Ep. 53: Pittsburgh Penguins Fan Engagement and Content Creation Mindset with Leo McCafferty
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Leo McCafferty, Senior Director, Marketing and Content for the Pittsburgh Penguins, joins Rob Cressy to talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins fan engagement and content creation mindset. How has the Penguins fan engagement mindset changed over the last four months with the pandemic? What is the current state of sports fandom? How do the Penguins think about creating content on multiple platforms? From a content perspective, what has his eye right now and where are there opportunities? What is it like marketing around Sidney Crosby?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to the GameDay Playbook, presented by FanFood. A discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host, Rob Cressy, and joining me today is Leo McCafferty, Senior Director of Marketing and Content for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Leo, great to have you on the show.
Leo McCafferty: (00:32)
Rob, thanks so much for having me. Looking forward to the conversation.
Rob Cressy: (00:35)
Can you give a quick overview of who you are and what you do?
Leo McCafferty: (00:40)
Sure. So, a brief synopsis is, I started my career at NFL Films out of college, was a producer there for five years. Learned a lot about storytelling and in the industry there. I have a lot of credit to the folks there. In 2011, I'm originally from Pittsburgh was interested in moving back and there was an opportunity that came about where they were looking to capitalize on the Road to the Winter Classic 24/7 show that the NHL and HBO produced that year. The Penguins, Capitals lead up to the winter classic.
And a lot of my background was behind the scenes television like that with a Hard Knocks also on HBO. So, David Morehouse, our President and CEO wanted to create something like that, internal, all year round that we would always be able to share to our fans. And that's how I got my start with the penguins. So, we created a show called In The Room, which is been in up and running since the 2011 season. And and I started in more of a production role and have sort of morphed over into a marketing and content role. Now, I still have my hands in the TV show and the production side of things. Certainly, storytelling is the thread throughout my career. So, that's a brief elevator pitch of who I am and how I got to where I am today.
Rob Cressy: (02:06)
I absolutely love it. I'm really excited about this conversation for a few reasons. One, I am from Pittsburgh. I am a diehard Penguins fan. I am currently wearing a Pittsburgh Penguin shirt because who would I be as a host to not make my guests feel comfortable? Plus, I'm a yinzer they only raise you one way in Pittsburgh. And the shirt I'm currently wearing is HBK. Leo, can you give the quick story you gave me before we started recording about HBK? Cause I thought it was interesting and fun.
Leo McCafferty: (2:38)
Sure. So, if you look back on championship teams, there are always a few moments, a few elements of those teams that stand out and it may not always be the best player or even the best goal, the best game, whatever. So, in 2016, our third line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel, a lot of people forget but it was an injury to Evgeni Malkin late in the season that caused that line to be formed.
And once that line came together, they were just magical and they played unbelievably and their surnames spell out the acronym HBK. So, they became the HBK line and as the playoffs grew, so did their popularity. So, in the Stanley Cup Final the original HBK, Shawn Michaels caught wind of the fact that there was a line on our team that was named after him. Now, I don't know that he'd been to Pittsburgh since SummerSlam at 94, which I was a young kid and very happy to attend and cheer him on, but he came to Pittsburgh for a game and I met him in one of our conference rooms prior to the game. And it was personally, maybe one of the highlights of that run. I'm a little ashamed to admit it but I was a huge fan of his when I was a kid. So, having him there was this weird worlds colliding moment. We're about to play a Stanley Cup Final game, and here is Shawn Michaels cheering us on. And it was a really cool moment.
Rob Cressy: (04:08)
How does something like that actually get coordinated? Because by the way, I grew up an eighties child, loving wrestling. I was at that summer slam and my dad always makes the joke about how good of a dad he was because my dad didn't care about wrestling. I'm 14 years old, I want to see SummerSlam. No joke within one minute of being there some dude spills a beer all over my dad's lap. He's never let me forget that. But I'm curious, like how does a reaching out to Shawn Michaels and getting a non-Pittsburgh fan, now a celebrity, to sort of embrace it because you're right. We see this across multiple championship teams and runs from a rally squirrel to Shawn Michaels where all of a sudden there's something else that defines this run and it gets brought in.
Leo McCafferty: (04:55)
Well, the power of social media today is one where people can be connected instantaneously. So, Shawn Michaels, we didn't have to explain too much of this to him because people were sending him links, were sending him tweets, were commenting on things. So, he sort of organically got brought into this conversation. So, when we reached out to him, he was aware of what it was, he was aware of the draw. And he was aware of the amount of fans, both Shawn Michaels fans, and Penguins fans that were sort of all in on this. I think he was a little honored that we were including him in this grand spectacle. And he came and he befriended Brett Kiesel. They were sitting next to each other, I think they've been hunting since. So, it is the landscape and the world and the environment we live in. It gives us the ability to connect with people so quickly.
I don't think 10 years ago we could have made that happen because it did come together really quickly. But we offered for him to come up to the game. If we would fly him in and set them up with some seeds and show him on the scoreboard and he did his little flex and his dance and the city just loved it and they kind of embraced it. It was sort of an organic moment that was really unique and it was something memorable for that run.
Rob Cressy: (06:13)
And it was memorable to this guy right here. One of those Shawn Michaels, Penguins fans because you could not have scripted a better person to be a Penguins fan during the Stanley Cup run. I'm like, Shawn Michaels? Sign me up. We’re not here just to talk about HBK. I actually want to give some quick background because you and I were actually supposed to do a podcast four months ago, and I have the exact date, March 11. And what was interesting about this was this was right when the pandemic started. I looked at the email you sent to me, and you said, Rob, we're currently planning on doing games with no fans in the stands or the contingency around it. I don't think now is the best time. Which I understood given everything that you guys are doing. And literally did either of us know, four months later where we would be at right now.
So, I think there are a few things I want to jam with you about. Sort of your fan engagement mindset as a whole, because as a penguins fan I see everything that you guys do and you do it with excellence as someone who's a creator, who pays attention to fan engagement. You guys do an amazing job, but we can also look forward to where we are now because the landscape has changed because there's going to be the Stanley Cup Playoffs are starting in August 1st, and there's going to be no fans anywhere. It's a unique landscape. So, let's start and go back to March 11th and sort of, where things were then.
Leo McCafferty: (07:44)
Yeah, I was bummed to cancel that at that time or postpone it, but everything was happening so quickly. I remember cleaning up dinner with my wife on whatever that Wednesday night was and she said, Whoa, the NBA just suspended the season. And at that moment I knew that things were going to change. They were changing so rapidly. I think that every one out of an abundance of precaution did the right thing. And just sort of said, let's pause and let's see where this thing goes. At the core of who we are, we’re a hockey team and the fans are really the reason that we're able to do what we do. They're the reason that our ownership spends to the cap because they support us in a way that is almost unimaginable.
So, from the moment that we knew that hockey was being paused, we were sent home from work on a Thursday and said we're going to work remotely for the immediate future. That Friday morning we got on a video conference, us as a marketing group, and said, what are we gonna do to keep our fans engaged? What are we going to do to bring people hockey, bring people, Penguins information and news that we can do to sort of help them bridge this gap because there were no live sports, there was nothing. So, it has sort of evolved over the last four months. We started re-airing classic games and we were live-tweeting those classic games like they were happening in real-time. We re-aired all of our wins from our five Stanley Cup Championships. We produced an in-house 50th-anniversary documentary, which we re-aired. Which sort of tells the story of the Penguins and how they came to be.
It's a great story of almost tragedy and triumph that was almost fitting of the times. How are we going to get through this and triumph at the end? So, thankfully last week with the news that the NHL put out that there is some optimism we are moving forward. There is going to be a Stanley Cup Playoff, and hopefully, we're going to award a Stanley Cup this year. So, now our focus has shifted from the sort of past to present and future. The team took the ice this week with the start of training camp. So, we're bringing our fans sort of as much as we can as to what's happening on the ice now. What the team's doing to prepare to head to Toronto. What life is going to be like in this hub city. They're going to be living in a bubble essentially.
We thankfully are able to have one content person that sort of travels with the team and is going to be with the team. That's something that we're grateful for because there are a very limited number of people who are able to travel and be with the team. So, we're looking forward to the content that we're able to get once we get to Toronto if it's going to be different than what we've had before, but I think the access might be better because of the circumstances that we're in. If all things go according to plan it's going to be a sports fan’s haven. There's going to be games. There's going to be three to six games a day for a stretch of time, and it's going to be like March madness, but it's going to be the Stanley Cup Playoffs which I would argue is maybe the best thing and all the sports. The excitement and the intensity, the passion in which these games are played, it's going to be something to behold and I'm really excited. I'm really excited that our fans are going to have that to experience because it's going to be something like we've never done before.
So, what we can do is just keep them engaged as best we can. Keep them up to date as best we can. Continue to bring them places where they can't be. Because to us, that's sort of the crux of what we would like to do and what we think is good content. Bringing our fans to the place where they can't go and to humanize our players and to have our fans be able to relate to them as people, not just as hockey players.
Rob Cressy: (12:02)
How do you look at the current state of fandom? Because it has certainly changed. And for me, as someone who's watched virtually every game that Sydney Crosby has ever played, I'm as all in as it gets and I miss sports so much. Are you guys able to think from the fan perspective, because you're also fans of this team on top of doing a job? What do you think the current state of fandom is going to be like or is it right now?
Leo McCafferty: (12:34)
Yeah, that's something that I always try and think about. I think no matter what you're doing in life, you can be so caught up in what is happening at the moment and sometimes you need to take a step back and realize that this is my career, this is my profession and not every fan is going to be as dialed into every nuance piece of information. So, what we need to do is just provide as much as we can to our fans and they consume what they want to consume. With the knowledge, they're not going to consume every single thing that we put out there and that we need to be aware of that and sort of speak with that kind of tone. I think that at the start of all of this when things were paused, there was a desire and a whole that live sports left and that those real games provided that for a while.
As time went on, I think that the fans may have gotten a little bit tired of those and they just wanted real sports and real content. So, it may have dipped a little bit, but I think that when these games come back and live sports return, especially in hockey, that the fandom may be as strong as ever. There's a hole that's that's there that we're going to fill for people. I think the sort of the buildup to all of this and what's been absent for the past four months is going to create a level of excitement that we haven't seen in a long time. In our sport, to go from nothing right into the playoffs is really intense.
It's something that the team is preparing for. And I think as content creators and as marketers, we need to be prepared as well. We also build up throughout the course of the season and we are ready at the start of the playoffs. This pause has given us time to plan, but it also has, we haven't had any games and we haven't had any real news up until recently to talk about. So, the same goes for us as where we need to be prepared to put our best foot forward and bring our fans as much content, as much access as we can once these games start.
Rob Cressy: (14:52)
Can you talk about your mindset around creating content and engaging fans on multiple platforms? Sort of reaching the audience where they are, whether from Instagram to Snapchat, to Facebook, to podcast, to video. There's a lot of different ways that teams and brands can engage fans. I think that the penguins do it amazingly. You also have a highly engaged fan base. The Penguins have over 600 straight sellouts, drawing more than 10 million fans over that time. So, talk to me a little bit more about the multi-platform mindset.
Leo McCafferty: (15:29)
So, we try and have a presence on as many platforms and places as we can be. We're also conscious that the consumers on each of those platforms are different people. So, we don't try and put out one piece of content and just blast it out on all of these different platforms. We try and curtail some things and create certain things for those platforms.
Whether it's a younger demographic, whether it's a more avid fan, whether it's someone who's interested in a short engagement, whether it's someone who's sitting down and wants to invest 30 minutes of their time, all of those factors come into play. Our social media team is unbelievable. They have many tools that allow them to look at the metrics, look at the numbers, look at the conversion rate, whether we're trying to push tickets, or just push content. So, we have a lot of different thoughts and processes in terms of how we're putting out content and where we're putting it out. The show that I mentioned at the beginning, we produced a 30 minute TV show for our local RSN. Now we take snippets of that and we put it on these different platforms because they're consumable in shorter snippets there and those folks on Instagram, they're not interested in sitting down and watching a 23-minute television show. So, we're mindful of our audience and where they're consuming our content and we try and do the best job that we can to give those fans the content that they're looking for on the platforms in which they're living in.
Rob Cressy: (17:08)
Can you dig a little bit deeper into the process side of things and more specifically, a team or a brand that might not have the resources that the penguins have, but at the same time they've got a fan base and they want to engage them. I'm someone who's very processed oriented because when it comes to fan engagement in content creation, you need to do the same process or a similar process over and over and over again in the process is actually what allows you to be better and to create more. So, what advice would you have for someone who may not have the resources, but still would like to put a process in place that can help them scale this fan engagement?
Leo McCafferty: (17:48)
From a team perspective, I always think that the fans they want access to, they want to hear from the players. The players in the organization, they are the biggest asset. When you look at pro sports, that's what the business is. The business is the sport. What we do and what our responsibility is to grow the game and to bring fans places they can't be. To make them more interested in a player or in the team. So, the piece of advice I guess I would say is that the more that you can endear yourself, whether it's a team of one person or a team of 10 people, to the team itself, the players, the coaches, the general manager, the operations, the training staff and sort of allow them to understand that you're on the same team with them, and that you're trying to do things to put the team and the players in a good light, because we're all in this together. Then the more access they will give you. Speaking personally, from where we were in 2011 when I started, to where we are now in terms of a comfort level with the team itself, it's night and day. They know us and they trust us, and they allow us to capture things that they would not have even thought about 10 years ago. Because they know that we have their best interest at heart, and that we are all members of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
We're trying to promote the team, the players, and we're trying to grow our fan base. I think that that's the one piece of advice that I would have. If you have the ability to sort of grow your relationships and grow your trust with the team itself, that will take you places that you would never have imagined going and the resources there then don't matter as much because if you're in, you’re in.
Rob Cressy: (19:52)
From a forward-thinking perspective, what's on your mind for content creation? Because from when you started until now, a lot has changed, but as creators and as a team, we're always looking to say, what's next? What are the other areas that we can engage with? So, I'm curious to hear from you sort of what's on your mind, or what are you looking at right now?
Leo McCafferty: (20:15)
The one thing that I just saw that it was very interesting I thought was a rookie for the Philadelphia 76ers. He captured content himself on his travel to the NBA level and now he is editing and essentially producing his own video series. It's sort of a blog of what it's like inside the bubble. I think that's probably where things are going. If you think about kids today, they're very comfortable in the YouTube world. They're very comfortable creating their own content. They are very comfortable being part of the story. The older generation is not that comfortable with it. They don't have that, I don't know whether it's a knowledge of the product itself, or they're just not comfortable doing it. But I do think that as time goes on more and more athletes are going to be more interested in sort of producing their own content, growing their own brand.
That sort of collaboration I think will really enhance content for both teams and players, because that's, again to me, that's the stuff that people want. People want to know these players. They want to know when it's like. The world today is a reality series world. And people love getting inside the lives of other people. There are certain things where these reality shows they're almost more appealing than real life. You wonder if in 10 years a reality show about a sports team is going to be more interesting than the game itself. You know, I don't think that's going to be the case, I hope not. I'm a lifelong sports fan, but that's the way things are going. So, as younger kids start to become the high profile athletes, I'll be interested to see how much more they're willing to put out themselves and how open they are to sort of growing their brand and telling their story.
Rob Cressy: (22:13)
Thank goodness. You said Philadelphia 76 years because when you said Philadelphia I just about fell over. I'm like he better not be talking about the Philadelphia Flyers. The player that you're referring to is Matisse Thybulel from the 76ers. Here's what I'm curious about. Where would the team's role potentially be in that? So, let's take these younger players and they say, all right, I understand that I could be in control of my brand and do something with it, but you know what I don't know about it. So, someone who may have the access, because if we've ever watched any of the videos where you give one of the players a microphone and then he rolls over to his teammates and they've got the inside joke, they've got the access. They have the credibility and the rapport that no matter how good we are from the outside or from the team are, you can get different access. And that's why I've always thought there is such opportunity when I look at the athlete content world, the way that a lot of the NBA players, JJ Redick started his own podcast and you saw some of the Warriors do it. We saw Matt Barnes and Steven Jackson, so many of them are using these platforms. I figured it was only a matter of time before some of the current players said, wait for a second, this is an opportunity for me to build my own brand and be in control of it. And certainly with the amount that the media may run with something, hey, I didn't say that or I did say that, and you're in control of the narrative. Where could the team help bridge that gap? Because imagine a selling being, hey, we have these amazing locker rooms, but imagine if we can help you have your own on-demand media team so that we can create a little mini docu-series based around someone's experience.
Leo McCafferty: (24:00)
Yeah. I think that a team could help them in many facets. I think they could help from a time perspective. They could help with the, hey, if you're capturing this footage and you don't have the time to edit it together, give it to us we'll edit it for you. If someone has sort of knowledge, but not an extensive knowledge of what they're doing, there could be a sense where a team could help you polish your product. They could show you different tools, different ways to make it better and look more professional. There's also an opportunity for sponsorships. So, most teams have great sponsors, great deals, great networks, and connections. And if a player is interested in doing their video series and working with the team on it, maybe there would be a sponsored opportunity.
So, I don't view it as something that we would be competing with. I view it as something that would enhance our product. It would enhance our brand and with the resources that we have at our disposal, we would be able to help the players put out a better product and we could help them in whatever way they wanted. Even if it's just sharing it to our fans and casting a wider net and throwing it out there. So, I think that to me, the beauty of this is the player would be able to control what they wanted to control and we could offer all of those things and they would be able to utilize us in whatever aspect they wanted. Whether it's nothing or, hey, I'm just getting started here, I'd love to learn a little bit more. Show me how you do this, or, yeah if you're able to edit this for me and we can pump out 4 of these a week, instead of me putting out one a week that'd be amazing.
Rob Cressy: (25:44)
Is that something where the baby steps could be, hey, you're now in charge of our IG stories for 24 hours. Something to get the player used to be a creator because as we know, once you start creating them the other players look and they're like, wait a second. What is Gino doing over here with the IG stories, and they see it and the ability where content can become contagious?
Leo McCafferty: (26:09)
I think so. I think sometimes there's a barrier to entry there. I think sometimes guys are afraid to dip their toes in the water if they're not comfortable with it. So, I think the more folks that are doing this even across leaks and even outside of sports influencers or celebrities, the more people that are are out there sort of curating and promoting and producing their own content, the more mainstream that becomes and the less intimidating it is to some folks who may not have thought about doing that before. All of a sudden they're out there on an Island, but they're on a crowded island with a lot of people doing the same thing. So, I think sometimes there might be a little trepidation in terms of, I don't know if I want to put myself out there like that, but I think more and more athletes are starting to view themselves as their own brand and promoting themselves. I think for the majority of the time that it does nothing to impact their role or a situation with the team. I think more players are realizing that and realizing that they have a voice and they have an unbelievable platform. And they're amazing at what they do and a lot of people look up to them. So, why not use that platform to promote whatever they'd like to promote.
Rob Cressy: (27:29)
The last question for you is around Sydney Crosby and the blessing it has been for you and the team around creating around him and the ability to deliver more fan engagement. Because Sydney Crosby is one of the 10 greatest hockey players ever. He's brought 3 Stanley Cups to Pittsburgh. He is a consummate professional. He is everything that you would want out of a team captain and a leader and from a marketing and content and fan engagement standpoint. What's that like for you?
Leo McCafferty: (28:00)
I've never been more impressed. I've never been more impressed with a professional athlete than I have been with him. We were lucky enough to spend a week with him in Nova Scotia and in the summer of 2015. I was there and we were documenting the inaugural Sydney Crosby Hockey School. I witnessed firsthand the amount of directions that he has pulled in just in one day and the way that he handled himself, every single situation he was in, it has stuck to me to this day. It was so impressive.
It continues to be impressive. I know people say it all the time, but he is a way better person than he is a hockey player and that is saying something. So, when you have someone like that, that is so transcendent in what they do, and equally as impressive away from their craft as someone who markets a team and a star player, it's almost unfair. I could not think of a better person to build a marketing brand campaign around then Sidney Crosby. He is just a person that you never have to worry about. He always does and says the right thing. As he's gotten older, he's gotten more comfortable and he's shown more of his personality. Back to an earlier point, he trusts us now and he allows us places and he allows us to tell his story.
As a storyteller, as a content creator, and as a marketer it's just a dream cause there's not an athlete out there, I don't think that is as impressive at what they do in their sport and away from their sport than he is. It's really been a pleasure to have that at our disposal.
Rob Cressy: (30:08)
And it's been a pleasure on my end to get to watch him because I think about where the penguins were before they drafted Sidney Crosby. I can actually remember exactly where I was when the Penguins won the draft lottery. I was walking out of a Kroger in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had no idea who Sidney Crosby was. I just knew he was this person who was being compared to Wayne Gretzky and he was a franchise-changing player. From that moment I was like, I'm all in on center ice package. He has lived up to every single thing that is out there. He's got me to love sports even that much more, even though I'm the biggest sports fan in the world. So, Leo, I loved jamming with you. This is an awesome conversation. I'm looking forward to the penguins hopefully hoisting yet another Stanley Cup. Where can everybody connect with you?
Leo McCafferty: (31:01)
So, I'm on Twitter and I'm on LinkedIn at @Leo_McCafferty or Leo McCafferty. So, if you'd like to reach out and continue the conversation, I'm around and would love to continue the conversation. Thanks for your time, Rob. This was a lot of fun. To further that point, if that ping pong ball hadn't fallen our way, I don't know that I would be working for the Penguins right now, certainly not in Pittsburgh. So, we're very fortunate that happened.
Rob Cressy: (31:34)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. Here's what I'm curious about. How was your sports fandom changed from March until where we are right now on July 15th? Do you think you will be more of a sports fan when sports come back? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @FanFoodondemand. On Instagram @FanFoodapp, or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms @RobCressy.