Filling the House

January 29, 2015
What are the latest tactics in increasing ticket sales? Arizona State University has found success by restructuring its staff, utilizing analytics, and focusing on group sales.
By Abbey Carter & Michael Meitin

Abbey Carter is the Director of Database Marketing and Analytics and Michael Meitin is Director of Ticket Sales and Service for Arizona State University athletics, contracted through The Aspire Group. They can be reached at: [email protected] and [email protected].

Every morning on our drive into the office, we pass a sign with a quote from Dr. Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University. It asks, "Do you replicate what exists or design what you really need?"

For all of us working in Sun Devil Athletics, this inspirational message is a great way to start the day. It is also a mantra that we have fully embraced over the past few years in our attempt to reach new heights.

In ASU's marketing and sales department, Dr. Crow's question has been particularly meaningful. In 2011, with customer satisfaction and affinity scores declining, the athletic administration decided to revamp and expand its ticketing department, outsourcing it to The Aspire Group. What followed was the creation of one of the largest ticket operation teams in collegiate sports, evolving from a staff consisting simply of sales and customer service to a highly specialized unit.

This change was prompted by a desire to upgrade customer service and the fan experience. In addition, it was part of a larger vision to create a culture of success and hire people with a shared vision.

While expanding the scope of ticket operations was the most noticeable change, there have been many subtle shifts in strategies that have also helped lead to better results. They include restructuring staff, partnering with other areas of athletics, putting energies in the right places, and increasing our use of analytics.

To date, our tactics have led to a 250 percent increase in new season ticket sales and a 50 percent increase in group ticket sales since 2011. The changes have also allowed us to become more customer-centric in creative ways.

Prior to 2011, ASU athletics employed an outbound sales operation comprised of a Director of Ticket Sales and 20 student workers. One of our first steps to upgrade operations was to drastically restructure the staff.

This began with a new focus on hiring and retention. All positions now require a college degree, and we look to bring on board people who have a strong work ethic and a passion for sports and sales.

Along with hiring promising employees, we put in place strategies to retain those staff members. Research by the NBA's Team Marketing and Business Operations (TMBO) has found that, in their first year, sales consultants produce an average of $100,000 in new revenue. This increases to $200,000 in their second year, and $300,000 in their third year. In order to drive more revenue, staff retention was critical. To accomplish this, we designed a structure to maximize sales across all products and sports and provide clear opportunities for career advancement within the department.

Another key was dividing sales into specialties. The largest part of our staff is responsible for new sales and is broken down into three main areas. The first is Business Development, which oversees the selling of season tickets and packages to local businesses. The second is Group Events, which is responsible for creating memorable experiences for groups attending our events. The third is Ticket Sales Consulting, which is the entry-level sales team.

Team leaders oversee each of the three groups, creating sales reports and ensuring their groups reach specific goals. They also have the following responsibilities:

The Business Development Team Leader has six salespeople reporting to him and assists with the creation of season ticket and mini-pack campaigns. This individual also helps with the development of new products across all sports, as well as staffing for any special events on game days.

The Group Events Team Leader oversees a staff of four, who concentrate on selling tickets to large groups such as youth sports teams, social and non-profit organizations, and schools. This person assists in creating marketing ideas and materials for group sales and works with our facilities staff to enhance the at-game experience for these spectators.

The Ticket Sales Consulting Team Leader is a title used for two of our staff members, each of whom supervises five reps conducting new sales. The main focus of these team leaders is training new employees to prepare them for long and successful careers in athletic ticket sales. Another critical part of their job is coordinating with other team leaders and managers to promote their staff members among all teams.

Overseeing these three groups is the New Ticket Sales Manager. In addition to being responsible for the development, training, and supervision of team leaders in new sales, this person helps to develop products, campaigns, and ideas and works with others to ensure proper execution of game day events.

The second leg of our staff, consisting of the Service & Retention Manager, two team leaders and six service representatives, focuses on renewals, customer service, and retention. These staff members are charged with delivering an extremely high level of service and building rapport with customers to ensure that season ticket accounts are renewed each year. Reps are held accountable for their own annual renewal rate and have specific goals for additional season tickets sales to current accounts and referrals of friends and associates.

A third manager on our staff handles Premium Sales and is responsible for sales and retention of our premium inventory, including season and single-game suites and the MidFirst Bank Stadium Club. He works directly with both the new sales and retention teams when they have a fan interested in one of the premium areas.

A lot of the managers' responsibilities focus on developing their staff in order to boost retention and grow our employees. This has resulted in 17 internal staff promotions to date.

In addition to restructuring the ticket staff, Sun Devil Athletics invested in a digital team to develop innovative ways to communicate with fans and expand our reach to new audiences. The positions include a Social Media Coordinator and a Digital Media and Communications Manager, as well as a Marketing Manager, who focuses on developing and implementing the department's e-mail marketing campaigns.

Over the past two years, we have reprioritized our sales philosophy to retaining existing customers first, growing casual fans second, and acquiring new fans last. Putting retention first keeps us from creating new sales packages that undermine season ticket prices and ensures that customers who have been with us the longest are given the most attention. In addition, we focus on season ticket holders because they spend the highest amounts of money and are most likely to refer other business.

A common response to declining revenue and attendance for collegiate programs is to hire a sales team focused solely on new ticket revenue. That can become a losing battle, because even renewing at 85 percent, the new sales team will have to fill that 15 percent gap before the total season ticket number can increase.

The primary way we boost renewals is by having one area of our operations completely committed to customer service and retention. Our six Service Reps are assigned roughly 1,100 accounts each and are responsible for creating three touch points with clients, accomplished primarily through phone calls or face-to-face visits during athletic events.

We have also implemented a new strategy for renewals, launching them during the sport season instead of waiting until the season ends. This captures fans when they are most engaged with the sport and also lengthens the sales cycle.

Finally, we've made it a top priority for fans renewing tickets to easily do business with us online. In addition to promoting online renewals, we have worked hard to allow season ticket purchases and their associated contributions to be completed in one online transaction. As a result, we saw a 400 percent increase in online football season ticket renewals for 2014.

All of these retention efforts have paid off. In 2013, every one of our sports with season tickets saw renewal rates over 85 percent, with some exceeding 95 percent.

After renewals, we want to grow the attendance frequency and wallet share of existing customers in the lower tiers. The goal here is to get partial plan holders or individual game ticket buyers to become season ticket holders. Throughout the season, our sales team calls partial plan holders. The initial calls are about building the relationship, with follow-up communication focused on up-selling them into season tickets for the following year.

When we do land new season ticket sales, we assign the seats right away and include those accounts in the seat upgrade process. This enables customers to get their most desirable location and acquaints them with the process. It also allows them to feel connected to the program immediately.

Job number three is the acquisition of new fans, and we do this by targeting prospects most likely to buy rather than relying on mass-media advertising campaigns to the public at large. The strategy here is to grow group sales and then provide them with an unforgettable game day experience that strengthens their connection to the team.

Many hands work on this, starting with our Group Events Team and extending to the marketing and facilities staffs, to name a few. One initiative that has helped tremendously is the expansion of Fan Experience Packages. Tied directly to the number of tickets purchased, these packages offer groups the opportunity to be a part of the action or take a look behind the scenes. Halftime performances, private facility tours, and pregame show involvement are some of our most popular fan experiences.

Other ways we enhance group sales is through:

- In-game video board recognition for groups in attendance
- Social media posts promoting upcoming large group nights
- An Intern Street Team to help at grassroots marketing events
- Using media relations to promote group sales initiatives and experiences.

From a marketing perspective, we have also embraced the idea of "peak on peak" promotions. We focus our marketing budget and sales strategies on maximizing games that are most likely to sell out. This works well because the atmosphere at a sold out event is exciting. If we can create that experience at a few of our largest events of the year, especially early in the season, the likelihood of fans at those games attending another is much higher.

Whether we are working on retention, growth, or acquisition, the more we know about a Sun Devil fan, the better our chances are to sell to him or her. We are currently working on compiling as much customer data as possible using new and evolving tools.

Like many schools, we capture data through engagement in social media competitions or texting votes for the player of the game. However, this information is meaningless if it can not be used to drive value or for future decision making.

A few years ago, we struggled with effectively using data because it was housed on multiple platforms that operated independently. This meant one customer's interactions could not be captured in a single view. It also made performing seemingly simple functions like producing list of e-mails of ASU alumni who have previously purchased football tickets and live in the San Francisco area was manual and required multiple departments' involvement.

In response, over the past 18 months, we have developed a centralized data management platform (DMP) that facilitates movement of information among systems and provides robust reporting. The DMP aggregates all of our patron information across the institution and allows us to see it in a single report. This provides visibility into and understanding about each relationship that was never before available.

The DMP also enables more timely interaction with fans. For example, last December, when the football team was invited to the Holiday Bowl, it took less than 20 minutes to generate a targeted segment of alumni in the San Diego area interested in Sun Devil football. The year before, when we went to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, the same process took a few days.

Our next step in upgrading our ticketing strategies is to use the ExactTarget Marketing Cloud, a digital marketing platform for customer relationship management (CRM). This will allow us to become even more customer-centric while streamlining and automating repetitive tasks. One of the first campaigns we plan to implement is "Welcome to Your ASU Season Tickets." This will be a set of e-mails triggered upon the sale of a new season ticket explaining the benefits of being a season ticket holder, such as how to transfer tickets to family or friends.

We are also excited about becoming more strategic with our communications, especially transactional messages such as ticket purchase confirmations and event registrations. Right now, most of our transactional e-mails to fans come from systems that do not allow for any branding or cross promotion. We plan to soon have the flexibility to add promotional information to ticket confirmations, which is significant. Since these confirmations have open rates of 85 to 100 percent, it's a great way to get our messages in front of our ticket holders. Much like confirmation e-mails that you receive from or Uber, they display information relevant to the customer in a creative fashion.

Another benefit of the new systems is the ability to integrate the communication history of each patron into our CRM platform, The visibility into constituents' interests and preferences will allow for more personalized service from our front-line staff.

In addition, the ability to retarget based on e-mails opened or links clicked will allow us to better reach our fans. For example, after sending out an e-mail to past football banquet attendees, we can follow up with the recipients who opened the e-mail or clicked on the link but did not register for the event.

Thanks to Dr. Crow's vision for Arizona State University and the commitment of Ray Anderson, current Vice President for University Athletics--who is committed to operating the athletic department as a profitable business where there is urgency, accountability, and creativity--we have established a new level of excellence in fan engagement. Whether you are just starting to reshape your ticket sales department or have been making changes for several years, figure out what you really need and start taking steps to get there.

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