How Aspire changed college sports
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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
Happy 10th Year to @theaspire_group #threeBs @bernard_mullin @TAG_Duffy #AspireFamily #cultureeatsstrategyforbreakfast #sportsmarketing #RaiseYourGame #JustTheBeginning 🎟🙏🏼☝🏼🙌🏼💯🔥 🎟 pic.twitter.com/I3F1tEE4c6— Bill Fagan (@billfagan) February 1, 2018
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.
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.