U.S.-Based Aspire’s Partnership With National Rugby League Off To Strong Start

February 11, 2015

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Sports Business Daily Global

By: Tyler Everett

U.S.-based sport and entertainment marketing firm The Aspire Group’s first foray into Australia is off to a strong start. Led by Aspire Dir of Australian Operations Ben Pincus, the firm opened a center based at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium on Dec. 9 devoted exclusively to outbound calls selling National Rugby League season tickets — “memberships,” as they’re referred to in Australia. The Fan Relationship Management Center, the first of its kind in the NRL, features 10 sales consultants, two apiece representing NRL sides St. George Illawarra Dragons, Canterbury Bulldogs, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Parramatta Eels and Wests Tigers. Pincus is encouraged by the pilot program’s results to date — more than 2,000 memberships have already been sold since December — and confident the concerted effort in this area will continue to pay off. It took Pincus, FRMC Manager Ryan Burgess, who manages the call center, outside consultant Marcus Zeltzer and the 10 consultants just 18 work days to crack the 1,000-membership barrier, and as of Thursday, 2,149 memberships had been sold, good for more than $191,000 in revenue. In addition to the financial benefit, another point of emphasis is on teaching the sales consultants skills that will benefit the NRL’s growth as a business in the long term. Pincus: “It’s teaching them about sales and service, closing techniques and how sponsorship and membership work together, all the areas of the industry. … Eventually these sales consultants are able to leave our center and go into the clubs with a skill set that no entry-level employee they’ve had has possessed previously.” The plan is to continue the collaboration with the NRL for at least three seasons, with Aspire hoping for the program to represent eight to 10 teams in ’16 before expanding to each of the league’s 16 teams for the ’17 campaign.

LONG TIME COMING: When the FRMC went live on Dec. 9, it marked one of Aspire’s first steps toward establishing a foothold in the Asia-Pacific region, specifically in Australia, which Pincus said represents a “huge opportunity.” It also wrapped up a three-year process of planning and negotiations. Aspire Founder Bernie Mullin has been eyeing the Australian market, and the NRL in particular, since first engaging in talks with former NRL Head of Commercial Paul Kind — who was sacked by the league on Wednesday for a breach of conduct — and NRL GM of Marketing & Fan Engagement Michael Johnstone around three years ago. Pincus said that Aspire’s attraction to Australia was based in large part on Aussie fans’ love of the game. He said, “They have a passion that, unless you’re some of those lucky franchises like the Detroit Red Wings or Boston Red Sox, you don’t really see. I think a lot of it has to do with, these clubs are still relatively in their infancy from a business perspective. It wasn’t that long ago that they were more just community-based, community-funded clubs.” Pincus compared the family-friendly atmosphere at NRL stadiums to what U.S. sports fans find at minor league baseball games, but cited the league’s $1.2B TV contract and 254,000 members as proof of the game’s pull Down Under. The talks between Mullin and the NRL execs nearly yielded a program similar to the one currently underway, but it was put on hold when former NRL CEO David Gallop stepped away from rugby league in ’12. Mullin, however, remained persistent, and Kind and Johnstone stayed open to the idea. “Paul Kind and Michael Johnstone didn’t let it die,” Pincus said. With the initiative given new life, Pincus, who had been involved in the earlier talks during a previous stint with Aspire but was working for Ironman in Nov. ‘13, got a call from his old boss. Mullin offered him a chance to rejoin Aspire and head up the project in Australia. Despite receiving no guarantee of anything beyond an initial period of negotiations, Pincus deemed the move to rejoin Aspire an easy decision. “Even though I had left, we obviously had a great relationship and he knew that I was a big part of this and wanted to be a part of this in the future,” Pincus said. “I came here basically for three months, with no guarantee of anything after that. For someone like Bernie, I was perfectly fine with it.”

MAKING THE PITCH: Before cementing the collaboration, the NRL wanted assurances Aspire could deliver a program worth the investment. “They said, ‘Come here for basically a three-month program and let’s see if you guys really know what it is that you’re doing and if you can adapt this for the Australian market,’” Pincus said. To get the project up and running, Aspire needed the approval of a number of execs both inside and outside the NRL. After league bosses signed off, the next step was gaining backing from the Australian Rugby League Commission, a body of Aussie business leaders who govern the game. To convince them of the value of the project, Pincus explained to NRL execs the need to dedicate resources to outbound calls, an area that had not previously been emphasized. The league’s lack of prior experience made it essential to, as Pincus said, “do this the right way the first time and sort of educate the clubs along the way.”

HIRING PROCESS: Once the project was given the green light in late September, the next order of business was to hire the sales consultants and equip the office ahead of the FRMC’s launch on Dec. 9. A top priority as Pincus and Burgess went about hiring the 10 consultants was to represent the NRL’s fan base. Pincus: “All 10 consultants, from the beginning, we wanted to have them be Australians. One, it’s authentic; we want to represent the NRL fans as who they really are. Two, the goal of this is not to just bring a bunch of people who are already doing it. What we wanted to do was show the NRL and NRL fans and the NRL clubs how they can do it.”

CREATING A PIPELINE: Pincus is also working to launch a program that will give 32 interns — two per NRL club — exposure to all areas of sports business in what is tentatively being called the NRL Business Academy. Each intern will receive centralized training from Pincus and two account managers, while working for a club and gaining experience in a variety of areas of sports business. Pincus said that the NRL and Aspire’s goal is to eventually create a program similar to the NBA’s team marketing and business operations department (TMBO). TMBO has acted as a liaison between the NBA league office and all NBA, WNBA and D-League teams since it was created in ‘00. Aspire’s connection to that program is strong, as Mullin was the first director of TMBO, from ’00-04. TMBO, first created as an in-house consulting division for the NBA, has become a launchpad for top execs, as its alumni include several high-ranking officials inside and outside the NBA. Pincus said of his goals for the NRL internship program, “Right now [within the NRL] there’s not necessarily that pipeline of talent for membership or sponsorship or public relations or any areas of the business specifically … We want to expose these interns to as much as we possibly can to hopefully find those next great entry-level employees and hopefully future executives.”

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