SBJ/October 18-24, 2010/Facilities

Penguin palace

Pittsburgh brings high-tech to new home

Consol EnergyRenee Rosensteel
Walking along Centre Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, the road is as hilly as any other street in town but doesn’t appear much wider. In separating the Penguins’ new Consol Energy Center from much older Mellon Arena, though, it signifies just how far the NHL team has come in 10 years.

It also represents the long, hard road the Penguins took from the poorhouse to prosperity after Mario Lemieux, the team’s former star player, bought the bankrupt franchise in 1999 and began rebuilding the club and working toward a new arena.

Comparing the two arenas’ amenities, functionality and revenue generation, Centre Avenue’s crosswalk to Consol may as well stretch to Philadelphia.

It’s no secret Consol Energy Center carries all the latest high-tech bells and whistles and can accommodate the larger touring shows that had to bypass 49-year-old Mellon because of limitations related to its roof structure. Most important for the Penguins, the corporate community embraced the new venue.

The team doubled both the number of corporate partners and revenue derived from those deals. In turn, the Penguins jumped from the NHL’s bottom quarter in local sponsorship income to one of the league’s top five teams in that category, according to club officials.

In making that leap, the Penguins built a core group of eight founding partners whose deals are valued in the seven figures annually. The club also provided smaller investment opportunities for nontraditional sponsors, developing inventory without those firms having to worry about carrying the burden of a huge sponsorship.

One example is ATI, a local heavy metal manufacturer whose brand adorns the arena’s two Zambonis, tied to a military theme. The price of ATI’s deal was not disclosed, but industry sources valued such a deal in the mid-six figures.

All told, the Penguins now do business with 25 of the top 50 companies in the region, compared with 10 in the old arena, said David Peart, the team’s vice president in charge of sponsorships and premium-seat sales.

“It speaks volumes about the power of the Penguins’ brand in this marketplace,” Peart said. “The loyalty of the fan base is really what drives those decisions, and sports really has a significant part in the landscape in a market like Pittsburgh.”

He isn’t kidding. Companies and individuals snapped up every premium seat in the building in 2009 in the early stages of the Pens’ run to the Stanley Cup title, and the waiting list is at 7,000 for season tickets.

Those who bought suites, club seats and loge boxes get first crack at the pregame buffet at the Lexus Club, and the restaurant has been so popular that the Penguins are already searching for excess storage space to develop a second pregame meal destination, team President David Morehouse said.

Another tweak could come at the top of the upper deck, where the team sells 138 standing-room-only reserved tickets along a drink rail for bigger games. Penguins fans often stood upstairs at Mellon to watch the action, but in their new digs, the team could build an extra row of seats in the future, Morehouse said.

For SMG, the facility management firm that operated Mellon and joined the Penguins across the street to run Consol, there are simply fewer headaches.

General manager Jay Roberts sleeps better knowing there’s no chance the water pipes will leak beneath the ice floor, softening the surface and threatening the cancellation of a playoff game, as was the case at Mellon. Concert promoters pick up the phone with confidence, knowing they can bring their full productions to town. Paul McCartney, Consol’s first event, would not play Mellon because of its rigging restrictions.

For all involved, the arena opens new doors at the end of a long and winding road.

City: Pittsburgh
Owner: Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority
Operator: SMG
Architect: Populous
General contractor: PJ Dick-Hunt Construction joint venture
Cost: $321 million
Square footage: 720,000
Naming rights: Consol Energy, 21 years, valued by outside sources between $4 million and $5 million annually
Founding partners: Consol Energy, American Eagle Outfitters, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Highmark, PNC Wealth Management, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Trib Total Media, Verizon
Sponsored spaces: Cal U Conference Rooms (California University of Pennsylvania), Captain Morgan Club, First Niagara Club, Lexus Club, Miller Lite Brewhouse, PNC Legends Level
Number of seats: 18,087
Suites: 68
Club seats: 1,950
Loge box seats: 236
Food and retail concessionaire: Aramark
Scoreboard: Mitsubishi Electric

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