On Friday, May 16th, it was Ray Shero vs. David Morehouse. David Morehouse won, ushering in a new era in Penguins franchise history. Right?
In the summer of 2009, we were at the Penguins Stanley Cup DVD premiere at the Loew’s theaters down in Homestead. During some downtime where everyone was showing how nice and affable they can be, we were introduced to David Morehouse by a mutual friend.
FRIEND: “Hey, these are the guys that run The Pensblog.”
MOREHOUSE: (To friend) “Oh, on the website for us?” (To us, shaking our hands) “Great work. Glad you could make it down today.”
FRIEND: “No, they do that fan blog. They don’t work for us.”
MOREHOUSE: “I’ll tell you the first time I heard the word ‘blog.’ It was during John Kerry’s 2004 campaign. We thought it was pronounced ‘bloge’.”
EVERYONE WITHIN EARSHOT:
It left us with a very strange impression of the man, but we couldn’t have cared less. The Pens had just won the Cup, and everyone saw Morehouse (and his political background) as nothing more than a suit brought in a couple years previously to help the Pens land a new arena. And, hey, the Pens got a new arena.
At the time of that meeting, David Morehouse was the President of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Roughly a year later, Ken Sawyer retired, and Morehouse became the President and CEO.
Morehouse has stayed away from the product the Pens put on the ice. He’s initiated programs like the players delivering season tickets, the pre-season game where kids get a free ticket, and the youth-hockey programs cropping up all across Southwestern PA.
Morehouse’s profile on the Pens’ website attributes the following to him:
– Since Morehouse was named President in April, 2007, the Penguins have reshaped their image and strategic vision with an emphasis on branding, fan relations, youth marketing, community interaction, corporate outreach and innovative technology.
– An emphasis on branding and marketing, coupled with the team’s success on the ice, enabled the Penguins to lead all U.S.-based NHL, NBA and MLB teams in local television ratings during the 2012-13 season. The Penguins’ rating of 12.66 was the highest achieved by any U.S.-based NHL, NBA or MLB team on a regional sports network since 2002.
– The Penguins have sold out every game for six-plus seasons, a streak that had reached 286 games before the start of the 2013-14 season. They also have sold out all suites for five-plus seasons and actually increased capacity at CONSOL Energy Center by 300 seats (to 18,387) after the arena’s inaugural season in 2010-11.
Something tells us this list wouldn’t be so impressive if Dick Tarnstrom was the Pens’ leading scorer, but we’re also not prepared to completely strip Morehouse of any credit for these accomplishments. There’s a middle ground in there somewhere.
THE RISE OF DAVID MOREHOUSE
You Google David Morehouse, and there are two prominent things you have to read: this Gene Collier piece from 2010 and this 2014 Sports Business Daily profile. Both hit on the same talking points. They are quote farms from prominent politicians saying that Morehouse is a clutch performer in stressful situations. They discuss Morehouse’s go-get-‘em personality being the primary reason for his ascension.
Morehouse has gone from a boilermaker in Brookline to driving Presidential motorcades to spending all of his time on Air Force One with Bill Clinton…to becoming the third member of the current Penguins Trinity.
WHAT MOREHOUSE DOES RIGHT NOW
“We learned that our brand assets were energy, drive and innovation,” Morehouse said. “We vertically integrated that into everything we do: the music we play, the fonts we used, the advertising we do, the way we talk about the team. What I’ve learned from Ron and Mario is that fans are not customers; they’re shareholders. Fans are investing their money, but also their emotion and their time. That’s why we invest heavily in community outreach: to win the next generations of fans.”
In one of the profiles we linked to above, Morehouse mentioned contacting a Minnesota-based firm to point the Penguins in the direction they wanted to go in terms of energy, drive, and innovation. This is all why CONSOL has Pantera and Slayer blasting during stoppages in play and why the fonts in marketing materials look like they’re going to come alive and steal your car. The move to the new arena gave the Pens a golden chance to change some things up, and they’ve done just that. We still think it’s primarily window dressing, though. People buying tickets because the fonts are aggressive are in for a pleasant surprise when they realize Sidney Crosby plays for the Penguins.
He’s also in charge of the not-so-great arena development situation.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
An observation that’s been picking up steam from the very first day in CONSOL is that the Penguins have overdone it. In the wake of the Pens’ recent loss to the Rangers, Sean Conboy released a great piece titled “R.I.P. Corporate Penguins.”
“This where Imagine Dragons montages fail. This is where ‘In the Room’ propaganda fails.”
Since the move to CONSOL, it feels like the Penguins are trying to become more than a professional sports team. It feels like Morehouse is in charge of trying to reinvent how a sports team is run.
But is all the corporate branding beginning to fall flat due to the on-ice product not meeting expectations?
— Mikey (@fsmikey) May 13, 2014
The Penguins had to give away tickets for a second-round Game 7.
Give. Away. Tickets.
If they’re giving away tickets, what does that mean for the Sellout Streak™? We’re not sure how all that works, but you have to wonder if anything’s being done behind the scenes to keep that streak alive. All visiting media members are reminded of the sellout streak so they can go back and tell their villages about it, but what happens when that streak dies?
MY KEYS JANGLING
This dropped in the aftermath of the Ray Shero termination on Friday:
— Mike Colligan (@MikeColligan) May 17, 2014
Before Friday, the GM reported straight to the top. But now the GM will report to Morehouse. This is an immediate structural change, which becomes even more curious when you read this:
The Penguins’ next general manager will report to Morehouse, who believes a team CEO is allowed to have a say in hockey decisions. However, Morehouse said he doesn’t want to make the hockey decisions.
Morehouse doesn’t want to make hockey decisions, yet the Penguins changed their organization to give him the power to do so. Then there’s this from the Sports Business Journal profile:
Morehouse’s background is in communications, whereas many team presidents and CEOs come from a legal or financial sector. As a result, his process in management is to be hands-off in the areas of the Penguins’ business that don’t play to his strengths. (“I know what I do not know,” he said.)
On Friday, May 16, Darren Dreger appeared on a TSN podcast and said this:
“Morehouse has wanted a larger role in hockey operations, even though you’d think President and CEO was enough. Maybe he gets that wish.”
And check out this quote from Morehouse about people who work under him:
“Those guys, when they hear my keys jangling as I walk down the hall, I have a feeling they’re thinking, ‘Oh no. Here he comes again,’” Morehouse said with a laugh.
If we’re reading what we think we’re reading, the new GM will be in that group of people who will piss themselves when they hear David Morehouse’s keys jangling.
FRIDAY AND CONTROLLING THE MESSAGE
It’s been bugging the hell out of us, and it’s been bugging every Pens fan we’ve talked to. Why was Ray Shero fired and Dan Bylsma spared?
Think about how Friday went down. All the big boys reported the same thing:
PIT will announce this morning GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma have been fired. #TSN
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) May 16, 2014
Changes at GM and coach in PIT
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 16, 2014
Darren Dreger and other national media were coming out with the same stuff, as well. It’s extremely rare that these guys miss. So when they do, someone probably lied. Someone was playing a game.
And we think we know who.
We caught this chilling portion of the Morehouse press conference on Friday:
Morehouse stops the second question, asked by Rob Rossi, and says to Rossi, “First of all, before you — I read on Twitter it was your birthday, but you can’t believe everything on Twitter. Is it your birthday?”
We had to transcribe that ourselves, of course, because it wasn’t in the official transcript on the Penguins’ website. It’s easily one of the most bizarre things we’ve ever seen at a Penguins press conference, and it reeked of “Wow. We played all of you like a drum. Rob, go ahead.”
If you’ve been following the Pens over the last five of six years, then you know they’ve become really obsessed with their branding and controlling the message. Given Morehouse’s political background, we all should have seen this coming a mile away. Nowadays, the Penguins would much rather break their own news on their website or in a press conference than have a journalist report it in a newspaper or on the Internet.
Morehouse no question played the media in some way, shape, or form here, and it’s something they won’t soon forget. Darren Dreger has already taken a shot at Morehouse in his quote above, and then Elliotte Friedman made sure the Pens’ caps woes were front and center in his 30 Thoughts column Sunday night. It’s only a matter of time when even media members will hate hearing those keys jangling because they will never know what’s real or what’s being fed to them.
Take note of the two David Morehouse profiles we linked earlier. They were written four years apart and are oddly similar in detail. The Collier piece was written in August 2010. Morehouse took over the Pens’ CEO duties in September 2010.
The date on the Sports Business Journal profile: April 14, 2014.
These profiles weren’t just profiles; they were precursors of additional power. Morehouse was given more power in 2010, and now he’s set to be given even more power in the Penguins organization.
David Morehouse is well on his way to being involved in hockey operations, and that should terrify Pens fans. Overall, this whole thing stinks for a million reasons. In Friedman’s 30 Thoughts we linked above, he discusses the Pens’ vacant GM position:
Owners Ron Burkle/Mario Lemieux and CEO David Morehouse wished to regain control. Lemieux’s extensive knowledge leads to questions of whether this will be similar to the Trevor Linden/Brendan Shanahan setups. Whoever goes in there will want to know, “How much authority do I have?”
This post isn’t some personal attack on David Morehouse. It’s just that all Pens fans see his face and hear his voice when big news happens, but 95% of Pens fans have no idea who he is, and he’s silently become a big player in the Pens’ decision-making. It seems like he’s used to making decisions, but now he could be making hockey decisions.