Workshop gives students flavor for sports sales
There aren’t many career events that can alter the perspective of a college upperclassman. But on a snowy February day in Cleveland, Slippery Rock junior Quiona Glover found one of them.
Glover attended the 14th annual Mount Union Sports Sales Workshop and Job Fair at Quicken Loans Arena as part of the curriculum for her sports sales and fundraising class. Glover already had an interest in the sales industry as a whole, but the event showed her all that sports sales specifically has to offer.
“I was already excited about sales,” she said, “but it definitely changed my perspective and made me give it a little more emphasis and thought into the sports side.”
The Mount Union workshop and job fair is different from other career events. Rather than meeting with potential employers briefly and handing them a résumé, or listening to lectures about the industry, students are trained for more than three hours by the same professionals with whom they have the opportunity to schedule sit-down interviews.
“‘Conference’ implies I’m a tape recorder [just taking notes from lectures], but I’m not active,” said Jim Kadlecek, the workshop director and a University of Mount Union sport business faculty member. “We want students to leave with an appreciable sense of what sales feels like.”
The other rare aspect about the event is that it is sports sales specific. So even though it takes place in Cleveland, recruiters from teams nationwide pay their own way to attend and are willing to participate to find the next generation of salespeople.
“Being in New York and being at Madison Square Garden, we’re never short on applicants,” said Ben Pincus, manager of group sales and service at Madison Square Garden. “What we’re short on is people with the drive and talent, desire, not because it’s Madison Square Garden, but because this is the way they want to make their career.”
The event began when Kadlecek spoke with his friend and well-known sports sales trainer, Charlie Chislaghi, about a workshop for college students who were looking for sales-specific instruction beyond their curriculums.
Chislaghi came up with the idea for an interactive day of training while Kadlecek worked on the logistics.
“My idea always is to provide opportunities for young people,” Chislaghi said. “If they don’t have the opportunities, how are they going to know whether or not that career field is appropriate for them?”
Now, Kadlecek says that students email him looking to register for one of the 120 available spots at the Cleveland event more than 10 months out. Kadlecek and Mount Union also have added events in Portland and Denver due to high demand.
In January, they capped the first-year Portland event at 30 students to maintain a good ratio of students to trainers. The Denver event takes place on March 23. Last year, 57 students attended, and according to Kadlecek, they are pacing ahead of that number as registration remains open.
It cost $99 per student to attend. Mount Union’s focus is not to churn a profit from the event, but simply cover the costs of food and the venue. The event is open to any students willing to register, and at some colleges, it’s become a competition. At Central Michigan University, it’s invitation only for students in the sports management department. At the University of Iowa, students have to apply to be considered to make the eight-hour trip.
“We always hire from this event. It’s a good place to find good young talent,” said Bob Sivik, vice president of ticket sales and service at the Cleveland Browns.
The sales version of the NFL combine
During training sessions, attendees are split into nine groups consisting of eight to 20 students, with three or four trainers assigned to each. Students from the same schools split up to get them out of their comfort zones.
A total of 80 trainers attended the most recent event, but not all train during every session. The ones not assigned to a specific group are free to roam in and out of training sessions, observing students and creating a bustling environment.
Participants return as trainers, employers
The Mount Union Sports Sales Workshop and Job Fair sees former students who got their first taste of the industry at the event returning as trainers looking to hire.
That includes Nolan O’Connor, who in 2014 accepted a position as an inside sales associate for the Miami Dolphins following an on-site interview. For O’Connor, having experienced the workshop as a student helps give him perspective as a trainer.
“I’ve been in their shoes, I know what they’re feeling, I know what those nerves are,” he said.
Steffin Bader also got his start at the workshop, as he came to the event as a student at Central Michigan. Despite completing an internship with the Detroit Pistons prior to attending, he said it still played a vital part in his career path.
“Without this event I don’t know if I would even be in the industry to be completely honest,” he said. “The connections that I gained through this have really springboarded me to where I am today.”
Carly Salerno, the manager of inside sales at Monumental Sports and Entertainment, got her first exposure to sales training at the workshop before accepting an entry-level position with her current company.
“It was a wake-up call for ‘Wow, I can actually do this,’” Salerno said of the confidence training provided her.
Having trainers come back — at their own expense — to teach and ultimately hire students is a point of pride at the workshop. During the introductory session on the arena’s practice court, the trainers who received their first job offer from the workshop stood up to be recognized. It’s an aspect of the event that the current students have an appreciation for.
“I feel like that’s the biggest motivation for me, honestly, to be sitting where they are in a few years and helping other kids,“ said Adam Smith, a senior from the University of Iowa.
— Ashley Bastock
The first training session began with icebreakers. From there, students took part role-playing in pairs with a sample script that they would use on the phone to try to stand out with prospective buyers, and they received real-time feedback from their trainers.
In the second session, students participated in more role-playing that focused on building rapport while on the phone, active listening and asking open-ended questions to build trust. Instead of using scripts, in many cases students had to think in real time, spontaneously asking trainers questions, mirroring the ticket sales process.
The final session had students learning how to handle more difficult situations, with trainers lobbing objections and concerns to the students, as well as the importance of face-to-face appointments.
“We’re training them on the same things that I would train my staff when they first start,” said German Montero, the manager of new business for MSG Sports.
Rather than focusing on which students were technically sound, trainers repeatedly said they were more focused on who participated.
“What I look for is the people that are going to be active, they’re going to participate,” said Nolan O’Connor, manager of membership development for the Miami Dolphins. “That’s really what the event’s about.”
“I look at this event the same way as the NFL combine,” said Steffin Bader, an account executive on the Detroit Pistons’ sales team. “It’s a chance to get out there and make a name for yourself.”
Actual job interviews came in the late afternoon in a large banquet room. The room buzzed with conversation and nervous energy, as students sat down for their 15-minute appointments.
Kadlecek said about 50 percent of graduating seniors leave the workshop with at least one job offer each year. While the interview portion of the day is the most nerve-wracking part of the workshop for the students, the trainers watch how they comport themselves throughout the entire day.
“This is ‘let’s get to know each other and let me reassure myself of why I want to hire you, because you just interviewed in a training session by asking questions, and showing that you’re coachable,’” Bader said. “When I was here as a student, [the interviews] were all that mattered. Now being on the manager side of it, I see what truly is the most important part.”
The entire day can push students out of their comfort zone, serving as a confidence-booster in an intimidating environment. For the 20-year-old Glover, it gave her the confidence to potentially go down a different path in sales.
“I came in not ever really having to interview for a sports job,” she admitted. “So getting all the tips and tricks on consistency, and selling, and coachability and passion today really helped me put into perspective how I approach certain situations, and how I approach the sport industry itself.”
Ashley Bastock is a writer in Cleveland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.