One year ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals offered unprecedented access to production crews for the HBO reality show “24/7”. The four-part series won a Sports Emmy Award for the glimpse it gave fans, reporters, and even team executives of a hockey world they had never seen before.
“None of us had ever been in the locker room when the coach addresses the players before the game,” says Penguins Vice President of Communications Tom McMillan, referring to the opening scene of 24/7 when Dan Bylsma rattles off his gameplan for that night.
“[General Manager] Ray Shero even told me he’d never been in the room before because that’s always been just the coach and the players,” McMillan says. “24/7 taught us a lot about our own team and our own game and how people are fascinated by that.”
The Penguins are regarded as one of the league’s most fan-friendly organizations. After the success of 24/7, CEO David Morehouse encouraged his staff find new ways to give fans more of the behind-the-scenes information and footage they crave.
“I don’t think anyone envisioned that we could become our own media outlet,” says McMillan, who has been with the Penguins since 1996 and spent his earlier career as a journalist covering the team for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The [mainstream] media remains vitally important, but we now have the ability to speak directly to our fans in a way that didn’t exist before. We’re realizing there are behind the scenes aspects that only we have access to and we’re trying to take advantage of that.”
Before the season, new Twitter accounts @PensInsideScoop (website writers Sam Kasan and Michelle Crechiolo) and @PensPRLady (PR Directors Jen Bullano and Jason Seidling) were created to pass along daily pictures, tidbits, and insight into life on the road with the team.
On Friday, a multi-part series in the spirit of 24/7 called ‘In the Room’ will debut on the team website. The series won’t have the monster budget of an HBO production (or the soothing voice of narrator Liev Schreiber), but it will take fans behind the scenes with the team like never before. Players will be wired for audio, cameras will be present behind closed doors, and fans will even get a look at players lives away from the arena.
The producer of the new show is Leo McCafferty, a Pittsburgh native who spent time with NFL Films under the tutelage of some of the industry’s best sports storytellers. McCafferty says he sees great potential for a series like this in his hometown. “This is a great hockey market and Penguins fans in general are clamoring for more information and media to digest. Our goal is to appeal to those hardcore hockey fans, but also to someone that doesn’t know a thing about the sport.”
Hockey’s highlight-reel goals and thunderous body checks are only a backdrop to the people and personalities that really create a team’s identity. When fans can identify with players on a personal level, McCafferty says they’re able to root for more than a name on the back of a jersey.
“Look at a guy like Ben Lovejoy,” he explains. “When his name is announced he gets a fantastic ovation. It may be hard for a fan to remember a specific play he made on the ice, but anyone that watched 24/7 remembers his smile and swollen face after getting hit with a puck. He was happy to take a shot to the face because that’s part of his job, and that endeared him to the people of this city forever.”
But while fans are certainly starved for information about their favorite players, teams are still searching for creative ways to distribute that material. There isn’t a lot of history when it comes to sports teams successfully creating their own reality shows — especially on the web.
“NFL Films is tried and true,” McCafferty says. “They’ve been doing shows like this for so long and have established platforms. ‘In the Room’ is a fairly new endeavor and one that we’re rolling out on the web initially to see if it gains traction and interests the fans like we think it will.”
As Vice President of Communications, McMillan says it isn’t hard to justify the investment in this type of programming as a method of marketing to a new generation of fans. “Younger people have grown up with much more connectivity than older generations,” he says, “and not just social media. When you look at the trends happening across all platforms, people want that connectivity.”
We’re inherently curious as a society and technology has opened the door to amazing new ways of connecting with friends and even our favorite celebrities.
Ask a question to a room full of teenagers armed with smart-phones and you’ll have the answer in seconds. Hop on Twitter during a weeknight in the summer and you might notice Penguins prospect Eric Tangradi hosting trivia contests for fans. Younger generations were born into a connected world and instead of appreciating the benefits, they’ve come to expect it. From their radio hosts. From their hockey team. From their President.
McMillan says the ability to produce a show like ‘In the Room’ has even changed dynamics of advertising.
“The challenge of advertising,” he says, “has always been wondering how much of it is spent on people who will never have an interest in your product. What this tool has done is allow you to market to people who actually want your information. If you’re coming to the Penguins website, you at least have some mild interest in the Penguins so you may be interested in our message.”
HBO had the ability to shape the story in 24/7 however they pleased, and a team creating their own show also has the advantage of controlling the message they spread to viewers. But McCafferty insists that creativity isn’t necessary when chronicling an organization like the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Our goal isn’t to make a story,” he says, “we want to tell a story as it happens. We’re all working towards a common goal and that’s displaying what we have in this building, on this team, behind the scenes, everything. We’re very excited about what we have going on here and we’re really just trying to display that to the fans.”
Episode 1, Part 1 of ‘In the Room’ (Parts 2 & 3 and future episodes available at penguins.nhl.com):