For the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the team’s most lively home games each year comes in the preseason thanks to a rowdy group of fans – kids.
“You can get some people in the building that don’t typically get to experience a Penguins game,” said Dani McSweeney, the Penguins’ manager of partnership marketing. “It’s probably the loudest game that we have all season long because it’s [18,000] screaming children – but it’s awesome.”
Since 2010 – when it moved to PPG Paints Arena – the Free Game For Kids event has occurred at every final preseason game for the Penguins. One caveat is that tickets for the occasion are never sold. The team’s donated 18,000 free tickets to people around the Pittsburgh community – from young kids to their parents to even local youth hockey organizations. Dicks Sporting Goods around Pittsburgh was one of the ticket-drop destinations – where everyone got the chance at acquiring tickets without the stress that usually accompanies it.
In partnership with Chick-fil-A, the Pittsburgh Penguins will host their ninth-annual “Free Game For Kids” preseason event on Sept. 28 at PPG Paints Arena. While Pittsburgh has held this spectacle for almost a decade, this is the first time it’s done so with Chick-fil-A – whose partnership with the team began in 2017.
Tickets were also available at two Chick-fil-A franchises – one in Pittsburgh and the other in a nearby suburb, said Joslynn Tatterson, marketing director of Chick-fil-A Pittsburgh. The first 125 kids – between the ages of 2 and 15 – to appear at each restaurant were eligible for the pair of tickets. Within an hour before the ticket drop, she says that there was a line of Penguins fans already out the door. An hour after they were released, tickets were sold out.
“One of the questions that we often get is, ‘when is the free game for kids?’” said Tatterson. “Being that tickets are so hard to come by because they’re distributed to the local organization, those ticket drops are super important because people actively seek out those tickets because they know what’s coming.”
Michael Osborne, owner and operator of Chick-fil-A Waterfront, has been to the Free Game For Kids event before. Having found out about it through Tatterson, whose son plays hockey and attended before, he started bringing his daughter after the partnership. Even though she didn’t know hockey before, Free Game For Kids has introduced her to the sport – like it has for others around Pittsburgh.
“Even at that age, my daughter’s specifically – without any real pre-knowledge of hockey – she loved it,” said Osborne. “Anytime we see it on TV after that, she’s like, ‘oh, I know about hockey.’ I think the younger you get them engaged, the better.”
“We’re passionate about youth in education and supporting the community,” said Tatterson. “[The Penguins] thought that it would be a great fit, we thought it would be a great fit. And that’s how we have expanded our partnership this year – with the sponsorship of Free Game For Kids.”
The Penguins aren’t the only professional sports team who have found ways to resonate with younger fans. On Aug. 6, the Boston Red Sox’s game against the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park was rained out in the 10th inning. One day later, play resumed – but with a key difference. The team announced that kids 18-and-under would be admitted free of charge, and all other fans could attend for $5.
Red Sox CMO Adam Grossman says this was just one way that Boston tries to appeal to the youth. In 2014, the club created its “Kids Nation Program” that sets aside free kids ticket at every home contest. The initiative is directed at kids 14 and under – with over 25,000 becoming members since its inception. For Grossman, he believes that the younger these kids are when they visit a baseball game for the first time, the easier it’ll be for MLB clubs to keep them as life-long spectators.
“[Dr.] Rich Luker, who does the sports poll at ESPN, put out on the baseball side that if you go to a baseball game by the age of five, you will go to 40% more games over the course of your lifetime than if you first go at the age of 14,” said Grossman. “Especially in baseball, it’s such a generational game – and [the Kids Nation Program is] to ensure that we’re getting the most amount of exposure and access to Fenway. If you can get to one game, then we think you can hold that memory and experience close and become a fan for life.”
Despite the popularity surrounding the Penguins’ Free Game For Kids event, there are no plans to add more to the calendar. To McSweeney and Jack Tipton, the Penguins’ senior director of partnership sales, having it once makes it as exciting as can be for Pittsburgh supporters. If other teams are trying to find ways to connect with a younger fanbase, they should look to Free Game For Kids as a source of inspiration.
“One of the pillars of our brand is energizing and inspiring our community,” said Tipton. “We think this specific game does that. The other aspect of what we believe in as an organization is getting the younger generation an opportunity to be familiar with hockey – whether it’s playing it, learning about it, [we’re] really trying to message the fact that hockey is for everyone.”