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“Gentlemen, this is a football.”

Steve DeLay's picture

By Steve DeLay

Ticket sales isn’t rocket science, if you keep the fundamentals in mind.

Before their first practice at training camp every year, Vince Lombardi used to call together his team for a meeting.

He would prowl back and forth in front of the players with his hands behind his back until everyone was settled and he had their full attention. He then would stop, pause and look at the players with fire in his eyes. He then would bring a football from behind his back.

“Gentlemen, this is a football,” he would say. “If we block and we tackle, this game is not that difficult. It’s all about the fundamentals.”

He could have just as easily been talking about ticket sales. If you focus on the fundamentals, ticket sales is not that difficult. However, these days, it’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of the latest craze, the most recent ‘best practice’. Those are all well and good and could be part of an overall ticket sales strategy. But don’t let yourself get distracted from these four basic fundamentals.

  1. Have the right ticket products for your team. One size does not fit all when it comes to ticket sales. Sure, season tickets are the lifeblood of every sports team. However, for some teams and some markets, season tickets may not be right. Think of Detroit. The Red Wings are one of the best selling teams in the NHL. They sell a boatload of full season tickets. However, if the Detroit Pistons tried to jam season tickets down every prospect’s throat, they wouldn’t have much success coming off successive losing seasons. The Pistons would likely have to focus on selling partial ticket plans, half season plans and group tickets to build their attendance. Once they started selling out more games and the best seats were filled up, more fans would gravitate toward buying full season tickets.

    If your team is not selling a lot of tickets, don’t just blame your team’s win-loss record. Don’t blame your arena or stadium. Take a hard look at what ticket products you are offering your fans. Are you only offering products you want to sell (like full season tickets)? Or are you truly offering products your fans want to buy?

  2. Have the right strategy to take those products to market. Once you have the right products, think long and hard how you spend your sales and marketing dollars and whether those expenditures are effective. A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet with an NFL team exec who told me their team had more than 1,000 unsold club seats at $400 each. I did some quick math and figured that they had around $4,000,000 in unsold tickets sitting there (I included the two home pre-season games). I asked what they were going to do to move those seats. He told me they were going to launch an outdoor billboard campaign and also send out a 100,000 piece mailing to households in their market. I asked if he would consider hiring 4-5 salespeople to call on corporations (who could afford the club seats much easier than individual households) and was told, “maybe, let’s see how the direct mail and outdoor campaign do.”

    A year later, I saw another exec from that team and asked how the club seat sales were going. He told me after the team had a mediocre season on the field, they now had 1,700 club seats available. The billboard and direct mail didn’t work. Instead of hiring those salespeople and calling on businesses, the team took a different approach the next year. They went out and signed a couple high-priced, highly visible draft picks and free agents and turned ticket sales around. I wonder what they would have done if they hadn’t been able to land those new players.

    Make sure your marketing strategy is the right strategy to reach your target market for each ticket product. You must likely will need a different strategy for each product you want to sell. Direct mail, email, face to face sales calls, on-line ads are all trackable. Don’t get fooled by billboards, TV and radio. They may build the brand but are they truly selling you tickets?

  3. Hire and then train the heck out of your salespeople. A lot of teams bring in sales trainers to work with their new salespeople and provide a refresher for their veterans. These sessions usually take 2-3 days and everyone is fired up at the end. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against outside sales trainers at all. I’ve done sales training for teams. However, the key for the team isn’t just bringing in a sales trainer and so they can check that off the list.

    The Director of Ticket Sales needs to do the follow up. Sales training doesn’t just last for a couple days. It should be on-going throughout the entire twelve month season. Sales Managers should be required to go on one sales call each week with their salespeople. The salespeople should be videotaped and then watch and critique the video with the Sales Manager at least twice a month for six months after the sales training.

    I was told early on in my career as a Sales Manager that I should spend 50% of my time working with my salespeople to help them improve, 25% of my time interviewing and recruiting new salespeople so I always had new people in the pipeline and the remaining 25% of my time on the daily meetings and minutiae that all managers have to do. I would be willing to bet for most Directors of Ticket Sales, the percentages are the opposite. They would consider themselves lucky if they even can spend 10% of their time helping their salespeople improve. You can have the greatest ticket products in the world and the best strategy but if your salespeople can’t sell, you’ll never maximize ticket revenue.

  4. Track Everything. When I say everything, I mean everything. If you think it might be useful data in the future, keep track because you can’t go back and recreate it. As a Sales Manager and marketer, the most valuable tool you have is data. Data from your sales staff’s activity, data from your advertising and data from your, well, your databases.
  5. a. Track all advertising. I don’t know many teams that have the budget to run a million dollar advertising campaign without having to worry about generating sales. Quite frankly, I always wonder why teams spend oodles of money on image and branding campaigns. Sports teams are the most visible of all businesses. The people interested in buying your tickets know how you performed last season. They have a pretty darn good idea whether you are a playoff contender or pretender. Sports teams don’t need the ‘branding’ that comes from billboards or TV spots. You need sales.

    Track every newspaper ad, radio spot, on-line ad, email and direct mail letter you run or send out to figure your ratio. The ratio is how many dollars did you generate versus the cost of the ad. If you spend $3,000 on a newspaper ad, you darn well better generate more than $3,000 in sales from that ad or you are losing money for your team. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to generate a 3:1 return on all print advertising and a 5:1 return on all direct mail. Radio spots are a little tougher to track but do it. Ask every single person who calls in to order where they heard about your offer. You’ll be much smarter the next year on where to spend your money to get the best return.

    b. Track all of the activity from your salespeople. Track the number of phone calls each salesperson makes. Track the number of face to face appointments. Track their close ratio. To go along with all the training you’re going to be doing for your salespeople, you need to know whether it’s working. Don’t just look at their total revenue. Look at their activity. Salespeople usually don’t fail because they want to. It’s up to their Sales Manager to track their activity to help them be more successful.

    The purpose of tracking all this data isn’t to overwhelm your support staff with Excel spreadsheets or dazzle the owners with PowerPoints. It’s to determine on a daily, weekly and monthly basis whether your strategy is working. Do you need to adjust. What can you do differently next year to use your resources more efficiently and sell more tickets.

    Things like Facebook marketing, Google ads, Twitter, CRM systems and smartphone apps may help you communicate better with your fans. However, I’ve yet to see anyone uncover the silver bullet that sells thousands of tickets. Keep your eyes focused on the fundamentals above.

Think in terms of football like Vince Lombardi. Blocking and tackling are the fundamentals. Occasionally the dazzling flea flicker might work to score a touchdown but it’s the blocking and tackling that wins games and championships.

Steve DeLay has spent 20 years in the sports industry selling tickets in Major League Baseball, the NBA, NHL and minor league baseball. He presently works as a revenue consultant for sports teams. He can be reached at

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