SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2005/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 (wsutton@bus.ucf.edu) is a professor at the DeVos Sports Business program at the University of Central Florida.

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