Sports Sales Academy is like a ticket to a career

Kelsi Darr understands why some sports business students aren’t sold on selling tickets.

But they’d better not breathe a word of that while pitching themselves to a potential employer – such as Darr.

“There’s a misconception that you go into sales in hopes of getting your foot in the door and finding other things,” said Darr, one of the organizers of the first Sports Sales Academy at Grand Canyon University. “Now, we’re looking to bring in people who are committed to sales and want to grow as a salesperson.

“Obviously, that’s not going to be 100%, and you’re going to lose people along the way. But I can personally tell you that I do not hire someone who says they want to go into team operations in a year.”

That’s why Dr. Mark Clifford, Assistant Dean and Director of Sports Business for the Colangelo College of Business, wanted to create the Sports Sales Academy, conducted over five weekly meetings this fall. The Sports and Entertainment Management Program now contains a sales course, but he saw the need for local professionals to underscore its importance.

He found two willing collaborators in Darr, transitioning to a new role with the digital platform TicketManager, and Phil Fisher, Manager of Inside Sales for the Arizona Coyotes of the National Hockey League.

Fisher, who came to the Coyotes last spring, had developed classroom sessions while working in sales for the reigning National Basketball Association champions, the Milwaukee Bucks, because he saw the need for colleges to teach those skills.

Sports management is such a broad topic, he said, that it’s difficult to include much instruction about sales – and sales in sports is much more nuanced and creative than ringing up customers at a department store.

“Gone are the days where you can go to a career fair and say, ‘Hey, we helped give somebody a job.’ I think if you’re truly impacting and becoming part of the institution, to some degree you’re helping build the curriculum,” he said. “What’s nice about GCU is that it’s newer compared to a lot of schools, so it’s ahead of the curve.”

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Representatives from baseball (Arizona Diamondbacks, Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, Goodyear Ballpark, Surprise Stadium), basketball (Phoenix Suns), soccer (Phoenix Rising) and Phoenix Raceway quickly signed up for the opportunity to share their ideas.

More than 40 students were taught how to be comfortable while being uncomfortable with selling, learning to sell from a script, making recommendations and closing the sale. The most valuable portion of the program was having them conduct a make-believe call with one of the team representatives, who critiqued their performance.

“The challenge is, every sports team has its own unique way of selling its product. This academy came down to the collaboration of Kelsi and Phil to figure out a general approach in a five-week succession that every sales manager would buy into,” Clifford said.

Darr spoke to the students from personal experience. She had no college training in sales and had negative thoughts about it before she started in the San Antonio Spurs’ inside sales program.

“I was definitely one of the people we warn the students of, like, ‘Oh, it’s a scary word. No one wants to do it,’” she said. “I had the same misconception of, ‘I’m not going into sales.’

“And here we are.”

Before moving to her current “here” at TicketManager, which manages ticketing for companies, she was an account executive for the Phoenix Rising for four years. Her time with the Spurs included four months in inside sales, then two years as an account executive with San Antonio FC, a soccer club the Spurs’ owners had purchased.

Darr enjoys sales because she enjoys conversations. That was something she stressed during the Sports Sales Academy – just talk to people and try to make them feel comfortable.

“It ended up going really well. We’re pretty happy with how it turned out,” she said. “We took some goals Mark had for it and applied it to what we’ve seen work at other schools, such as sports sales competitions. It’s also a recruiting tactic for us if we’re getting in front of these students early.

“These were skills they hadn’t learned before. They had no idea what sales is like and what the expectations would be.”

Fisher was delighted that students didn’t ask the typical “What is it like to work in sports?” questions.

“I thought it was really refreshing – a lot of the students were engaged and cared,” he said. “They legitimately cared about the strategy and the mindset behind it, and I think that was behind why they were able to pick it up the way they did.”

Clifford wanted to exterminate any thoughts students might have about equating sales for a sports team to the reputation of used car sales. Sports is much different.

“It’s how you drive revenue for an organization and how you get people in seats to enjoy the experience of a sporting event,” he said. “That was the objective of this whole thing, to make sure students know what it is and hopefully give them an upper hand because 60-70% of entry-level positions in sports are in sales.

“This is how you’re probably going to start, and if you understand revenue generation for an organization, that can take you so many ways. And, realistically, what we’ve been trying to impress on our students is, you’re always selling, whether you’re selling yourself during an interview or you’re selling yourself in talking about a program that you’re really interested in.”

Clifford likens his own role to a sales position.

“I do this every day just talking about GCU and the sports management program,” he said. “I’m not trying to get anybody to buy. I just want them to understand what we do. It’s really selling the program, and people want to hear about it.”

Justin Peterson, a 2016 GCU graduate in sports business who’s now a business development manager for the Los Angeles Kings hockey club, tells anyone who will listen that sales is like an extension of a team’s marketing.

“You talk to people every day on the phone. You are the face and voice of a team. You do a lot of firsthand marketing. You do a lot of firsthand event planning. You have a huge part in revenue generation,” he said.

Like Darr, he didn’t think he’d want to get into sales. “I always had that misconception that it was dirty, it was a used car salesman, it was slimy,” he said.

But now that he has been in it awhile and is doing the hiring, his attitude mirrors Darr’s sentiments:

“If I’m talking to someone at a career fair and I ask what they want to do in sports and they say they want to do marketing, they’re done,” he said. “I think there’s a very big misconception. Somebody says they want to work in marketing, but they have no living clue what marketing involves.

“When I’m looking for salespeople, I want somebody who’s bought in. I want somebody who lives and breathes it and has a strong will and conviction to be in sales. If your sole ticket to getting into sales is to be there for three to six months so you can go be in marketing, then you’re not the right person for me.”

Sports salespeople must be ready for one other possible challenge: The team they work for might have a bad season. When that happens, some take it hard. “They think it’s their fault” he said.

But no matter how successful the team is, sales is the ticket to a career in sports. The first order of business for students is to sell themselves on the idea, and the academy helped seal the deal.

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