2014 SFF: Featured interview with Penguins CEO David Morehouse

From politics to sports, how innovation fuels success

Pittsburgh Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse sat today for a special one-on-one interview to close out the 2014 Veritix Sports Facilities and Franchises Conference, and said the club's recent and hotly debated dismissal of GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma was driven not strictly by the lack of a Stanley Cup title since ’09, but by recent, repeated failures in the playoffs.

"Management felt like we've unperformed over the last five years," Morehouse said. "It's not just not winning Stanley Cups - we know it's the hardest trophy in sports to win - but how we've lost in the playoffs the last five years...It just didn't work in the playoffs the way we thought it should with the talent we had, and we owed it to our fans to try a different way."

Morehouse, however, did acknowledge that missteps may have been made in how the information surrounding the change was disclosed, marked by several erroneous press reports, and suggested the furor around the moves highlighted a fast-changing media landscape.
"There is a blurring of the lines between print media, individual blogs and Twitter,” he said. “There used to be a distinction...But the people consuming the information, they don't distinguish between the three mediums.”

The Pittsburgh native is often in the crosshairs of local media scrutiny, as Penguins owners Mario Lemeiux and Ron Burkle typically do not speak to the press. Morehouse said that strategy predates his arrival. "This has nothing to do with me," he said. "Mario had his time in the spotlight. He doesn't like to be in the spotlight now. Ron is a businessman, and has not been one to want to be in the spotlight. Frankly, I try not to do a lot of press either.”

Morehouse boasts a unique and diverse background compared to most senior sports industry executives, previously working as a boilermaker and adviser to former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. But he relishes his current role. "My worst day is better than my best day as a boilermaker," he said. "But I still have a trade to fall back on. I'm still a certified welder."

Morehouse said of Clinton, "He was the smartest person I've ever worked for. You can disagree with his politics or personal choices, but he deeply cares about the American people." And of Gore, he said, "Al was very detail oriented, you couldn't bluff anything. I had to be very prepared, because he's thinking about more than what you're telling him. I learned that I needed to do my homework."

With the Penguins essentially maxed out on traditional revenue lines, the club under Morehouse is eagerly seeking out alternate income streams, such as a planned mixed use development across the street from Consol Energy Center on the site of the former Mellon Arena. The club is aiming to begin construction on the site early next year. "In a market the size of Pittsburgh, we have to make more money [in other ways] because we can't just raise ticket prices," Morehouse said.

Morehouse also discussed the development and refinement of the Penguins brand, and how it differs from the Steelers, even as he expressed deep reverence for the Rooney family and the Steelers' accomplishments. "The essence of this brand is energy, drive and innovation,” he said. “We've embraced being different. The Penguins are the future of Pittsburgh, and we've built our whole business plan around it.”
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