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Volume 21 No. 30

Colleges

The Aspire Group got its start by selling tickets for Georgia Tech, where staff gathered recently for a photo. The firm has worked with 80 schools and has helped generate more than $1 billion in ticket and donation revenue over the past 10 years.
Photo: Courtesy of The Aspire Group

After nearly four years as CEO of the Atlanta Spirit ownership group, and mired in the politics of inner-ownership turmoil, Bernie Mullin was ready for a fresh start. At 59, he had another run in him and saw an opportunity to help pro teams navigate through mergers and acquisitions, ticketing and sponsorship. But a totally unexpected opportunity in college athletics changed the course for Mullin and his business partner, Bill Duffy, who were thrust into the position of re-imagining the way tickets were sold by universities. Now, 10 years later, The Aspire Group has worked with 80 schools and universities, helping programs generate more than $1 billion in ticket and donation revenue, while going head-to-head with well-funded competitors along the way. Mullin, Duffy and the group’s third employee, Bill Fagan, came to our Charlotte office and looked back at how they changed the sleepy college business and how training and people have made all the difference.

 

THE LAUNCH

 

Bio Bits

Bernie Mullin

• Mullin has over 30 years of experience as a leading executive with the NBA, Atlanta Hawks, Colorado Rockies and others. He has written multiple editions of the book “Sport Marketing,” with Bill Sutton and Steve Hardy.
• Born in Liverpool, Mullin got his B.A. from Coventry University in England and a Ph.D., MBA and master’s in marketing from the University of Kansas.
• He played soccer in college and semi-professionally, and coached at the college level. Want to get him going? Bring up his favorite club, Everton.

Bill Duffy

• Duffy’s held executive posts at the San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins, Charlotte Bobcats and Time Warner Cable Arena, Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers, and NFL.
• A dual U.S.-Irish citizen, he is president of the Irish Chamber of Atlanta.
• After graduating from Princeton University, he earned his master’s degree from New York University.

Bill Fagan

•  Before Joining The Aspire Group, Fagan worked in sales with the Phoenix Suns.
• Originally from Middletown, Conn., Fagan has an MBA from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

— Elly Cosgrove

BERNIE MULLIN: In late 2007, I made a commitment to (NHL Commissioner) Gary Bettman that I would stay through the NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta in 2008. I had talked to Gary and (NBA Commissioner) David Stern about my intent to leave because of the ownership issues we had with the Atlanta Spirt at the time and how hard that was. I was looking at a lot of different things, and so I left the night of the NHL All-Star Game on Jan. 27, and on Monday Feb. 1, 2008, I started The Aspire Group. Bettman told me, “We want to be your first client if you  go and do consulting.” At that time, we thought we were going to be in pro sports, as we knew what we had helped build with the NBA’s TMBO.

  

Our first client was when Dennis Mannion hired me at the Dodgers for two weeks a month to turn around their ticket sales operation; they were doing 1.4 million in their inside sales, with 20 kids working, and so we helped them. Then we got hired by Mark Cohon, who was the Commissioner of the CFL, to build a team services division — like TMBO — for that league. We were also doing some work for the NHL, building a team services division there.

 

BILL DUFFY: I quit around the same time as Bernie did with the Spirit. We started building Aspire together, but I was also working with the NBA, and then later, both full time and as a consultant, for Charlotte [Bobcats] as CFO. But I was still helping Bernie.

 

MULLIN: In February of 2009, Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did a story about what I was doing a year after leaving the Hawks, and Wayne Hogan, who was the senior associate AD at Georgia Tech, read it. He asked us to come in and meet with them. We put a proposal together, to teach them how to sell tickets, and about a week or two later, their AD Dan Radakovich, their CFO Paul Griffin and Wayne looked at the proposal and go, “No. You don’t get it. We don’t want to sell tickets. We want you to sell our tickets.” We looked at each other and went, “Are you kidding me?” We went away, spent a week, and came back with a model of cost plus a management fee, and they agreed. So, outsourcing of ticket marketing sales and service, which is the main core of our business, started because Georgia Tech and Dan Radakovich had a vision and needed help.

 

DUFFY: We were surprised, because we thought they were going to be a traditional consulting client that we would meet and advise on what to do.

 

MULLIN: Right. Get in and get out. We were never looking to be ongoing support personnel. We didn’t really want to have employees. Employees can be problematic, and a lot of things come with employees. But if we were starting with Georgia Tech, we needed to find a staff. So, we thought about who we knew, and we found Bill Fagan (who was with the Charlotte Bobcats, where he had worked with Bill Duffy). 

 

The trick was find someone that could run Georgia Tech, but who could grow to become a senior VP and a leader. We talked to a lot of top talent, but many didn’t want to take the step down, because the position was called an “inside sales manager.” But the more we thought about it, we began to think this outsource ticket marketing sales and service niche could be big, and so we created the Fan Relationship Management Center. Colleges already outsourced media rights, licensing, food and beverage, and facility venue operations. Why not tickets? We thought it could work, but I don’t think any of us thought it was going to be as big as it is.

 

BILL FAGAN: When I accepted the position, it was for two reasons. One was the leadership. Well respected, household names in our industry. That checked off the first box. The second was the opportunity. There were casual conversations in the industry about ticketing, and why aren’t colleges doing this more proactively, yet nobody had done it, and so I saw that as an opportunity to go and set up the mousetrap.

 

 After only six or seven months, our phone rang and it was a Canadian Hockey League team. The Ottawa 67s asked, “Do you think this outsource model would work in junior hockey?” They became our second client. Within 14 months from the launch of Georgia Tech, we got our third and fourth clients, but they weren’t in college athletics. They were with Coventry City Football Club and Leicester City Football Club in the U.K., so while I was managing the on-site operation of 12 to 14 sales people at Georgia Tech, I was also remotely managing those other three properties. We were also getting more inquiries from other universities who were sniffing around saying, “Would this work in my market? I’m in a different sized school that doesn’t look and feel like Georgia Tech. Do you think this would work?” The next that acted was the University of Colorado.

 

GROWING A BUSINESS

 

Over the first couple of years, The Aspire Group landed Tulane, Western Michigan, Arizona State and Rutgers. But they soon got company in the space, as IMG and Learfield, who dominated the college media rights and sponsorship sales business, both got into the ticketing space. First, IMG College got into the ticketing business through an acquisition in 2011 and then IMG College and Learfield Sports joined forces to create IMG Learfield Ticket Solutions in 2012. That made for a powerful challenger to Aspire, as the combined company had relationships on campuses throughout the U.S. But Aspire kept getting business, and in an eye-opener, beat out IMG Learfield in landing the University of Texas, which decided to outsource ticket sales for the first time, in 2014. They held that business from 2014-16, when a new AD at Texas changed the policy.

 

DUFFY: Texas was big. However, prior to that, we already had the realization that this model didn’t just work at Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech’s challenges weren’t unique to Georgia Tech. Most of them apply to virtually every other university.

 

MULLIN: But it was huge to win Texas. 

 

DUFFY: That grew to a 34-, 35-person operation pretty quickly.

 

MULLIN: One of my favorite clients, and one of the clients when we knew we’d made it, was probably three years in, and we landed Ohio State. We did a yield management analysis for them, ticket pricing at Ohio State. It was identifying everywhere where their tickets were underpriced. It was a comprehensive survey of over 11,500 season-ticket holders, and all the different constituent groups.

We came up with market comparables and did a matrix of every price point. Gene Smith went on record saying that our recommendations were $6 million in incremental revenue per year, and I bet that was a conservative and safe number of what they actually got.


BUILDING A CULTURE

 

Even while winning business, Mullin was filled with self-doubt that the business could work and scale.

 

MULLIN: There were terrifying moments, because we were stretching, and we were building a company in Canada, England and in Australia for the National Rugby League.

 

DUFFY: That’s what I was there for. I would worry about the structure of our deals, and whether or not we could make money.

 

MULLIN: But we kept going because colleges didn’t have the expertise, and didn’t have the resources.

 

DUFFY: A lot of our success came down to relationships.

 

MULLIN: And talent.

 

DUFFY: And coaching.

 

MULLIN: Women soccer players are our best people to hire, as they understand this balance between individual competition and team. They want to be the top of the board, and the root and the fruit. Root is volume, call duration, referrals, appointments set and kept, and the fruit is dollars you generate and tickets you sell. They’re individually competitive, but they’re team players. We knew we needed to steal talent away from the major leagues, and bring them up internally, and we really focused on an internal promotion model.

 

DUFFY: Last year we had about 42 internal promotions. We talk about this all the time: What if we train them and they leave? But then we think about, what if we don’t and they stay? We spend a lot of time training and developing our staff.

 

MULLIN: I’m glad we didn’t sell to the people we could have sold to early on. We had three formal offers that we turned down. There were a number of small reasons, but the single biggest reason was lack of cultural fit. The way we look at our culture is we believe we’re leaders first, and a leader-driven organization. A’s hire A’s. So, only hire an A, because they’ll hire an A. If you hire a B, they’ll hire a C, because B’s hire people less capable than them, because they don’t want to be challenged. A’s are happy hiring people better than them, or younger than them, more experienced and hungry to challenge them. That’s a cultural edict that we wanted to have, and we didn’t necessarily see that in the leadership of some of the organizations that we talked to.

 

DUFFY: Hiring is the biggest difficulty. Absolutely.

 

MULLIN: We must have hired 1,000 people for the fan relationship management center.

 

FAGAN: We have a standard three-strike rule for under performers, unless it’s egregious. It could be quicker, we’re not perfect. The majority of our hires are recent college grads, meaning they’ve just completed their bachelor’s degree. Some MBAs. Many go back to school, and that’s why we lose them. For a lot of them, this is their first job, they don’t know what they want. So we don’t look for experience, we’re looking for special characteristics.

 

Once they’re on board, we train, train, train, train. To the point where they either execute, or not. If they don’t, it starts to show up on the root and the fruit. Meaning their activity isn’t there, the revenue and performance isn’t there, and that story will take care of itself.

 

DUFFY: If they’re not happy, that’s one thing. Then we have frank discussions, and we help them move on. But if they are trying, we will coach them, and eventually, if it still isn’t working, it evolves into a mutual decision.

 

MULLIN: We have sales managers ideally for three years, where half of your job is selling, half is managing the staff. After four to five years, you’re a manager, six to seven years, you’re a director of a larger property.

 

WHAT’S NEXT?

 

DUFFY:  We continue to build on our relationships. When we’ve lost a client, we feel it’s been because we didn’t have that strong relationship with the athletic director, so relationships are always a concerted effort on our part. We always want them stronger.

 

We are really trying to focus on people. What is the best type of sales person we can hire? What sort of characteristics should we be looking for? What is the best matrix of sales calls, appointments? We’ve really started to dig into all of our client and our performance data.

 

MULLIN: We are drilling down into the key performance analytics from the interview process. What were the indicators during the interviews? What can data tell us so we can predict someone who is going to be really successful, and someone who isn’t? We are way more analytical, and the biggest investment we’ve made over the last 18 months is in data insights.

 

In terms of the evolution of The Aspire Group, we’re a consulting firm, first and foremost. We got into the actual operation of the Fan Relationship Management Center almost by default, by Dan Radakovich taking the risk to hire us to do sales for the university. We will stay on the property side. The future for us is insights and a database of millions and millions of people, on multiple continents, across 17 different sports. Also, expanding into the performing arts and more entertainment is a huge opportunity for us. 

From the 28th floor in their offices on Third Avenue in Manhattan, Mike Palisi (center) leads Van Wagner’s collegiate business, along with top lieutenants Mike Wolfert (left) and Mark Donley.
Photo: Courtesy of Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment

Van Wagner’s startup college business signed its first school in 2015. Three years later, the collegiate multimedia rights division headed by Mike Palisi has 24 clients and expects to surpass 30 by the time football season starts.

 

While Learfield and IMG College clearly are the two most dominant agencies in the college space with more than 200 schools combined, Palisi, a former athletic administrator at Rutgers and Maine, has quietly assembled a lengthy list of multimedia rights from across the country. Outside of Learfield and IMG College, no company has more.

 

“We saw a void and thought we could fill it,” Palisi said.

 

That void is in the area called mid-majors — NCAA Division I schools at the bottom of the FBS, and sometimes outside of the FBS altogether. It’s with those smaller programs that Van Wagner has built its college business.

 

Palisi, who spent a decade running the day-to-day business at Nelligan Sports before it was bought by Learfield four years ago, saw untapped value in mid-major schools and conferences.

 

Stony Brook, a quaint, mid-sized university on 1,000 acres of Long Island, had never outsourced its corporate sponsorship program before Van Wagner won its rights through a bid process. Palisi convinced athletic director Shawn Heilbron that he could grow the Seawolves’ sponsorship revenue.

 

After two years with Van Wagner, Stony Brook saw a 178 percent increase in total sponsorship revenue versus what the school was doing in-house. Van Wagner sold three multiyear deals, each valued in the six figures annually. A small Division I athletic department like Stony Brook’s simply couldn’t match Van Wagner’s reach and sales acumen.

 

Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment

College properties


Conferences:
 America East
 Big South
 CIAA
 Colonial
 West Coast
 Western Athletic

Universities:
 Canisius
 East Tennessee State
 Florida International
 Georgia State
 Kennesaw State
 Liberty
 Longwood
 Loyola Marymount
 Loyola (Md.)
 Niagara
 Pepperdine
 Saint Joseph’s
 Samford
 San Francisco
 Santa Clara
 Siena
 Stony Brook
■ Towson


Senior leadership, college division
■ Mike Palisi
executive vice president
 Mark Donley
senior vice president
 Mike Wolfert
senior vice president
 Jason Capel
vice president
 Tim Curran
vice president
 Mark Massari
vice president
 Frank Cuervo
vice president
 Diana LePore
director of marketing and operations

“They really know how to monetize schools our size,” Heilbron said. “They know where the opportunities are. They’ve perfected the art of creating partnerships with schools at our level.”

 

Van Wagner’s client list ranges from FBS schools, such as Florida International and Georgia State, to basketball-centric programs at Saint Joseph’s, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine. The deals call for Van Wagner to pay a financial guarantee, typically in the low-to-mid six figures annually, compared to the bigger programs that draw annual guarantees in the seven figures and up.

 

Georgia State, one of Van Wagner’s first college clients in 2015, has seen its multimedia revenue jump from $400,000 to more than $1 million annually. Revenue projections for 2018-19 approach $2 million. Those are vital dollars for programs whose yearly budgets are a fraction of schools in the power five.

 

“There are niches for everybody,” said Georgia State AD Charlie Cobb, who also is using Van Wagner to sell naming rights for its football stadium. “The dominant players can’t service everybody. That creates opportunities for companies like Van Wagner.”

 

Palisi also brought to Van Wagner the campuswide marketing strategy that Nelligan employed so effectively. At Georgia State, Van Wagner was tasked with aggregating the rights from the main campus and its five perimeter campuses — 52,000 students in all — for a pouring rights deal that generated nearly three times more revenue from Coca-Cola.

 

Now they’re working on campuswide sponsorship deals for banking and health care. “They’ve really got the confidence of everyone across campus,” Cobb said.

 

Palisi has Van Wagner rolling now, but it was just four years ago that the 50-year-old found himself at a career crossroads. He had spent 10 years helping build Nelligan into a formidable collegiate agency with multimedia rights at 41 schools. But when owner T.J. Nelligan sold his company to Learfield in 2014, Palisi had a decision to make. He could go to work for Learfield or he could start over by forming his own business.

 

Palisi called a contact at Van Wagner, Jessica Mudry, to gauge whether the sales agency might be interested in creating a partnership. He heard from Van Wagner President Jeff Knapple within 24 hours and they started plotting a move deeper into college sports.

 

Instead of starting his own shop, Palisi scratched his entrepreneurial itch by forming a new college services division under the Van Wagner flag.

 

“At the time, they were really looking to increase their presence in sports,” Palisi said.

 

Van Wagner, like Nelligan before it, quickly earned a reputation as a company that understood how to market and sell the smaller programs. Its mantra was to provide so much transparency that the school felt like it was still operating an in-house sales team, even after it outsourced to Van Wagner.

 

Palisi was adamant about sharing financials with school partners and integrating the sales staff into the athletic department.

 

“It’s a hybrid of sorts,” said Mark Donley, senior vice president at Van Wagner. “It just showed that the industry was ready for something different.”

 

While Van Wagner has cultivated its reputation on smaller programs, Palisi firmly believes his approach will work with power five schools as well. Van Wagner has pitched most of the power five programs that have had an open bid process and it’s still seeking that first big win.

 

“Our playbook works everywhere,” Palisi said. “But at the same time, we’re showing that you can be profitable if you’re not in the power five.”