SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2005/Opinion

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  • Filtering the files to find our 40

    Every year, as we prepare for the banquet that fetes the newest members of our Forty Under 40, those of us on the selection committee are asked the same question: Are the winners’ names drawn out of a hat, or what?

    The truth is, none of us wears a hat. Besides, why would we leave a matter of such importance to the vagaries of chance when we could meet about it. And meet. And meet.

    I’d like to tell you a fascinating tale of how we came up with our list, but that may be impossible. The sheer volume of meetings seems to have numbed some crucial part of my brain. As best I can remember, the process went like this:

    On a fateful day long, long ago (at least five or six months), seven of us gathered around a table, much in the manner of King Arthur and his noble knights, and, drawing our swords with one hand and pounding our manly chests with the other, pledged to wade through swamps of hyperbole, face down monstrously inflated résumés and, if necessary, crawl through hell itself in order to scale the mountain and throw the cursed ring into the fiery depths from which it was born.

    Or was that the mission before this one?

    Wait, I remember now. There was no ring involved.

    Plenty of hell, though.

    Here’s how it happened: Seven of us, yes. And a table. But no swords, and no manly chests.

    Files, too. Lots of files.

    Filled with information.

    Filled with it.

    And we had to go through it all because, well, that’s what one does.

    We began our fellowship by divvying up the alphabet, each taking one-seventh of the files. Our job was to get to know the people whose souls were bared therein and come to the next meeting prepared to argue for those we believed should be moved to the next round.

    It would have been nice to toss out half of our hundreds of nominees at the first meeting. Unfortunately, hyperbole and inflated résumés were in short supply. We were faced, instead, with file after file of impressive accomplishments. Our goal with Forty Under 40 is to recognize the top young executives in the industry. Narrowing the list isn’t easy.

    We kept at it, though. Week after week. Name after name. The discussions were lengthy and wide-ranging. We debated the merits of full careers and recent accomplishments. We argued passionately, sometimes heatedly. And after each meeting the list was a little shorter than when we started.

    This went on for some time. I can’t say exactly how long.

    I tried for a while to keep up with the number of hours of my life spent in Forty Under 40 meetings, but after a while it became a little like worrying about calories when you’re eating at McDonald’s. First you Super Size that double-quarter-pounder-with-cheese combo, then you add an apple pie and a chocolate shake, and pretty soon it’s better to just stop counting.

    I’d like to pause for a personal moment with those nominees whose last name begins with C through G. I feel very close to you now, though I admit our relationship is a bit one-sided. I want you to know that I did my best for you, and I’m proud that 12 of you made the list. Many of the rest of you were thisclose, and I’m sure you’ll have your day, but to a few of you I have to say, in all honesty, you need to kick it up a notch.

    If you’ve spent time around journalists, you would have been pleasantly surprised at the diligence with which we stuck to our task. I, for one, was extremely proud of our little group. I tell you in all seriousness, I haven’t seen journalists work that hard since the last press conference I attended that had a free buffet.

    In the end, we had a list to be proud of. If your name is on it, I salute you. Your honor is well-deserved.

    If it’s not, I encourage you to try again. All you’ve got to do is work harder, do more, and hope that next year I get your section of the alphabet.

    Ross Nethery ( is managing editor of SportsBusiness Journal.

    Print | Tags: Opinion
  • Make group sales a key part of sales mix

    In 2004, I wrote an article for SportsBusiness Journal identifying the opportunities and the need for intercollegiate athletic programs to have active ticket-selling programs.

    Since that column (and a subsequent presentation at the National Association of Collegiate Marketing Administrators), I have heard from various schools that either had an active sales force in place or experimented with establishing a more active one soon after reading the article.

    One of those institutions, the University of Louisville, had an interesting story. The school sold tickets to nonprofit groups to which, in previous years, it had been giving away tickets.

    In late spring of 2004, prior to the start of what was to be an 11-1 Louisville football season, Gary Friedman, associate athletic director at Louisville, and Charlie Chislaghi, a consultant specializing in ticket sales, created a group sales campaign.

    Previous sales efforts, which were primarily passive (fliers, letters and the like), were replaced by a trained, proactive sales force schooled by Chislaghi in a question-based selling technique. This technique is designed to learn about the potential purchasers’ past practices.

    The sales force made inquiries and some sales via the telephone but also scheduled appointments for face-to-face sales. Large businesses and nonprofit organizations perceived to have ties to the University of Louisville (alumni, previous purchasers and attendees) were the primary targets.

    Taking inventory perceived to be less desirable by season-ticket purchasers (end zones and higher corner locations) for four games against Conference USA opponents, Louisville was able to sell 19,826 group tickets, or an average of 4,957 per game. That average exceeded the university’s total group sales volume for the 2003 football season.

    According to Friedman, “[Louisville Athletic Director] Tom Jurich has created a culture that enables his staff to experiment and do more to try to make things happen.”

    Friedman espouses a crawl/walk/run philosophy. He said his first priority is to increase the number of groups and the size of those groups for the 2005 football season.

    Friedman said that factors such as the expansion of the football stadium, a better home schedule and the fact that his staff is now experienced and has access to returning customers should result in a significant increase in ticket sales for the 2005 season.

    Friedman also said that plans to expand group sales into other sports, such as women’s basketball, are under consideration.

    Chislaghi was quick to point out that one reason the program was successful was the focus of Emily Crume and Jason Buckner of the Louisville athletic department on selling the tickets and not just filling the house.

    Chislaghi said that selling group tickets is about positioning the ticket as an “opportunity for people to come together and share an experience with each other, and that the fun and excitement of a football game — or any sporting event — is a great place to make that happen.”

    What can we take away from the Louisville experience? There are a number of valuable lessons:

    Review your complimentary ticket targets and policies. Evaluate whether these groups truly should be comped, or if there is a potential sales opportunity.

    The most expensive seat in the house is an empty seat. Selling 5,000 end-zone seats at $10 apiece not only generates $50,000 in immediate revenue, but also exposes the product to 5,000 potential buyers of future tickets, ticket plans and possibly sponsorship opportunities.

    For the most part, group sales are entertainment purchases. The consumer is buying a ticket to be part of an experience with friends, co-workers, church members, teammates or some other group that has relevance to him.

    Their enjoyment is primarily dependent upon their interaction with their group, not on the outcome of the contest. As such, there are other hospitality opportunities, picnics and tailgates, for example, that can be sold to the group, increasing the total of the sale.

    Review all sports and identify the assets you have available to bundle into a package that can be part of the rationale for a group to make the purchase.

    For example, a group sale of 250 tickets might provide a church choir not only the opportunity to attend the game but also to perform the national anthem. A youth basketball league purchasing 500 tickets might receive a clinic prior to the game or perhaps have a mini-game at halftime.

    Olympic sports such as gymnastics, swimming, wrestling and so forth are ideal for youth groups participating in those same sports. While these are not traditionally revenue sports, they could generate some incremental revenue that could be utilized to help defray costs.

    “When considering what is appropriate for your athletic department,” Friedman said, “look closely, as each school functions in a unique marketing environment.”

    Evaluate what you are doing and determine if it can be done better. Examine what others are doing and see if that concept would have some traction at your institution. Look to consultants for ideas and at best practices from other segments of the sports-entertainment universe.

    But in all cases, look around. You can probably learn some new tricks regardless of the age of the “dog.”

    Bill Sutton ( is a professor at the DeVos Sports Business program at the University of Central Florida.

    Print | Tags: Colleges, Opinion
  • Open up the doors to different kinds of fans

    Few decisions in business are more critical than figuring out what the customer base is and how to appeal to it. Bankruptcy court is littered with the corpses of companies that forgot why they existed and tried to be something they weren’t. Conversely, other companies fail to grow as much as they could because they lack the vision to reach out to new markets.

    The sports sector is not exempt from this quandary, as we were reminded by a couple of news items last week.

    The NBA drew some criticism for its decision to feature a couple of country music acts during halftime of its All-Star Game. Sports writers and TV talkers opined like this: “Pathetic.” “Dropped the ball.” “No interest.” “NASCAR music.” “Quite possibly the worst form of entertainment I’ve ever seen.” TNT analyst Charles Barkley weighed in: “I just hope whoever put the halftime together, they’re getting their résumé ready. This is a hip-hop weekend. This ain’t no NASCAR race.”

    Meanwhile, in Daytona, NASCAR launched its 2005 season by rolling out the likes of one-time Miss America Vanessa Williams, former Beach Boy Brian Wilson and actor Ashton Kutcher. The sport, born in the rural South, was not rural enough for some tastes. “There’s a lot of people here and they told me I couldn’t wear blue jeans, which I really didn’t understand,” Kutcher, the honorary starter, was quoted. “This is like one of the greatest redneck sports there is. I mean redneck in a good way; I’m a redneck. I’ve never watched a race in khaki pants before.”

    There we have it: The ultimate urban sport, basketball, coming off as too redneck, while the stereotypical redneck property, NASCAR, is accused, tongue-in-cheek no doubt, of being too sophisticated.

    Let’s not make too much of the entertainment, which is just a sideshow to the main event, except that it is a handy shorthand for the fan-marketing decisions these properties face. In fact, we would argue, both properties are doing it just right.

    NASCAR has made itself into one of the major success stories in the sports sector precisely by appealing to larger customer bases, by locating racetracks in new geographic areas and by obtaining national network television coverage. It has welcomed new enthusiasts, not turned them away. It has sought out and welcomed new audiences without alienating the entire traditional fan base that has been there from the beginning. It’s a careful balancing act.

    Similarly, the NBA is experiencing a period of resurgence. The league counts two hip-hop artists as minority team owners and has a third on the way, and its brand image is very much aggressive, tattooed, in-your-face urban action. There’s no disputing the success of that formula, as league attendance continues to increase.

    Yet there’s a great danger for the NBA if the league allows itself to be seen as strictly an urban sport for the hip-hop audience. If the league is perceived as unwilling to welcome different kinds of fans, as almost a private club that is not interested in enlarging its membership, then it’s well on its way to becoming a niche sport played and watched only at the margins.

    Commissioner David Stern and his cadre understand that much better than their critics. The path to growth is by attracting new fans, not shutting them out.

    Print | Tags: Basketball, Motorsports, NASCAR, NBA, Opinion
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