Issue: 20.02 February/March 2008
A Great Start
In less than three years, the University of Central Florida has
increased its annual
football ticket revenue by $4.5 million. Its secret? Taking a whole
new approach to ticket
By Matt DiFebo
Matt DiFebo is Associate Athletics Director for External Services
and Director of Ticket Sales for the University of Central Florida
Athletic Association. He previously served as Manager of Inside
Sales for the Pacific Northwest’s professional basketball
franchises, which include the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics and
WNBA’s Seattle Storm. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three years ago, the University of Central Florida decided to take
ticket sales efforts to a place it had never been before. We did
not want to gradually increase revenue. We wanted to blow away our
previous numbers. We wanted to revolutionize the industry. Coming
from the professional sports world, I wanted to build the model
program in the college ranks. I wanted the challenge of seeing if
what was done at one level could be accomplished at another.
Using tactics from the professional sports industry, we created
a sales culture where one did not exist before. We developed an
infrastructure for success, hired full-time salespeople, implemented
best practices in customer service, and used one-on-one sales techniques.
In less than three years, we have increased our annual football
ticket revenue by over $4.5 million. We have increased our football
season-ticket base by nearly 15,000 and now consistently renew over
90 percent of our season-ticket accounts. Men’s basketball
season tickets have doubled and we have increased basketball revenue
by over 300
percent, reaping nearly $200,000 in new premium seat revenue. In
addition, over $1 million in new and upgraded donor contributions
have been collected through our sales office.
The Right Investments
One of the keys to our success was creating a fan-centric sales
department that embraced and won over our existing fans. Success
in sales is all about relationshipbuilding, and so we provided a
level of customer service exceeding anything our fans had ever experienced.
Before we could do this, though, we had to assemble the right infrastructure.
Many college athletic departments try to increase ticket sales by
taking small steps. They implement some new promotional ideas and
branch out to a few new markets. They believe they have all the
resources they need, and that they just have to shake things up
a bit to increase attendance and ticket revenue. In my opinion,
that is a mistake.
To make real headway in ticket sales, you need to invest resources
up front. Ultimately, you want to create a system that gives you
maximum return on investment (ROI). For UCF, that meant fully committing
to a comprehensive new ticket sales initiative. Otherwise, we would
be risking diminished returns or, even worse, experience complete
Of course, for any new investments to pay off, they have to be made
in the right place. The most important asset to develop is proper
The right staff starts with a director of sales who has experience
in ticket sales in the sports entertainment industry. When hiring
for this position, don’t just look locally or in the college
ranks. Right now, no one produces better ticket sales managers than
the professional sports franchises, specifically the NBA. They figured
out long ago that
ticket sales drive all other revenue streams, from concessions to
corporate sponsorships, and virtually every team now employs a sizable
staff focused year-round on ticket sales. Many of these staff members
are ready for a director of sales position, where they can apply
their expertise in a collegiate athletic department.
There are several qualities to look for in hiring this individual.
He or she must understand sales culture among all demographics and
be capable of applying established sales strategies to the college
environment. A director of sales must also be able to communicate
effectively with executive administrators and coordinate with other
departments, such as ticket operations, marketing, fundraising,
and sponsorship. Finally, this person must be a proven leader with
the ability to train and teach sales technique to his or her staff.
As critical as a full-time sales director is, don’t stop there.
To maximize revenue, you cannot depend on part-time student employees,
volunteers, or interns to sell tickets. A full-time staff dedicated
to ticket sales is the key to seeing enhanced ROI. This can be a
hard sell to upper-level administrators who are wary of hiring more
staff, but if you
assemble the right team, the investment will more than pay for itself
in the long run.
The size of the staff should vary depending on your situation and
resources, but it’s usually within a range of four to 10 full-time
salespeople. Anything less may create job demands that are detrimental
to the goals of the program. These individuals should focus solely
on revenue generation and not have other duties in the athletic
Students can be utilized to supplement your sales efforts once a
staff is in place and operational—but the key word here is
“supplement.” Students can perform administrative tasks
and help with some after-hours calls and staffing tables, but they
should not be responsible for making significant sales.
Sales staff members should have great interpersonal skills, but
they don’t necessarily need extensive sales backgrounds. Some
of my best hires have been recent college or business school graduates
who are eager to start a career in sports management. I clearly
explain to candidates up front that this job is about being a great
and working extremely hard. They have to like selling. But I also
tell them it is a great launching pad for a career in an athletic
I explain to potential hires that personal sales statistics make
it very easy to quantify their work and show their value—which
is what athletic directors often look for when promoting from within.
Sales staff members will also have the chance to learn the industry
from the inside while making a respectable entry-level salary (as
opposed to being an intern with very little compensation). With
this tactic, I get gung-ho salespeople who are very eager to learn,
work hard, and hit their numbers. And I am excited to help them
advance their careers.
I also feel it’s important to offer incentives based on sales
numbers. Ideally, you can offer salespeople a base salary with commission
on everything they sell. This can be difficult at an institution
of higher learning, but it’s worth fighting for. If you can’t
devise a commission system, try using a bonus structure to reward
great sellers and keep
A key component of our program has been training our staff in the
art of ticket sales, which I learned through Charlie Chislaghi,
the best in the business. We do this through staff training sessions,
mentoring, and constant feedback. For us, the primary focus is fostering
one-on-one relationships with customers. Our salespeople call every
past and potential buyer and develop a relationship with them—yes,
a personal call. Using a database program called Archtics (by Ticketmaster),
we keep track of information on our buyers and use it to increase
sales. We meticulously record all information on our ticket-buying
fans and review and update that information before and after every
The secret to being a great ticket salesperson is to engage the
client when speaking with them. Phone calls are not intended to
be one-minute conversations. We teach our sales staff to ask open-ended
questions that lead to meaningful discussions. We teach them to
use the database to understand whom they are calling. And we teach
listen well to the customer’s answers, respond, and ask follow-up
They learn to ask questions like, “How was your experience
at the last game?” and “Where do you like to sit?”
and “Who do you go to games with?” Relying on information
from the database, they can ask, “How did you like those end
zone seats at the Marshall game?” Through questions like these,
we find out what the buyer wants in his or her game experience.
We teach some other fundamentals, too. For instance, always smile
when you’re talking—even though the person on the other
end of the line can’t see you, a smile comes through in your
voice. Use the person’s name throughout the conversation.
Listen to any complaints and suggestions with earnest concern.
All this helps the salesperson offer a ticket package that meets
the fan’s needs. When the prospective buyer realizes we have
their specific desires in mind, they are much more likely to say
“yes” to the sales presentation.
Another critical part of the training is teaching salespeople how
to sell your specific teams. For example, at UCF, we have a sizable
alumni base living nearby but not a long history of athletic tradition.
So we have branded ourselves as “Your Hometown University.”
This is how we engage the community in a way that’s different
from our peer institutions.
Hand-in-hand with training must be support. It’s important
to invest in your sales staff by providing them with any resources
they need. I work hard to make sure my sales staff feels respected
and that they are developing in their careers. I have found this
is a much better motivator than games or gimmicks.
Once you have assembled the correct infrastructure and developed
a highly capable staff, you should devote your energy to finding
the most effective sales campaign strategies. If the goal of your
sales department is to maximize revenue, it is important to organize
effective marketing plans and stick to them. To begin, target the
areas where you have the greatest revenue potential. Identify the
most qualified databases in your possession and start your sales
tactics there. At the top of the list will usually be all your past
ticket buyers. Our list continued with alumni, donors, vendors of
the university, and local businesses.
After that, work on your most logical untapped prospects. This can
include corporate sales, group sales, and referrals from existing
buyers. From there, try expanding to nontraditional markets, using
creativity, and coming up with new ideas.
Here are some of the tactics we use at UCF to increase our ticket
Season-Ticket Retention: It is much more cost effective
to renew current seasonticket holders than to bring new ones on
board. In 2006, we were very deliberate in our renewal approach
and grew our football season-ticket base by over 2,500 seats simply
by asking current season-ticket holders to purchase additional seats
during our renewal
Rather than rely solely on direct mail and wait for the renewals
to be sent back, we called our entire season-ticket base. This provided
an excellent customer service initiative that ticket holders had
never experienced before and established our sales staff as “personal
account executives.” While engaging season-ticket holders
phone, we asked them, “Are two seats enough?” and talked
about the fun of inviting some friends along.
Partial Packages: A proven way to generate incremental revenue and
attract new fans is by creating partial package plans. The more
options and flexibility you offer in these plans, the more chances
you have to make a sale. This is a great way to get people to sample
your product and recruit alumni who don’t live nearby. It’s
also an important way to ensure you have fans in the seats for your
weaker draws. Once you get someone to buy a few tickets, they become
a client. After these people have attended our games, we call and
ask them how their experience was. What did
they enjoy the most? Would they like to try another seat location?
How many games do they plan to attend in the future?
Group Sales: Ideally, you can hire a sales staff dedicated to securing
group sales, and this is something we hope to implement soon at
UCF. Group sales are a very important way to get large numbers to
sample your games, and they should be a focus of every program.
Of course, be sure to get the names and contact information of all
participants so they can become part of your database.
Group sales can be targeted at large employers, your corporate sponsors,
donors who own companies, social groups, civic groups—anyone
who is looking for a group outing. One great tactic is to customize
the experience for the group. For example, you can help them set
up a tailgate party before a football game or put their name on
the message board during the event. To draw a local Boy Scout troop
to a men’s basketball game, you could organize a sleepover
in the gym after the game, with activities and a movie shown on
the JumboTron before lights out.
A new idea we are implementing is offering “assets”
to groups able to sell a certain number of tickets. For example,
for selling 200 tickets, a choir can perform the national anthem
before the game. For selling 100 tickets, a group might be allowed
to serve as the fan tunnel for the players.
Not Taking “No”: What about the person
who says they don’t want to renew their season tickets or
purchase again? We ask them for all the reasons they do not intend
to renew. We tell them we value them as a fan and we sincerely want
their feedback. We write down their ideas and try to correct any
problems. Then we work on winning them back. We tell them how we
are responding to their ideas. One option can even be to offer an
upgrade if they will purchase again. We might give them coupons
for free concession items or even provide a courtside seat as a
gesture of our commitment. We then try to personally visit them
during the game to see how everything is going. After the game,
we always follow up with them to get their valuable feedback.
Yes, these communication efforts take some time and effort, but
they are more costeffective than finding a new season-ticket holder.
And it is amazing how a little customer service is all it takes
to bring them back.
Referrals: At the conclusion of every single call
our sales staff makes, they ask one final question: Who else do
you know who is a fan or might enjoy coming to a game? Referrals
are critical in this business, and the only way to get them is to
make this question a part of the sales protocol.
Year-round: A key component of each of these sales
ideas is that they occur all year long. You cannot really be successful
implementing concentrated sales efforts a couple times a year. You
need a year-round process to hit all your targets. Return on Investment
By now I’m sure you’re wondering if all the money, time,
and effort we put into selling tickets has been worth it. Here are
the results: Our initial start up costs for the sales department
(not including our regular marketing budget) was less than $250,000,
which includes everything from salaries to telephones. We have calculated
that our return on investment in each of the first two years was,
at a minimum, a resounding 10-to-one. The key has been taking a
customer-service approach to selling tickets, plain and simple.
When fans feel they are valued and have a voice, they are the easiest
people to sell to on earth. And why shouldn’t they be, when
you have the greatest product on earth to sell to them?
Sidebar: In-House vs. Outsourcing
Oftentimes, administrators are tempted to outsource some or all
of their ticket sales efforts. It can feel overwhelming to hire
a sales staff and implement a full sales program. Outsourcing seems
like an efficient and hassle-free way to bring in ticket revenue.
However, in my opinion, outsourcing will lead to less profitability.
When you hand your ticket sales over to someone else, you are relying
on a third party to serve your most critical revenue base: your
fans and donors. You are also handing over a large cut (40 percent
or more in most cases) of your revenue.
No matter how capable a third-party vendor may be, they will not
treat your ticketbuyers the same as an in-house sales staff will.
Can a third party generate your revenue, treat your fans with superior
customer care, and operate with your best interests in mind? Maybe,
but that’s a gamble I wouldn’t take without careful
scrutiny and assurances of deliverables.
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