College Ticket Sale Efforts Go Pro

August 17, 2010

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By Don Muret, Staff writer

Georgia Tech’s athletic department faces several challenges trying to fill Bobby Dodd Stadium for football games. The downtown Atlanta school fights for discretionary dollars in a crowded big-city sports market. It has an undergraduate base of 16,000 students, not big by BCS standards, and many graduates leave town for engineering jobs around the world.

“We don’t look like a lot of Southern schools,” said Wayne Hogan, Georgia Tech’s associate director of athletics. “We will sell out when we play Georgia or Clemson or Florida State, but week in and week out, we had empty seats. … It didn’t take long to figure out we were leaving a lot of money on the table.”

Tech was averaging fewer than 50,000 people in its 55,000-seat stadium when it decided last year to break with college tradition and to not face its challenges alone. Rather than handle ticket sales itself, it brought in an outside sales group, signing a three-year deal with The Aspire Group to sell football and basketball tickets.

Only one year in, the results are undeniable. Since July 2009, Aspire’s 15-person staff, spearheaded by former Charlotte Bobcats inside sales manager Bill Fagan, has produced $1.2 million in new ticket revenue, split evenly among last year’s college football and basketball campaigns and the 2010 football season.

As word spreads of Georgia Tech’s results, and athletic departments battle an economy that has cut into ticket sales and donations and pinched off state funding for public schools, more colleges are considering the merits of establishing an inside, commissionable sales team, the same model used by professional sports.

They can bring in an outside company or hire sales executives with pro experience, but both options are designed to shake up a sales culture that has relied heavily on waiting for the phone to ring.

As of mid-August, The Aspire Group also had a deal with Colorado and two others pending with Texas schools to sell their football and men’s and women’s basketball season tickets.

“In the next six months you’re going to see more of these deals,” said Bernie Mullin, an Aspire principal.

Last year, as Georgia Tech athletic officials were struggling with their sales questions, Hogan read a local newspaper story about veteran pro sports marketer Mullin and Aspire’s deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He met with Mullin to see whether Aspire could steer Tech’s ticketing in the proper direction.

“It was like going back to college all over again for me and [Athletic Director Dan Radakovich],” Hogan said. “To put a face on it, Bernie said everything we were doing was all wrong.”

It wasn’t for lack of effort that Tech’s ticket sales were going nowhere, but its typical two-for-one and family-pack promotions got lost competing against the city’s four big league teams.

“There are 6 million people in Atlanta, and we were throwing darts out there,” Hogan said.

With Aspire, the marketing focus shifted to contacting people with an affinity for the school, and it worked wonders in finding new customers. Tech provided Aspire with a database of 100,000 contacts including incoming freshmen, parents, regional alumni, more than 1,000 campus vendors and fans that occasionally attended games.

“We began to look at all these databases and it made perfect sense,” Hogan said. “Why would you try to capture a guy [in Atlanta] that may have gone to school at Texas or Michigan? But someone who has a reason to be a Tech fan … that’s a far better way to spend your resources and personnel.”

Georgia Tech pays Aspire a management fee tied to a percentage of sales, plus commissions, with Aspire responsible for paying its workers. All told, the school shared 33 percent of net revenue with Aspire, a total of $396,000, Mullin confirmed.

The school covered the $10,000 cost to set up Aspire’s work space in a spare media room at Alexander Memorial Coliseum with computers, Bluetooth headsets and other office equipment.

The Aspire Group does not handle season-ticket renewals, “cherry pick” inbound calls or sell premium seats, “which can put those numbers on steroids in a heartbeat,” Mullin said. “Everything you see from that number of $1.2 million per year is all newly initiated sales.”


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