SBD/Issue 126/Facilities & Venues

SBJ/SBD Ticketing Roundtable: Execs Discuss Past, Future Of Industry

Sales, Marketing Execs Have Had To Create
New Strategies To Sell Tickets During Recession

The economic recession has flooded the sports world with no shortage of problems and new obstacles for teams over the past 18 months, and perhaps no segment of the sports business caused as many sleepless nights for executives as ticketing. With fans thinking two and three times about how they spend their money, sales and marketing staffs have created new strategies to keep live sports as an attractive option for consumers. A group of sales and marketing execs discussed ticketing --where it has been, where it is going -- with a group of editors at SBJ/SBD's Charlotte HQs last month. Participants included Sports Sales Consulting President Charlie Chislaghi; Pirates Exec VP & CMO Lou DePaoli; Double-A Eastern League Richmond Flying Squirrels VP & COO Todd Parnell; Saints VP/Ticket & Suite Sales Mike Stanfield; UCF DeVos Sport Business Management Program Associate Dir Bill Sutton; and NFL Panthers Dir of Ticket Sales & Operations Phil Youtsey.

Q: Most people would say that a face-to-face relationship with ticket buyers is great. But I wonder if everybody has the sales staff to do it. If you’re an NFL team, have you built and maintained that sales staff when, from year to year, there’s not a whole lot of inventory, other than renewals?

Youtsey: We started out probably with a maximum of four back in ‘93. We’re down to two. We don’t have the inventory that drives the revenue to have the sales staff. But at the same time, I think there’s room for improvement on the relationship building end of it.

Chislaghi: How big is your service staff then?

Youtsey: Our ticket operations does the suites, club seats, our suite clubs, our advertising and marketing, so about 14 folks.

Stanfield: You know, we all look at ourselves in the mirror quite often. You’ve got to be careful. I don’t want to be an order taking organization. You need to be careful of downsizing, getting rid of all your sales people, and then saying we’re going to send these nice little thank you notes with the invoices and just hope those people send their checks and their credit card numbers. You can’t be an order taking organization. It’s a sales organization. And we’ve been very careful to avoid that downfall. Now, we want to keep our sales people motivated. How do you keep sales people motivated? By selling. We have the luxury of owning a Fox affiliate TV station. So we’re selling Fox TV. We’re selling programming. We sold the Arena Football League. You need to continue to challenge your sales staff. Maybe it’s not seats. We’ve been sold out on a season ticket basis. But we certainly go through renewals, and we don’t do what I know some teams do -- call people and say, “You don’t want it? OK” and then it’s on to the waiting list. Next. Next.

Chislaghi Emphasizes
Building Relationships

Q: You’re talking about the same people selling tickets as sell media. I wonder if that’s the same skill set.

Chislaghi: In my experience, my partners separate those two tasks. But at the same time, they hope to grow media sales people and partner sales people, and they do that through the vehicle of inside sales. . . The goal is to create long-term, quality sales professionals, starting at the entry level. So do you see that kind of cross-selling, no. In fact I see very dedicated sales staffs. But at the entry level, the training is the same. And that gets to the heart of it. It’s about building relationships. It’s about getting face-to-face. It’s about learning those skill sets, because then it opens you to a variety of slots. The Colorado Rapids, one of their senior account execs sold as many partnership deals last season as one of the partnership sales people did. Why? Simply because he got face-to-face with folks and had long chats with them, where he learned a ton and connected as well. And he realized soon in that conversation, “I’ve got a partnership prospect here much more than a season-ticket prospect.”

Q: So Mike, how do you do it? How do you make it work with sales people doing both tickets and media?

Stanfield: It’s a lot of training. It’s developing a sales culture. I didn’t know the TV business, but you know what I knew? Relationships. I sort of disagree with the idea that somebody can only sell tickets. I’m a robot. I can’t sell sponsorships. You know, you’re still selling. You’re developing relationships. Now, we’ve kept it very structured, in terms of the packages they can sell. But they’re not selling just New Orleans Saints games. They’re selling Jeopardy. The full gamut. We sold a cable channel that was all news. It kind of took your blinders off.

Sutton: The one underlying theme that we’ve all hit on: face-to-face, personal meaningful relationships. We’re talking about going out and selling.

Q: But that takes an investment, right? A significant one.

Sutton: It does. But it’s an investment you can’t live without. Because if you don’t do it that way in this day and age, you’re going to get left behind.

DePaoli Says Now Is The Time To Invest
In Building Personal, Meaningful Relationships

Q: Is it harder to make that investment these days, in this economy, when you’re bleeding in 15 different directions?

DePaoli: I’d say definitely not. Now would be the time to invest. I started a year and a half ago at the Pirates with a very small sales staff, very service oriented. Even though we were in the bottom three or four in Major League Baseball attendance, there was not much of a sales culture. So we took the staff and more than doubled it. There are 53 people now selling tickets. That’s what you need to do. Now is the time. You have to fight, scratch, claw. You need feet on the street to build these relationships. If you only have eight people, you’re not going to reach as many people. So I can have people on the phones, people on the street, people giving tours. And I know I’m starting to get market coverage. It was just about reaching more people.

Stanfield: You’ve developed that relationship where you have buy-in from ownership. They know that if Lou says, “I need 10 more sales people,” he already knows what the ROI is on those 10 people.

Q: So what is it?

DePaoli: It depends on the person, right? So an entry level person has to provide at least 3 1/2 to 4-1, or we don’t retain them. So if they’re not making that, then they don’t stay employed. We move on and find other people. That’s our inside sales ROI. If they get better, that person moves up the chain faster. For someone who is selling premium or sponsorship, the numbers are considerably higher because you’re closing larger deals. But that’s what we look for. At least cover that or we move on and get the next person.

Chislaghi: In my experience, most of my partners got to the point that a lightbulb went off. Most of my partners have difficulty because of team performance. And consequently, they’re looking to grow sales talent. The ah-hah moment is when they realize that they can bring in 10 people who are going to exceed what they budgeted for them. They’re getting an ROI so they know they got a positive return. So I can afford this. But it takes that ah-hah moment.

Sutton Says New Hires'
Fear Can Be Problem

Q: On that sales staff topic, let’s talk about hiring practices. There’s a long-standing tradition in this business of up-or-out. We’re going to bring in 12 people and, after nine months, two of you get to stay. What do each of you think of that? Are you getting the best, or are you overlooking some potential star out of college who is completely turned off to the industry because you’re asking them to take this risk that most businesses don’t require.

Sutton: One problem is that, with the ones that do come and take the chance, you’ve planted fear in their head on the very first day. I might not make it. You’ve put that in their head and I think it’s hard to overcome.

Chislaghi: All my partners have communicated that if there’s not room for you here we’re going to work very hard to find a spot for you somewhere.

DePaoli: And that’s the key. You may not make it here, but we can help you land somewhere else because we all know each other in this business. So maybe you weren’t No. 1 or 2 out of this inside sales program, but you may be a good fit someplace else. We can help.

Q: So you do the up-or-out, Lou. How many do you bring in?

DePaoli: Sixteen.

Q: And you keep how many?

DePaoli: As many as we need. There’s no limit. If all 16 can get hired within that nine-month period, good. I’m filling in some holes with talent.

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