other fan.

Don't think so, let me explain from personal experience.

My family has had Steelers season tickets for continuously for over 45 years. One of the season tickets belongs to my sister, who has m.s. and is confined to a wheelchair. When the time came to move to Heinz Field, we ponied up the extortion fee that was the seat license. A pretty penny for a working class family who has 4 seats. We asked for seats in the handicapped area, on the aisle, near the top of the section, so we could lift my sister out of her chair into a seat and we could all sit together and enjoy the game like we had for years. On the day of the first exhibition game, we arrived early to check out the seating arrangements and the new digs. Much to our horror, we found that although our seats are indeed on the end of the aisle, there are NINE steps down to the seats. Imagine if you would, having to carry someone who is dead weight, up and down nine steps to get in and out of a wheelchair. To add to the insult, there is a handicapped sticker affixed to the end seat. Maybe someone who is hearing impaired could make it to the seats, but not many other handicapped people could. The Steelers solution to the problem, trade in 2 of our seats prior to game day for two seats in the handicapped area. So now, instead of sitting 4 together, enjoying the game as a family, we now sit apart 2 and 2. By the way, the seats we turn in, the Steelers re-sell, double dipping on their profits. So much for our effin seat license. Thank you so much for your money, FU. If you don't like it, we've got thousands of other idiots lined up willing to take our B.S. Think we're the only season ticket holders to get screwed? Guess again.

As for the your so called worst run organizations in PNC Park...My sister also has a partial plan for the Pirates. They bend over backwards for her and her family. I don't have much respect for the product the Nuttings put on the field, however, they do seem to value the ticket buyers, similar to, but to a lesser degree as the Penguins.

Unknown said...

Don, I agree with you totally about the Penguins organization and fan friendliness feel.....from the ownership group to the players......I will always love football and the Steelers, but the Pens are my favorite Pittsburgh team by far for many of the reasons you far as the Pens irrelevance in the early 2000's, I truly think that the way that Pens have reached out to the younger fans will aid them in weathering any future dry spells......Don, as usual a great read.........thanks!

the nigerian nightmare said...

Awesome article. Totally agree about the Steelers too......they couldn't care Michele said, there's thousands of other idiots lined up and waiting to take their crap. The Pens are really an outstanding organization.

Yinzer Girl said...

While I get the point that is being made in this post, I have to disagree about "the NFL gameday experience is on the verge of ruination." This is simply not true. I have had season tickets for the last 3 years. I don't pay a ridiculous amount for tickets (and I don't think ticket price should even be factored in a Pens vs. Steelers argument, since Pens ticket prices are on par with Steelers ticket prices, often actually MORE pricey than Steelers tickets).

Also, yes there are the out of control drunk fans that go to Steelers games, but the same can be said for any team in any sport in any city across the U.S. I have seen drunks kicked out of PIRATES games far more often than I have seen it happen at Steelers games. I go to every home game and have not been drunk at any of them. I go because I love the game, the team and the atmosphere, not because I want to get trashed (and no, I'm not old or a stick in the mud....I'm 28 and do my fair share of partying). I find it a little ridiculous to be lumping all Steelers fans together as a bunch of drunk idiots. I know plenty of people that go to the games and do not behave in such a manner.

I consider myself a "reasonable" NFL fan and find very little wrong with the gameday experience. The atmosphere is always exciting and on any given Sunday there are 65,049 other fans in Heinz Field who agree with me.

Also, considering the Steelers have won 2 Super Bowls in 4 years, they could have increased ticket prices much more than they have in that time period. I believe that Pens ticket prices actually went up much more after the last two seasons than the Steelers have.

I am not trying to knock the Pens in any way, I am a huge fan and believe they too are a class organization. I just don't understand why a rant against the Steelers has to be a part of talking up the Pens. I have never understood the hatred that exists of die-hard Pens fans for the Steelers and their fans. This city is very lucky to have two successful, classy franchises. Can't we all just get along?

Jonny Van Mundegaarde said...

Nice to see the pre-90's memories from some of the fans on this and other blogs...through it all, the first two cups, the crushing playoff losses thereafter, mario leaving...only to return...twice, the slow dismantling of the team, seeing the Pirates and Steelers get their new park and stadiums, and the Penguins getting the shaft...thinking they might be leaving, watching Generation Next...morph into something amazing to witness...the last cup...

With the technological advancements in the last ten years and all of the newer arenas that sprang up, it gave the Pens the opportunity to build something special, and they took it to heart.

It was a long ride, but I wouldn't have wanted it any other way...

Jonny Van Mundegaarde said...

Yinzer, it's an arguement that always rears it's ugly head, whether it's here, or letsgopens, or thepensblog, or anywhere else. It'll always exist.

Unknown said...

The Pens are a world class organization. Lets just hope our city keeps supporting them in the coming years after Crosby is long gone and we don't have a contending team year in and year out.

Dom Errico said...

Michael Briere, I was referring more about the player management side of things.

I will agree with you about the Steelers organization and fans because truth be told they have a huge waiting list for season tickets so yeah they don't care whether you are happy or not.

In terms of fan experience...the Pirates are up there because they have to be. The on the field product sucks terribly.

Nigrelli said...

The whole Steelers vs. Pens issue should be looked at more as an NFL vs. NHL issue. Three big differences here:

1. NFL players are celebrities when they go out - very few NHL players are recognizable beyond hardcore fans. There's a big difference in the way Big Ben is treated in comparison to say, Matt Cooke.

2. NHL players tend to come from upper middle class families while NFL players tend to come from working class families (obviously there are plenty of exceptions).

I have no idea what income bracket Big Ben grew up in, but for the most part it's no surprise that NFL players have a more difficult time adjusting to big paychecks. NHL contracts are much lower and there isn't nearly the same adjustment.

3. The media cares much more about the NFL. I'm not suggesting that the behavioral issues are comparable but I imagine that there's a lot going on in the NHL that the media misses.

I think Mondesi is being very biased here. I realize that the Pens staff respected him, and the Steelers don't care about bloggers, but this blog shouldn't be about petty issues like that.

the nigerian nightmare said...

Are we seriously trying to garner sympathy for Ben over any NHL player because of the household he grew up in? Seriously? Are you f'ing kidding me? Also......from what I've read about a lot of these NFL players, your definition of 'working class' must be very loose.

Nigrelli said...

You missed my point. Like I said, I don't have any idea how Ben grew up. What I'm saying is that in general, it's much different going from rags to riches than it is to go from riches to more riches. There is absolutely no doubt that this at least partially explains (but does not excuse) the differences in off field conduct between the two sports.

I'm glad to see the Rooney family do the right thing and cut Santonio and I hope that Ben is watching. It's time to move on from this disastrous off season.


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