Mark Madden: Penguins face tough marketing decisions | TribLIVE.com
Penguins/NHL

Mark Madden: Penguins face tough marketing decisions

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AP
One thing is certain as the Penguins seek answers with an aging core after a first-round sweep: Sidney Crosby is going nowhere.

The Carolina Hurricanes are playing to 101.7 percent capacity during home playoff games. But they attracted a meager 76.7 percent capacity during the regular season, third-worst in the NHL. Even with the “Storm Surge” sideshow act.

That’s not remotely meant to ridicule. Winning draws money, and sports teams badly need bandwagon dollars.

The Penguins have made the playoffs 13 straight seasons, so it’s hard to tell which fans are legit and which might ditch at the first sign of sub-mediocrity (or if Evgeni Malkin gets traded). The team’s sellout streak is at 574.

But it’s worth noting that in 2003-04 — the season before the NHL lockout and the team’s last without Sidney Crosby — the Penguins averaged just 11,877 customers, dead last in the NHL.

The Penguins since have erected a state-of-the-art building. They have done a wonderful job promoting, especially when it comes to attaching themselves to youthful demographics. The Penguins may be Pittsburgh’s most popular team for young people.

Then they reach drinking age, head to the Heinz Field parking lot and become Steelers fans.

Does marketing figure into whatever moves the Penguins do or don’t make this summer?

Probably not. That’s because it is an absolute certainty that Crosby is going nowhere.

Sports are like movies. Teams have stars, co-stars and extras. Stars sell tickets. Crosby is a star.

But winning is the biggest aphrodisiac when it comes to revenue.

With the Penguins in the inevitable decline a capped league dictates for all once-good teams (except the New England Patriots), will that sellout streak continue when the Penguins miss the playoffs? Or will average attendance dip closer to 11,877?

One bright note: That “Jake’s Shake” milkshake you can get at PPG Paints Arena must be a big seller. It’s delicious. Chocolaty taste and 40 goals, too!

Urban legend says the Penguins need six home playoff games to make budget. They fell short of that this season.

That won’t affect payroll. Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle own the team. Not Bob Nutting. The Penguins have spent to the cap in each of the past 12 seasons.

What would tangible fan backlash be to trading a popular player like Malkin, Kris Letang or Phil Kessel?

Probably not much. Marc-Andre Fleury was more popular than any of those three. He’s gone. The sellouts continue.

But things add up.

A fan favorite leaves. A first-round playoff exit is followed by missing the postseason. What happens?

Pittsburgh is a very good hockey town. But it’s the nation’s No. 24 television market, and it’s not an Original Six hockey market. It’s not Toronto, where fans show up no matter how hopeless the Maple Leafs are.

If the choice is gradual decline or abrupt rebuild, that affects revenue. The latter seems the bigger gamble financially. Unless it works.

It’s also about what’s doable.

As has been discussed in this space, the Penguins may want to move star players. But contract clauses that limit or prohibit movement make that difficult. So does scarce need league-wide for aging players coming off bad seasons.

Defenseman Olli Maatta would be easy to trade. He might bring decent return. But that’s it. That’s the list. That move would not significantly help.

The likeliest antidote to the Penguins’ stumble is more rigid structure. Speed replaced by system. Dangle replaced by hockey IQ.

But would the players buy in? Would Coach Mike Sullivan buy in?

Everybody bought in when Malkin and Letang were injured in March, and the result was a 10-3-3 record that month.

Don’t worry about style. The customers don’t know the difference.

Worry about winning. They understand that.

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