SBJ/Dec. 6-12, 2010/From The Field Of

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  • A three-step strategy to sell out a stadium, absent a superstar

    Shaq as the goalie for Yokohama FC. Or LeBron as the fullback for Kubota Spears.

    Those were my top two recommendations to an audience of Japanese sports marketers. These marketers had come to hear me speak on how to sell out arenas and stadiums for Japanese pro sports teams. The audience was aware of the 814 straight sellouts I was part of at the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1980s and the record-breaking 815th straight sellout that will occur in June for the Dayton Dragons.

    Having either Shaquille O’Neal or
    LeBron James on a team were two sure-fire ways to sell out an arena. Wherever they have gone, they’ve hung up the sold-out sign. If Shaq and LeBron weren’t available, go for Michael Jordan, the original greatest attraction in sports.

    During a trip to Japan in October, arranged by LeadOff Sports Marketing, I gave five speeches in five days in Tokyo and Osaka. Since Shaq, LeBron and Michael weren’t realistic, I talked about three strategies that were.

    1. Recognize that all games are not equal.

    This seems simpler than it is. If you were a head coach, you would disagree. After all, since each game delivers a “W” or an “L,” each game is indeed equal. However, to the fan, games are not equal. What makes them not equal is either the opponent or the day of the week.

    Recruiting Shaq out
    of the question? Try
    hiring a dedicated
    sales staff instead.

    I stressed that teams should determine which games they would have the best chance of selling out. For those games, they should put in all their efforts and resources to indeed get a sellout. Then, repeat the effort with the next game that could be possibly sold out. Put no effort or resources whatsoever into marketing the games that nobody wants to go to.

    That might sound unprofessional. Well, whatever energy and resources the team has left after marketing the games that have the best chance to sell out should not be squandered on low-interest games. Take that leftover energy and apply it to the next game on the best-chance-to-sellout list. If a team is worried about appearances of a sparse crowd at a poor attraction, they shouldn’t. After all, if nobody goes to those games, nobody will know that nobody went. Eventually, the team will work its way down the list and sell out that last game.

    2. Hire salespeople dedicated to only selling tickets.

    Many sports teams are guilty of understaffing their ticket sales staff. This error is, of course, a self-inflicted wound. I recommended that each team have one dedicated salesperson per 1,000 companies in their marketing area. If there were 5,000 companies in the marketing area, then easy math: The team would need five salespeople dedicated to only selling tickets. The profile of these companies would be 10 to 50 employees, non-retail, non-government.

    These salespeople would make appointments to visit, eyeball-to-eyeball, each one of these companies. The salesperson’s goal would be to sell the company something, whether it be season tickets, group tickets or a small ticket package.

    This sales staff would, of course, have to be trained thoroughly. If they are trained, they cost about 20 percent of the sale; if they are not trained, they could cost up to 50 percent of the sale. With either a trained or untrained salesperson, there are expenses. The trained salesperson will be far more efficient because he or she will sell a lot more tickets.

    That 20 percent first-year cost isn’t very appealing, and the 50 percent makes me cringe, but even 50 percent of something is a lot better than 100 percent of nothing if salespeople aren’t hired.

    3. Cut your ad budget in half.

    The half that a team would save would be applied to helping build that sales staff. The other half would be used exclusively for direct-response advertising. While I’m a big believer in all types of advertising, and I’m a big believer in branding, it’s been my experience that in selling tickets, direct-response advertising works best. With direct response, you measure just one thing: the response. For every dollar spent, I like to see a tangible trackable return of $4. Spend $10,000, get $40,000. Spend $100,000, get $400,000.

    These three things seem simple and easy to do, but they are not traditional, even in the United States. That can make them a bit scary. However, I find unsold seats a lot scarier. So, it’s either Shaq or LeBron playing goalie, or whatever, and selling out the season in one fell swoop on a season-ticket basis, or rolling up the sleeves and starting to sell out one game at a time. n

    Jon Spoelstra ( is the author of “Marketing Outrageously.

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