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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

Investing In The Downturn

March 4, 2003

The term predates Mark Twain and may precede Shakespeare as well. Predominately a theater term, it's called "papering a house," and it's something the Penguins would be wise to acquaint themselves with immediately.

The idea is simple. Say you have a very important person coming to see your show before it opens to the public, a critic for the New York Times perhaps, or maybe the Queen of England. If you sit this person all alone in the theater how will they know when to laugh, or cry, or cheer, besides how many pints of ale can one queen really throw back anyway? Hey, beer vendors have families too.

No, what you want is your VIP to experience the show as it's meant to be seen—with a full house ready to roar.

The solution, let in a large audience for next to nothing. That's right, cheap and complimentary tickets to fill up the venue around your VIPs. After all, who's more ready to enjoy a show than someone who didn't need to splurge coming in the door?

Consider the value, if an $80 seat you couldn't afford is suddenly in your price range, aren't you a little more willing to go? Also, if you pay $20 and don't receive an $80 performance, will you really be all that disappointed?

Papering the house not only opens up access, it lets the actors play to a capacity crowd instead of a few half-interested clock-watchers sprinkled across so many empty seats. On top of that, it's motivational. Who cares if you mail it in when nobody's watching, but when the place is packed . . .

Face it, a certain amount of self-delusion is a good thing. The self-billed 'intellect' behind this column starts off every year fully expecting to win the Pulitzer then crack People Magazine's 'Sexiest People Alive Right This Minute' list. But at a certain point—usually as soon as the award's been given out and the magazine hits the stands—even he looks toward next year.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are not going to the playoffs this season. After they traded Alexei Kovalev they knew that, you knew that, and most of North America knew that. But the dream officially died somewhere between a blowout in Nashville last week and an opening faceoff in Dallas over the weekend, so now it's time to move on.

Until their last game in April, the Penguins' goal will not be to win, but to audition talent for next season and showcase veterans as trade bait. Is this what sold all those season tickets months ago? Hardly, but it raises a good point.

In any sport, winning brings both an increase in ticket demand and an increase in ticket price. Win for long enough and you can almost turnover your entire fan base (which isn't necessarily a good thing). Yet it's not a team's job to vet their fan base. Whether they're playing to suits and ties or work boots and overalls, as long as the seats are filled the team is going to be happy.

However, corporate largesse and fans who come only to be seen, these things go away when a team goes into the tank. Frontrunners like a winner and if they can't have it, the find something else to blow their disposable income on. This is when a franchise needs the true fan—the one who may have been priced out of the building during the glory years.

So what's a team to do?

How about chopping ticket prices in half and papering the house for the rest of the season?

It's widely accepted that the people who've supported the Penguins the longest are precisely the ones who've been hit hardest by increased ticket prices and the current economy. Why not give these fans a break for the rest of this season? Why not reach out specifically to the fans this team will to so-desperately need in the next few years?

Let kids under twelve in for $5. Let anybody with a student ID in for $10. Leave blocks of complimentary tickets at Will Call for schools and charities. Let companies stuck with tickets they can't give away turn in lower level seats for a credit toward next year's tab and sell every available seat in the house for twenty-something bucks on a first come, first serve basis.

It may take cut-rate tickets to fill the building, but if the end result is still a full building, the team wins.

It's time for the Penguins to create Penguin fans, as many as possible. They'll replace the ones who can't bear to live without the spotlight, and while the squad may not be exactly winning people over on the ice, who's to say fans won't come out if you offer to meet them half way? Everybody says that the best way to make more hockey fans is by sitting them in the arena not in front of a television. Why not make that easier if only for a few games?

In essence, if the objective of the team on the ice is going to change, why shouldn't the objective of the team off the ice change with it?

Nobody's saying it has to be permanent, there are only eight home games left in the season—including tonight's game versus Phoenix—so it's not as if anybody's going to expect such deals to carry over into next season. But it's something that might draw crowd, and right now it's tough to think of anything the Penguins need much more than that.

Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season, that is, when he's not implementing a risky strategy he's dubbed "papering a bedroom." At press time no further details were available.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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