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Colleges’ ticket sales efforts go pro
Published August 16, 2010
Georgia Tech’s athletic department faces several challenges trying to fill Bobby Dodd Stadium for football games. The downtown Atlanta school fights for discretionary dollars in a crowded big-city sports market. It has an undergraduate base of 16,000 students, not big by BCS standards, and many graduates leave town for engineering jobs around the world.
“We don’t look like a lot of Southern schools,” said Wayne Hogan, Georgia Tech’s associate director of athletics. “We will sell out when we play Georgia or Clemson or Florida State, but week in and week out, we had empty seats. … It didn’t take long to figure out we were leaving a lot of money on the table.”
Tech was averaging fewer than 50,000 people in its 55,000-seat stadium when it decided last year to break with college tradition and to not face its challenges alone. Rather than handle ticket sales itself, it brought in an outside sales group, signing a three-year deal with The Aspire Group to sell football and basketball tickets.
Only one year in, the results are undeniable. Since July 2009, Aspire’s 15-person staff, spearheaded by former Charlotte Bobcats inside sales manager Bill Fagan, has produced $1.2 million in new ticket revenue, split evenly among last year’s college football and basketball campaigns and the 2010 football season.
As word spreads of Georgia Tech’s results, and athletic departments battle an economy that has cut into ticket sales and donations and pinched off state funding for public schools, more colleges are considering the merits of establishing an inside, commissionable sales team, the same model used by professional sports.
They can bring in an outside company or hire sales executives with pro experience, but both options are designed to shake up a sales culture that has relied heavily on waiting for the phone to ring.
As of mid-August, The Aspire Group also had a deal with Colorado and two others pending with Texas schools to sell their football and men’s and women’s basketball season tickets.
“In the next six months you’re going to see more of these deals,” said Bernie Mullin, an Aspire principal.
Last year, as Georgia Tech athletic officials were struggling with their sales questions, Hogan read a local newspaper story about veteran pro sports marketer Mullin and Aspire’s deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He met with Mullin to see whether Aspire could steer Tech’s ticketing in the proper direction.
“It was like going back to college all over again for me and [Athletic Director Dan Radakovich],” Hogan said. “To put a face on it, Bernie said everything we were doing was all wrong.”
It wasn’t for lack of effort that Tech’s ticket sales were going nowhere, but its typical two-for-one and family-pack promotions got lost competing against the city’s four big league teams.
“There are 6 million people in Atlanta, and we were throwing darts out there,” Hogan said.
With Aspire, the marketing focus shifted to contacting people with an affinity for the school, and it worked wonders in finding new customers. Tech provided Aspire with a database of 100,000 contacts including incoming freshmen, parents, regional alumni, more than 1,000 campus vendors and fans that occasionally attended games.
“We began to look at all these databases and it made perfect sense,” Hogan said. “Why would you try to capture a guy [in Atlanta] that may have gone to school at Texas or Michigan? But someone who has a reason to be a Tech fan … that’s a far better way to spend your resources and personnel.”
Georgia Tech pays Aspire a management fee tied to a percentage of sales, plus commissions, with Aspire responsible for paying its workers. All told, the school shared 33 percent of net revenue with Aspire, a total of $396,000, Mullin confirmed.
The school covered the $10,000 cost to set up Aspire’s work space in a spare media room at Alexander Memorial Coliseum with computers, Bluetooth headsets and other office equipment.
The Aspire Group does not handle season-ticket renewals, “cherry pick” inbound calls or sell premium seats, “which can put those numbers on steroids in a heartbeat,” Mullin said. “Everything you see from that number of $1.2 million per year is all newly initiated sales.”
Schools that want to boost their sales efforts but stay in-house are looking at an investment of $175,000 to $250,000 to install the proper infrastructure and hire four to six full-time ticket sellers, said ticketing consultant Matt DiFebo.
By hiring 10 full-timers tied to football ticket sales, as Northwestern University is doing this summer in a cluttered Chicago sports market, those costs jump to about $400,000, DiFebo said.
DiFebo, former inside sales manager for the old Seattle SuperSonics, formed his own company, the DiFebo Group, in mid-2009. In May, the DiFebo Group signed a three-year deal with Temple to handle ticket sales for football and men’s and women’s basketball.
Separately, DiFebo has consulted with a dozen schools in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Conference USA, SEC and Sun Belt conferences to improve in-house ticket sales, he said. LSU and Ohio State consulted with DiFebo to sell more season tickets in men’s basketball and hockey, respectively.
At Temple, DiFebo hired former AEG and Los Angeles Kings account executive Chris Bain as on-site general manager on the Philly campus, a few years after the two worked together at Central Florida.
Bain will employ 10 to 12 full-timers, compared with past years, when three people waited for the phone to ring and were not dedicated to making outbound calls, said Eric Roedl, Temple’s senior associate athletic director. The deal is a revenue share, although Roedl would not identify the terms.
Timing played a key role for Temple’s decision to outsource ticket sales. The Owls won nine football games in 2009 and advanced to their first bowl game in 30 years, and the athletic department wants to keep the momentum going after experiencing a huge uptick in 2010 season ticket sales.
“We are 50 percent ahead of last year, taking a more proactive approach with earlier renewals than in the past,” Roedl said.
Four years before Aspire did its deal with Georgia Tech, DiFebo had his own vision for adopting the pro model of selling tickets to the college ranks. In April 2005, he took a huge risk, leaving the Sonics for a job as Central Florida’s associate athletic director of external affairs.
“I saw this as an opportunity when no one else was willing to take a chance,” DiFebo said. “What we were doing in the pros did not exist in college sports.”
After DiFebo hired and trained four full-time sales people to make outbound calls, UCF increased annual football ticket revenue by more than $4.5 million and generated more than $3 million in donations from 2005 to 2009.
Northwestern hired DiFebo as a consultant and kept ticket sales in-house to maintain 100 percent of revenue, said Athletic Director Jim Phillips. Phillips would not disclose the investment to add 10 new hires at the private school but he said those salaries are competitive in the college marketplace.
The sales team members, anchored by Mike Polisky, a former executive with the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves and Arena Football League’s Chicago Rush who is now the school’s senior associate athletic director for external affairs, also earn bonuses depending on how many season tickets they sell, an important part of the business model, DiFebo said.
“We have nearly 30 pro teams and colleges within an hour of campus,” Phillips said. “We have to start looking at ourselves as a professional organization.”
At Cincinnati, where DiFebo has been kept on retainer through 2011, the school brought him in to refine its in-house staff’s techniques for upselling and closing entry-level donors.
Before DiFebo came to town, Cincinnati had already expanded its operation, hiring four full-time ticket sales personnel and eight to 10 part-timers, including sports management students from Xavier and Northern Kentucky University, two area schools without football programs.
Cincinnati has seen its football season-ticket base spike from 6,000 to 23,000 after Mike Thomas took over as AD in December 2005 and set a goal for stepping up ticket revenue in all sports.
“Matt pushed us over the top,” said Mike Waddell, Cincinnati’s senior associate athletic director. “We wanted to make sure we were doing everything right.”
The moves have paid off handsomely. Football ticket revenue has jumped from $1.4 million in 2006 to $4.2 million this summer, and the number could ultimately top $6 million for the season in 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium, one of the smallest BCS facilities, Waddell said.
Cincinnati’s recent success on the field played a key role for the dramatic increase, and nine of the top 10 football crowds in school history have come in the past four seasons. But only one of those games sold out during the week of the event, indicating there are always calls to be made.
“There is no sales season. It’s a 12-month-a-year process,” Waddell said.
LSU, another school with which DiFebo consulted, did not have the money available to hire a full-time ticket manager. As a public institution, it faces the additional pressure of budget cuts at the state level.
Instead, it hired four students to work part time to sell season tickets and mini-plans, said Craig Pintens, assistant athletic director for marketing. They are paid 8 percent commission for every season ticket sold.
DiFebo firmly believes a core group of full-timers must be focused on selling year-round to gain the biggest return on investment, but officials in Baton Rouge did the next best thing to fill seats for LSU men’s basketball, which averaged 8,935 last season at 14,164-seat Pete Maravich Assembly Center, Pintens said.
“In an ideal world, we would love to have a full-time ticketing person but the hardest thing to do at any university right now is to add a position,” he said.