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Old 10-01-2008, 06:37 AM   #684
alkemical
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The team dresses in black and gold, has a long waiting list for season tickets and has the highest television ratings of any team in the league. It also is No. 1 league-wide in merchandise sales and has a rabid fan base that lives and dies with the team's every move.

It's not the Steelers we're talking about. It's the Penguins, the other Pittsburgh franchise that has a Steelers-like following.

The Penguins have never been more popular, and it is being reflected in the club's climbing ticket sales. The Penguins have sold out a club-record 67 consecutive games, including regular season and playoffs, dating to the 2006-07 season. Last season, the Penguins sold out all 41 regular-season home games for the first time in franchise history, and they are well on their way to duplicating that feat.

The Penguins have sold out 10 games on the 2008-09 schedule and a limited number of tickets remain for the other 30.

At no other time in the Penguins' 42-year history has the club enjoyed such success at the box office.

When the Stanley Cup teams of the early 1990s first captured the hearts of Pittsburghers, fans flocked to Civic Arena. But even championships and star power galore couldn't guarantee sellout crowds.

The previous record for sellouts in a season was 34, set in 1988-89 and tied the following season in 1989-90. That was one year before the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins raised the Stanley Cup for the first time.

Sidney Crosby and Co. haven't hoisted Lord Stanley's trophy yet, but they have won the hearts of the fan base.

"Pittsburgh traditionally was and still is a football town," Penguins president David Morehouse said. "What has changed is now Pittsburgh is also a hockey town. Mario was responsible for the emergence of hockey as part of our cultural fabric. That was the foundation. It established hockey in Western Pennsylvania. When Sidney and [Evgeni] Malkin and [Jordan] Staal and all these great players came in, that built on the foundation that was already there.

"We are a full-fledged hockey town now, as good as any other city in the country. I would put us up against Detroit, Minneapolis, Boston, New York. We're as strong as any of them. Our numbers bear that out."

The Penguins have a season-ticket waiting list of more than 2,500 people. Those 2,500 people have placed a $200 deposit on purchasing future season-ticket plans. To put that number into perspective, consider that the team didn't even have a season-ticket waiting list until last season.

The Penguins could have sold out Mellon Arena strictly through season-ticket sales this year, but they capped season packages at 14,000 in order to keep a broader fan base involved in ticket buying.

"The philosophy here is that selling only season tickets is not the best long-term strategy," Penguins vice president Tom McMillan said. "We wanted to have more tickets available to a wider fan base. We want to build a broader fan base. Some people just can't get to 40 home games or afford season tickets."

Those average-Joe fans responded in resounding fashion when the Penguins put those single-game tickets on sale Sept. 20. Within 90 minutes, 20,000 tickets had been sold.

It wasn't all that long ago that the Penguins were struggling to stay in business. Mellon Arena had bigger crowds for the circus a few years back. In 2003-04, one season before the NHL lockout when the Penguins were the worst team in the league, the average attendance was 11,877. Only 5,500 people had season tickets, and there was one sellout.

Now it's the hottest ticket in town.

"This team is reflective of what Pittsburghers like in their sports teams," Morehouse said. "They have a tremendous drive. Take Game 5 [of the Stanley Cup finals]. If you're looking for ways to market a team ... That team showed as much drive as any team during the Stanley Cup years.

"And we have good kids. Pittsburghers are good at recognizing character. You can't create what our kids have. Sidney Crosby doesn't have to go to people's houses to deliver season tickets. But he likes doing it. They do a lot in the community that people appreciate. The character they possess translates very well in Pittsburgh."

For those fans hoping to snatch up some of the precious remaining tickets, they can be purchased for between $50 and $115 by contacting the Penguins' ticket office or visiting any Ticketmaster location. On their Web site, the Penguins offer a ticket-exchange program, where fans can purchase tickets from season-ticket holders.

Fans also can visit Web sites such as stubhub.com, where people sell their tickets, often for double and triple their face value.

Despite the rough economic times, when plenty of people are having a hard time paying a mortgage, let alone finding money for sports entertainment, the march of the Penguins continues at a record pace.

"We're amazed and humbled by it," Morehouse said. "That's why we're putting the best product on the ice that we can."
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.
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