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Selling Your Sports

By Kenny Berkowitz - Assistant Editor at MomentumMedia Sports Publishing.

The newest ideas in boosting ticket sales include e-mail marketing, rewarding season ticket holders, facilitating group sales, and catering to the hometown crowd.

In past years, if Arizona State University had any unsold tickets for its men's basketball game against rival University of Arizona, Steve Hank faced a dilemma. As soon as advance sale single-game tickets became available, opposing fans would start buying them. While no one is happy to see empty seats, Hank didn't relish the idea of Wildcat fans setting up their own cheering sections close to the floor, thus taking away an important part of the Sun Devils' home-court advantage.

Thanks to Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, Hank, Director of Marketing and Revenue Generation at Arizona State University, no longer faces a problem. Before putting single-game tickets on sale to the general public, Hank can now directly target the Sun Devils' most loyal supporters. Using a system that combines several campus databases, Hank can tell who his fans are, which sports they follow, where they sit, and what they buy. Before last year's game against the University of Arizona, he used this system to give members of the Devil's Domain fan club an exclusive online ticket window, and within 48 hours brought in almost $14,000 in sales.

"We needed to find a better way to connect with our fans and build that one-on-one relationship," says Hank. "We found it with CRM, creating a program that is structured 100 percent toward delivering what our customers want, when they want it, and how they want it."

But CRM is not the only new approach to selling tickets in today's market. Around the country, athletic programs are using a variety of methods to increase their ticket sales and attendance. Northwestern University is finding new ways to reward its season ticket holders. The University of Wisconsin is playing up its stadium improvements. At Texas Christian University, the athletic department is hosting a series of promotions designed to bring its Fort Worth neighbors into the football stadium. The University of Washington is drawing new supporters through "Hometown Nights." And the University of Missouri is emphasizing group sales around the state.

In the next wave of ticketing technology, college students will be able to buy tickets over the Internet by encoding the ticket information onto their school ID card's magnetic strip, which will then be scanned when the students enter the arena. And even though those improvements are still years away, marketers are using current CRM technology to change the single-game ticket paradigm.

"The advent of e-mail marketing and CRM software is revolutionizing the way we're able to sell tickets," says Leslie Wurzberger, Assistant Athletic Director for Marketing and Promotions at the University of Washington. "We're all going to keep using a lot of strategies to attract the first-timers. But where we're really going to generate significant revenue is by focusing on people who have been to at least one game and trying to increase their frequency of attendance.

"CRM also allows us to know who our customers are and what they want," she continues. "It allows us to tailor our offers according to what they've told us they want, and to do it in a timely manner."

For example, in a men's basketball promotion called "Bleacher Blowouts," Wurzberger sold large numbers of upper-level seats during the 36 hours between a Huskies' Saturday night win and the moment she walked into her office on Monday morning. By selling that inventory online, Wurzberger was able to cut down on box office lines, publicize the team's sold-out sales before the following game, and collect additional information about the purchasing habits of Washington's basketball fans.

"Two days before a game there's not enough time to send an offer through the mail, and we wouldn't want to use the newspapers to tell everyone we're discounting tickets," says Wurzberger. "But with e-mail, we can reach our fans very quickly and in a very personal way. We can literally sell those tickets overnight."

At Arizona State, Hank uses the CRM system to send out a steady stream of e-mail to anyone who registers online for the Devil's Domain fan club, offering them exclusive content every week of the school year. On Mondays, fans are sent "The Devil's Insider," an e-mail newsletter with a post-game analysis and pre-game scouting report written by members of the coaching staff. On Tuesdays, those fans are sent the Sun Devil Minute, a behind-the-scenes highlight video of the previous week, produced in conjunction with Fox Sports Net Arizona. On Wednesdays, they receive sport-specific e-newsletters about their favorite teams. On Thursdays, they're sent The Devil's Advantage, a ticket offer based on their personalized customer profile.

"By combining offers with exclusive content, we've been very successful," says Hank, whose department sees a three to 11 percent response rate from Devil's Advantage offers. "A lot of people who get e-mail marketing just delete it. But because we send content, our fans read it, enjoy it, and view the offers as a special benefit of being part of the Devil's Domain. They don't see it as advertising, they see it as a reward for membership."

With fan information collected into one system, Hank can send different offers to different fans. "We personalize our offers based on a fan's profile, to make sure we're communicating in a timely, relevant manner," he says. "For instance, if someone has only bought lower-level tickets, we're not going to send them an offer for upper-level tickets because that would only irritate them. And if you're a season ticket holder, sending you a discount ticket offer could upset you. So we send something that speaks to you: a special offer for the concession stand."

At Arizona State, there's already a high level of customer satisfaction. In a study commissioned by the athletic department, 85 percent of fans described themselves as "very satisfied" with the Devil's Domain, and 89 percent said the club increased their sense of loyalty to the school. But at Northwestern University, where Chris Boyer works as the Assistant Athletic Director for Marketing and Sponsor Services, the numbers paint a very different picture.

According to a recent survey by the university's business school, the majority of undergraduates had no interest in sports, no interest in Northwestern sports, and no affinity for the university. Even when attendance is good, such as with the men's basketball games that draw 1,000 undergraduates from the 7,500-person student body, the revenues are much lower than they are for other Big Ten schools.

Instead of spending his energy trying to convert new fans from a largely uninterested student body, Boyer is concentrating on two separate strategies. He's focusing on the segment of the student population that responded most favorably to the survey—members of fraternities, sororities, intramural teams, and club teams—and targeting them directly with information about upcoming games. And at the same time, he's working to retain current subscribers, using an approach he calls "adding value for season ticket holders."

The department has set up a special hotline for season ticket holders to call with questions or concerns, added personal account pages to the ticket office's Web site where subscribers can make changes to their profile, and floated a special offer for discounted bleacher seat-back rentals. And Northwestern's new VIP plan gives season ticket holders special offers from the university's corporate partners, exclusive opportunities to e-mail questions directly to head coaches, and invitations to pre-season members-only functions.

"We also e-mail at least one weekly communication to our season ticket holders," says Boyer. "It could be a letter from the athletic director, comments from a player, statistics, anything. The important thing is that it's something unique that we are offering only to our season ticket holders and not distributing to the general public."

After improved performance by last year's football team and a new focus on customer service, Boyer hopes that season ticket renewals will approach 100 percent. At the University of Wisconsin, where there's a similar emphasis on retaining season ticket holders, the renewal rate has hovered around 96 and 97 percent for the last five years, and has now climbed to over 98 percent.

"Our major focus is on our current customers, so we're very, very pleased," says Vince Sweeney, Senior Associate Athletic Director. Trying to fill a newly expanded football stadium, this year's renewal drive emphasized the impact of the upcoming improvements, and succeeded in selling out 72 suites, 900 premium seating opportunities, and 4,000 new season tickets. "Our strategy," says Sweeney, "was to keep promoting the good times that fans would be having at this newly renovated facility, and to incorporate that excitement into all communications."

In practice, that meant sending a quarterly newsletter and regular e-news releases to supporters, using the new media to take the department's message straight to its fans. "We go directly to fans, eliminating the middleman, especially with stories the local media may not think are newsworthy, like when our athletes get an outstanding grade point average, or when they're out performing community service," says Sweeney. "That's been a key component of strengthening and nurturing that relationship."

To encourage season ticket holders to renew online, the department also improved its Web site, offering subscribers a chance to win additional free season tickets or tickets to away games. "We've provided incentives for people to renew online, because it saves us a lot of administrative time and effort," says Sweeney. "The more people we can get to renew online, the better off we are, so we're constantly looking for ways to improve the process."

While more emphasis is being put on retaining and cultivating existing fans, schools have not abandoned efforts to bring in new fans. In focusing on increasing attendance, especially from its neighbors in Fort Worth, Texas Christian University provides family entertainment for every home football game. "Many times, families have negative associations with tailgating," says Tim George, Director of Marketing and Promotions at TCU. "So we let them know that we provide a safe environment where they can purchase food and soft drinks, and sit around listening to music while their kids get their faces painted, watch magicians, play on inflatable games, and maybe even win a T-shirt. It's an inexpensive way to take the kids out, and we have many families say it's the highlight of their fall."

For years, the department had hosted a Western Heritage Day, but in 2003, TCU decided to enlarge its appeal by including historians talking about Wild West antiques, blacksmiths demonstrating their craft, and Native Americans setting up teepees. "That day, we had the best attendance we've had in about 10 years," says George. "I'm not nave enough to think that it was all due to Western Heritage Day, but I believe that had a lot to do with it, because it provided another reason for all those families to come to the game."

TCU also hosts an annual Fiesta de los Frogs, which creates a pre-game festival atmosphere outside the stadium, while also celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with food, music, games, and dance. In reaching out to its neighbors, TCU has reaped benefits that impact far beyond a single game. Throughout the process of organizing last year's Fiesta, George made "tons and tons of contacts" with local business owners and Hispanic alumni. He also strengthened the department's ties with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which helped find sponsors to purchase tickets that were then distributed to elementary and middle school students.

"There are many families right here in Fort Worth and the surrounding communities, and it makes a lot of sense to target them directly," George says. "We want them to think of TCU as their home team, whether they went to school here or not. We want to bring in the young fans who'll grow up saying, 'I want to go to TCU.'"

At the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where more than 75 percent of the students are classified as commuters, the athletic department has a strong interest in marketing its sporting events to families and local residents. "To go after the youth, you need to recognize that someone, usually a mom or dad, is going to have to take them to our games," says Dan DeVos, Assistant Athletic Director for Marketing and Ticket Operations. "You need to get the whole family to build an association with your athletic program, either in one sport or all your sports."

To do that, UNC-Charlotte organizes a Kids Club to help foster family attendance, offering members a post-game autograph session with the men's basketball team and a post-season basketball clinic with Head Coach Bobby Lutz and his staff. UNC-Charlotte also uses direct mail to create fans out of new arrivals in the local community.

"Before the season starts, we send a letter from our head coach to new homeowners in the area, offering them free tickets to two or three of our non-conference games," says DeVos. "Then, after the games, we follow up with phone calls thanking them for coming and to sell them on purchasing tickets to another game. Even if they don't buy, they become part of our database and receive our season ticket information the following year."

To further that mission, the department sponsors family outreach efforts during the school year to send players and coaches into the community. The sessions usually include the mascot, student-athletes, and the coaches, who can use the events to appeal directly to children and their parents.

"The coaches really like doing outreach, because it gives them an opportunity to connect with their individual sport fan bases," says DeVos. "It allows them the opportunity to promote their summer camps. And it gives them a chance to talk about their sport, which they take great pride in promoting to the youth and to the community."

At the University of Washington, Wurzberger builds community with a series of promotions called "Hometown Nights," which are designed to reach potential fans outside the city limits. Combing through the rosters of Washington's student-athletes, she selects teams that have two or three players from one of the smaller communities surrounding Seattle, and names a contest after their hometown, using the event to build Huskies loyalty from her student-athletes' older fans.

"For example, we'll have a Woodinville Night," says Wurzberger. "We'll do a lot of grassroots marketing with the chamber of commerce and the weekly newspaper in Woodinville. We've gotten some great responses. Typically, the community paper will do an article on how their student-athletes are doing. It's been a very inexpensive way for us to generate some fun and publicity."

Another Washington strategy to build community is offering group discounts to youth groups that are looking for a new kind of fundraiser. "We have started looking at opportunities to use our tickets in a fundraising capacity, with youth teams and youth groups that are tired of doing the same old candy sale," Wurzberger says. "We sell individual game tickets at our group price to youth groups, which can then resell them at full price as individual tickets and keep the difference."

To generate sales for the only Division I-A football program in the state, marketers at the University of Missouri think regionally, drawing a third of their season ticket holders from St. Louis, located about 90 minutes away, and Kansas City, located about two hours away. Using information from their alumni database, they target TV advertising to sections of the state with the greatest numbers of alumni, then push group sales to these alumni.

"Group sales allows us to accomplish a number of different objectives at once," says Frank Cuervo, Director of Marketing at Missouri. "Employees at a particular company can purchase tickets at a discounted rate, which helps generate incremental revenue and attendance for us. At the same time, it gives us a highly-qualified lead to use in turning them into more regular ticket purchasers or indeed into season ticket holders. We wind up selling somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 group tickets per game."

Cuervo concentrates on major employers in St. Louis and Kansas City, working with human resource departments to create a special "Sprint Day" or "Nestle Purina Day" at the stadium, but also works with companies that have as few as 100 employees. The key to starting a group sales program with a new company, says Cuervo, is finding the right insider—ideally, someone at the company who already has a sense of loyalty to your program, such as an alum or a season ticket holder.

"You can come in and provide as much information as people need," says Cuervo. "But ultimately you have to have an advocate on the inside who is willing to pitch this and sell it to their employees."

TCU takes a similar approach to group sales, and has hired a full-time coordinator whose job is to make it easier for human resource departments to plan group purchases. "One of the challenges of selling to groups is having to ask the human resources director to take a lot of the responsibility," says George. "With our new full-time person in charge, we've made it much easier for people to buy group tickets. We're going above and beyond what people expect, taking the burden off those corporate contacts in order to make group sales a pleasant experience."

It's still important to find the right insider at a company to help with the efforts, thus TCU also has a Group Leader Incentive Program. The program rewards organizers with complimentary tickets, exclusive group leader T-shirts, certificates for merchandise at the TCU store, a personalized Horned Frog football jersey, and a tailgate party for 10 people, along with priority seating and entry into a sweepstakes for a post-season grand prize.

"Using contacts from our football groups, we also sold an additional 2,000 tickets for baseball, and an additional 5,000 to 6,000 tickets for basketball, which is a good amount for us," says George. "It definitely helped this season, and I think in the future it's going to help even more. It's a huge undertaking, but now that we've got contacts for just about every demographic, it's going to pay off even more in the future."

The key to increasing ticket sales, says Wurzberger, is to keep trying new ideas until you find the ones that work for your market. Some of the best ideas are already taking root around the country: using prerecorded messages from coaches and student-athletes to encourage season ticket holders to renew their subscriptions; giving basketball subscribers extra tickets for their friends for holiday games; creating a point system to reward students who attend the greatest number of events; and setting up temporary ticket tables in key places on campus.

They're all worth thinking about, and for Sweeney, the key is to keep delivering the department's message, night after night, to as many fans as possible. "We're not very subtle in our scoreboard messages and public address announcements," he says. "We're constantly advertising other home athletic events in every sport. We're not just promoting a game, we're spreading the excitement about Badger athletics.

"There are lots of great ideas in sports marketing, and lots of people who are doing great things," he continues. "You have to be very creative in putting together a program that works for your community. The key is to know what motivates them, and what's going to make them respond to your offer." is brought to you by a recognized and established name in the school athletics arena, MomentumMedia—publisher of Athletic Management, Coaching Management and Training & Conditioning magazines.