Rutgers University in talks to outsource sports ticket sales in hopes of bigger profits

February 27, 2011

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For years, Rutgers University officials have sat back and waited for fans to step up and buy tickets to its football games, basketball games and other sporting events.

The result has been largely mediocre ticket sales and a sports program that remains in the red.

Now, Rutgers is considering going on the offensive. The state university is in talks to hire the Aspire Group, an Atlanta-based firm that uses an aggressive sales team working on commission to track down alumni, parents and anyone with university ties to try to sell tickets.

Aspire has already made a name for itself at Georgia Tech, where it used a similar sales plan to increase ticket sales for football and men’s basketball by $2.1 million in 18 months, according to officials at the Atlanta university. Aspire kept 35 percent of each ticket it sold.

“From a Georgia Tech standpoint, it’s been a huge success,” said Wayne Hogan, the university’s associate athletic director. “They’re just pounding the phones.”

Outsourcing ticket sales is a relatively new and still experimental idea among higher education institutions. But the concept has been gaining attention among colleges and universities desperate to increase revenue amid state funding cuts and other economic woes.

Neither Rutgers nor Aspire would discuss their potential deal while negotiations are continuing.

“We don’t have an agreement signed yet so we can’t provide any additional information,” said Jason Baum, Rutgers’ assistant athletic director for communications.

However, members of the Rutgers Board of Governors discussed the possibility of a deal with Aspire at a public meeting in Newark this month. Several board members said they were intrigued by Aspire’s commission-based sales plan, which would not require the cash-strapped university to put up much money up front.

Instead, Aspire would keep a percentage of each ticket it sold. Rutgers officials declined to say if the two sides have agreed on the percentage Aspire would keep as its commission or what sports its sales team would sell tickets for.

Rutgers has invested heavily in its sports program since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big East for football in 1991 in hopes of making the state university a football powerhouse. The team has been to five bowl games in the past six years, but ticket sales at Rutgers Stadium have gone up and down.

The university’s ticket office currently has three full-time staff members and four part-timers, but none are assigned to drumming up new business, Baum said. Rutgers relies on advertising and word-of-mouth to attract ticket buyers.

Football ticket revenue peaked at $10.6 million in 2009, before falling slightly last year, campus officials said. Men’s basketball sales climbed to $1.5 million in 2007-08, but declined each of the last two years.

In 2007, Rutgers eliminated six varsity sports, including tennis and swimming, to save money. Despite the cuts, the athletics department still relies on millions in university funds every year to balance its budget. Members of the Rutgers Board of Governors said they have been discussing strategies with athletic director Tim Pernetti to get the department in the black.

One of those ideas is trying to sell more tickets with Aspire’s help.

Aspire was founded three years ago by Bernie Mullin, former CEO of the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers. In addition to Georgia Tech, Aspire’s sales team is helping sell tickets for the University of Colorado at Boulder, a minor league Canadian hockey team and two English soccer teams.

“We’re in conversations with other colleges,” said Abbey Carter, Aspire’s marketing coordinator.

IMG College, a national sports marketing company, has also begun offering a similar ticketing service to colleges. Its clients include Temple University in Philadelphia and the University of South Alabama.

At Georgia Tech, Aspire hired a team of 15 sales specialists and took over a room in the campus’s basketball arena. The university supplied the firm with a list of 150,000 names of alumni, parents, donors, former ticket holders and vendors, according to campus officials. Then, the sales team, which includes former college athletes, began making calls to try to sell season tickets and partial season ticket plans.

“We have active ticket sales reps who are calling the databases,” Carter said. “They’re making calls, building relationships and selling tickets.”

Georgia Tech keeps 65 percent of new ticket sales and Aspire gets the remaining 35 percent as a commission, campus officials said.

Hogan, Georgia Tech’s associate athletic director, said outsourcing ticket sales was the hot topic among college athletics officials at a national marketing convention he attended this month in California. He has also been fielding calls from other colleges curious about the idea.

“It’s really taken off. I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve gotten on this,” Hogan said. “It’s about to explode.”


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