By: Emma Jacobs, Financial Times
Atlanta-dwelling, mustachioed businessman Bernie Mullin is on a mission. He wants football, a game that many tribal fans believe has been spoiled by billionaire owners, to fix its eye more firmly on the money.
What sport needs is razzmatazz, he says. “In America, it’s entertainment. It’s not basketball, it’s basketball entertainment. We get dancers, cheerleaders and DJs, contests and videoboards.”
The 65-year-old has a vested interest in making this case. He is in London to generate business for The Aspire Group, the Georgia-based ticket marketing and sales company he started in 2008, which helps sports franchises build relationships with fans. The key to a club’s success, he says, is less about a winning team than entertainment and relationships with fans.
A former semi-professional footballer and life-long Everton fan, who grew up in Liverpool in the northwest of England, he knows only too well what it is to have life-long commitment to a club.
“The level of passion and commitment of the fans is over the top,” he says. I went to Goodison Park [Everton Football Club’s home ground] with my dad at five. The first thing I do every morning is go on the Everton website. Got to have my fix.” At 7am on a Saturday, you can find him – if it is an early game – meeting his fellow Evertonians in an Irish pub in Atlanta. A few years ago, he was rumoured to be part of a consortium to buy the club: a story he denies.
Mr Mullin’s accent slips between his native Liverpudlian and transatlantic, though as a child he attended elocution classes so he could “learn to talk like the Queen . . . One did not want a Liverpool accent because that was a social stigma.”
Sport is a business unlike any others, he says. “It’s completely illogical. The addiction is crazy. But the owners take the fans for granted. They’re not running it like a business because they’re not treating their top customers superbly.”
Talent, digital media, television rights, merchandise: everyone is all over that. But ticket marketing and sales? Woefully neglected, says Mr Mullin.
Many of Aspire’s ticket sales, he says, come through phone calls rather than social media or emails. They are tipped off by “digital prequalification” – by which he means a reply to a targeted email or text, based on customers’ previous ticket purchases. In the UK, he says, people are far more suspicious than their US peers and believe data collection to be an “invasion of privacy”. Surely they are right to be suspicious? “There’s a lot of companies not as ethical as we are,” he concedes.
After playing football for Oxford City in the early 1970s during a stint at British Leyland, the automotive and engineering conglomerate, he moved to the US and did a PhD in organisational behaviour and administration at the University of Kansas. Later, he moved to the new sports business department of the University of Massachusetts. After a few years in academia, and writing a book on sports marketing, he was hired in 1986 by the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. “They were in desperate shape,” he says. So he got the team aggressively selling to fans: calling, mailing them with offers based on their interests. In five seasons, he says, ticket revenues went from $7m to over $28m.
Mr Mullin believes he can make a sports customer out of anyone, even me. He pitches the patter used by his sales team. “I’m building a relationship with you, Emma. I’m asking questions in a really friendly, open honest way. What do you like to do?”
I tell him my entertainment demands are slightly restricted by my two-year-old. Bingo, he spots a way in. “What does your son like to do?” Play with Lego and sticks. Mr Mullin is not put off. “OK, tell me your son’s seven. What does your son like to do? Boom.” He has made a sale to me and my imaginary seven-year-old.
“Let’s say if your son was coming, he loved it,” he says. “You don’t really like football but you like the fact that we got something together as a family. So as a mum you’ll do it for your kids.”
Targeting the young is obviously a source of future custom. So, he says, trips to football clubs should be pitched to primary schools as rewards for good behaviour or academic achievement.
“You want to buy data off schools?” I ask. “No. Good God, no. No.” Instead he proposes forging relationships with schools, offering tickets as prizes for teachers and children.
His tireless sales instinct was learnt at the side of his father, an insurance salesman at Prudential, door to door collecting money from policyholders, pushing for more sales. Accompanying him on his tour of the neighbourhood impressed upon the young Mr Mullin the importance of relationships.
During the holidays, the little Bernie would be given a bunch of flowers to hand over to the mother in a house, the “gatekeeper” – “My dad knew her name, knew all about her family.” So he was cute child labour? “I don’t think Dad would have been that cynical.”
Every week his father would discover if he had made it to the top of Prudential’s salespeople. The family would clear the house just in case his father had done badly. “My dad would go ballistic. He was that competitive, that aggressive and wanted to be the top.”
Relationships are important to his business. He trains his staff to find out who the gatekeepers are – getting to know a personal assistant is key to his bottom line: “You listen to them.” Sales staff are encouraged to pump them for information: what does your company like to do? Do you have suites? Do you have premium seats?
The work demands listening skills, he says. “My dad was good at listening . . . I’m good at listening.” He pauses.“It doesn’t sound like I’m good at listening.”
In truth he barely takes a breath.
Mr Mullin’s staff are “sports sales and entertainment consultants”. In each sales centre there is a sales scoreboard, on which they tally the number and duration of calls, how many appointments they have made, how many sales. He expects Aspire’s revenues to reach $12.5m in the next financial year.
There are also the rituals. “You make a sale, you walk up to the board, enter the information. You ring a bell, we celebrate the sale.” The goal is to engage fans by deploying sales tactics: capture, communicate, close. The team focuses first on reducing fan churn, before engaging the casual fan and then acquiring new ones.
He worries that people who are used to watching highlights of sports events on television are bored by the real thing. “We’re feeding the [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] generation,” he says. But in an era of electronic communication, there is nothing like watching sport together. “It’s community.”
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