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Riverhounds scratch, claw for recognition

Sunday, April 15, 2001

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A dog knows how to get attention. Thrust his cold, wet nose in your face.

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds have jolted more than a few South Hills commuters recently with that invigorating experience -- minus the cold, wet part -- by pasting the sniffer of a friendly canine onto the sides of 100 Port Authority buses.

The campaign for In Your Face soccer is supposed to get the team in the faces of a lot more fans this year. In addition to the billboards, there'll be radio and TV spots starring the sniffing dog.

But getting face time from district fans may even require a little ankle biting, particularly for a team whose popularity already pales in comparison with the region's other professional sports teams. Added to that burden is the fact that rarely have so many sports marketers had so much to sell.

First, the Penguins trumped the hockey scene by putting superstar Mario Lemieux back on the ice. This fall, the already dominating force of the Steelers will get another boost when the football team moves into its as-yet-incognito stadium.

And, this spring and summer, the Riverhounds' 16 home games at Bethel Park High could easily get lost in the glare from the spotlight trained on the Pirates' stunning $262 million digs.

"Let's face it. This is a very competitive market," said Brian Tedeschi, principal/general manager of Strip District agency Think Communications Inc., where the sniffing dog idea was born.

"I mean, geez, you've got PNC Park. That is going to be the summer destination."

But there are no quitters allowed in the sports business, and very few professional teams are so confident of their popularity that they stop selling themselves.

The Pirates -- with 38,365 seats to fill more than 80 times each year -- are as focused on image building and ticket sales as the Riverhounds, who are trying to bring 5,300 to their matches.

While fans are oohing over their new seats or ahing over the latest hat trick/goal/double play/touchdown, the vice presidents of marketing and public relations managers fret. Are there enough youngsters in the crowd? Is everyone having a good time catching T-shirts? Is the mascot huggable? Do people understand the new guidelines about the strike zone?

Even the Steelers have issues, which seems kind of odd for a team that has sold out all its tickets for the past 29 years. Moving from a 58,000-seat stadium to one with 65,000 chairs barely dented the waiting list.

Like any coach on a winning streak, Tony Quatrini, Steelers director of marketing, has found something to worry about.

Sure, the other teams have to work harder to sell seats. But, "It also is an advantage because you're able to expose your product to more people."

Branded

If you want to make money as a sports team, the first challenge is to introduce yourself to everyone. Let them know who you are. Or, as the marketing types say, establish your brand.

The local champions? Likely the Steelers.

In a national survey last year, the football team on the North Shore ranked seventh among most favored professional teams. That includes other NFL teams, baseball teams, basketball teams, hockey teams. All professional teams.

Not coincidentally, the Steelers ranked 10th in NFL-licensed merchandise sales in 2000, despite a less-than-stellar season.

Most Pittsburghers don't name drop the Riverhounds yet. The 3-year-old soccer team isn't surprised when people haven't heard of it or don't realize it plays professional soccer. "In Canada, this is division one," said Cliff Gorski, vice president of corporate communications for the Riverhounds' parent company Alliance Soccer.

It'll take more than buying radio air time to become somebody.

Even before the franchise chose a name, the owners hired consultants from BD&E, a Downtown design and marketing agency, to figure out who this team would be when it grows up.

The personality, it was decided, would be aggressive -- playing hard, exciting games with a lot of offense -- but also family friendly and "cool." That should appeal to 6- to 16-year-olds who might encourage their whole families to come.

A contest (yes, a marketing opportunity) produced the Riverhounds name, which made everyone happy by tapping into Pittsburgh's traditional focus on its three rivers and bringing in the always popular dog thing.

BD&E then had to craft a logo to serve the Riverhounds for the next 20 years, much as the stylized Penguin does, or the Steelers' three diamond-shaped steel elements. The artists drew a hard-charging, yet cartoonish hound immersed in river waves. His red and brown hues set the tone for the team's uniforms and merchandise.

"That was a strategic decision, not to make them black and gold," said Jeffrey S. Flick, a principal at BD&E. The choice meant the Hounds couldn't tap into the region's established professional sports identity, but it also allows the soccer fans' jerseys to stand out in a Pittsburgh crowd.

Building a network of friends takes time.

Heck, Major League Baseball -- or MLB -- has been around for years, but it's still working on brand building.

Earlier this month, the league rolled out a warm, fuzzy ad campaign filled with images of cute kids, hot dogs, cheering fans and many other good things. The piece ends with a shot of the league's red-white-and-blue logo.

"We want to get that acronym into the vernacular," said John Sheehan, a former Pittsburgher who helped land the account for ad agency FCB Worldwide, San Francisco. "People don't say, 'I'm going to watch MLB' like they do NFL."

Fans in training

When Pittsburgh-based Marc USA's Indianapolis office got the assignment to promote Hoosier Park, a parimutuel racing track, there was a bit of a problem. Indiana -- a big basketball and football state -- didn't have much history with the horses.

Many people didn't even know how to make a bet, said Dan Forst, senior public relations manager for Caldwell Van Riper/Marc.

So the track, which opened in 1994, runs seminars on betting and handicapping races. Brochures on how to put a few bucks on a likely stallion are available.

You can't sell a sport if people don't get it.

The Penguins this year provided street hockey equipment to five rec centers so children there could learn to play. The youngsters have fun, and they begin to understand hockey.

"If you're not exposed to it, you're probably not going to like it," said Tom McMillan, Penguins' vice president of communication and marketing.

The NHL team, which handles its own creative work in-house, has used its very international roster to create a Web-based geography program used by schools. For example, an Internet user could use the team's Web site to learn more about the Czech Republic, the native land of six Penguins players.

"A lot of what you do is try to build future fans," said McMillan.

In strategic marketing, that also may mean coming up with creative ways to get budding fans past the expense and into the seats, where they can best develop an addiction.

A family of four can see the Riverhounds, even buy popcorn and drinks, for around $50. And probably get a few autographs from the players, who hang out and sign until the line is gone.

Attendance at a Pirates game for a family of four -- including food, parking, programs and caps -- ran $108 last year, according to industry publication Team Marketing Report. For the Penguins, the estimate came in at $254.

It's one reason new owner Lemieux created the family section, where an adult paying $25 could bring several kids for $10 each. Another marketing idea that's been around awhile: letting college students get cheap seats if they're willing to stand in line and take what's available an hour before the puck hits the ice.

Pity the poor Steelers. They're basically forced to connect with the next generation through televised games or player appearances at groceries and car dealerships. While the trademarked diamonds are a hot fashion item in the region's schools, the football team wants more contact.

"We believe that to perpetuate this passion that Pittsburgh has for our football team, it's important for us to make sure we address the youth," Quatrini said.

In developing the new stadium, the Steelers invited more than 60 Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League championship high schools to create murals. The art was then transferred to tiles that will be permanently displayed in the facility.

Plus, the team plans to make its Great Hall concourse into a mix of retail and entertainment that fans -- even those who may never snag a ticket to see Jerome Bettis play -- can visit year-round.

Having fun yet?

If it's Friday night at a Mahoning Valley Scrappers game, the fans in Hawaiian shirts are ready to party down to Jimmy Buffett tunes.

Sure, they like baseball, but really they just want to have fun.

"At this level, the event itself is much more important than the win and loss records," said Jim Winner, whose Sharon-based Winner Advertising handles marketing for the Niles, Ohio, minor-league team.

Marketers have latched onto that theory at all levels of sports. No team wins all the time. If you're going to fill the seats, make sure the fans have plenty to do besides watch the guys on the field.

The Pirates, the Penguins, the Riverhounds compete with each other, but they're also up against the nightclubs in the Strip District, the latest Tom Hanks movie or even an evening of miniature golf with the kids.

So before the latest season started, the Penguins invested in lighting system changes at Mellon Arena that allow more drama. Moving spotlights now shoot messages across the ice. Dropping prizes on the audience or hosting minicontests between periods also keeps people interested.

The new PNC Park has real grass for the aficionados, but it also has an Outback Steakhouse with windows overlooking the field, a billiards room and child-friendly plans for a life-size replica of a pirate ship with virtual-reality pitching and batting cages, rope courses and other games.

The Riverhounds' payroll includes cheerleaders and a mascot. They're also trying to build rivalries with teams from Hershey and Rochester, N.Y., to nurture a bit of passion in the fans. They'll have deals to televise only three games this year, and two of them will be against Rochester.

It may look like sports, but it all comes back to marketing.

Just ask the Steelers. Quatrini doesn't mind when people scream over the radio air waves about how Coach Bill Cowher chose the wrong quarterback for that key play.

"We're glad that they're calling into the talk shows talking about us rather than not caring about us."



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