Colleges look outside to boost sports ticket sales

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College athletic programs have done a better job putting fans in seats in the past few years, and it has more to do with who is working in the ticket office than how well the teams are playing.

Over the past three years, more than 60 Division I athletic programs have hired consultants to handle a portion of ticket sales, said Russell Wright, managing director of Atlanta-based Collegiate Consulting, one of the players in that field. Both the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University have hired such consultants. West Virginia University joined their ranks last month.

By outsourcing operations, schools have been able to delegate responsibilities that often were low priorities. As a result, revenues are growing.

In 2012, its first year working with IMG Learfield Ticket Solutions, a consultancy based in Winston-Salem, N.C., that works with 30 college teams, Penn State generated an additional $3 million in new ticket revenue, buoyed by a 100 percent growth in both new football ticket sales and group sales.

The Aspire Group, an Atlanta-based firm that works with about two dozen schools, noted that in its three-year relationship with Georgia Tech, the school generated $4.5 million in new sales.

Schools share revenue from the new sales with the consultancies, though parties declined to disclose the revenue split. Those consultants work in-house, often wearing university apparel and appearing like other university employees.

“This is a group of people that are here, they’re working out of our ticket office, they’re in our staff meetings. They’re very much a part of our team,” said Chris Ferris, Pitt’s executive associate athletic director for external operations.

About three years ago, Pitt started working with IMG Learfield to generate new ticket sales. The company has five employees working in Pitt’s ticket office.

The IMG Learfield consultants have worked on developing stronger relationships in the Pittsburgh business community, which is an important clientele for professional sports teams. The consultants also increased Pitt’s group sales presence, reaching out to youth sports leagues and church groups, Mr. Ferris said.

Pitt sold more than 8,000 new football season tickets last season, its first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The biggest benefit of the partnership is that it created a group of employees who could work to generate new sales leads with a “laser focus,” Mr. Ferris said. Before the arrangement, Pitt’s ticketing office was juggling so many responsibilities that generating new leads was not a priority.

“Their time gets sliced and diced. That group has always done an outstanding job,” Mr. Ferris said. “Our relationship with IMG Learfeild was designed to enhance our efforts.”

Ticket sales at college athletic programs were reactive, not proactive, Mr. Wright said. Sales representatives would respond to emails and answer phone calls, but they would not initiate those conversations.

Pitt is not unlike most large college athletic programs that in the past loaded a number of responsibilities on the ticket office. In addition to sales, staffs often are responsible for ticket renewals, box office operations, printing, shipping and customer service.

“They shouldn’t be doing sales,” said Russ Dean, director of partnership management for IMG Learfield. “Ticket operations is a fantastic job, but operations and sales are two totally different animals.”

Before the trend of hiring consultants, most schools had an administrator in charge of external operations. Those individuals were in charge of marketing, sponsorships, apparel licensing, ticket sales and several game operations. Mr. Dean worked in those roles for 17 years at three different universities.

“For a long time, my list of job responsibilities as a marketing director was, like, 20 things long,” Mr. Dean said. “One of them said, ‘‍Sell tickets.’‍ ”

With these new business partnerships, administrators are able to delegate a big source of revenue generation to a dedicated sales team.

Georgia Tech and Temple University were some of the first schools to employ the tactic, and their success spurred many to follow in the past few years. Economic realities have helped, Mr. Wright said.

“They’re in a hiring freeze,” he said. “They can outsource, they can bring on consultants, but they can’t hire employees.”

In most cases, it is a risk-free relationship. With Pitt, Penn State and IMG Learfield, the schools pay only commission on new sales.

But the arrangement does not work for all schools. Robert Morris University in Moon has been searching for a director of athletic ticket sales. Though the school has noticed the trend to hire consultants to handle those responsibilities, it won’t be following suit.

“We are in-house, and we will be staying in house for the foreseeable future,” said Marty Galosi, Robert Morris’ senior associate athletic director. The school is basing its decision off its success by hiring an in-house director of sponsorship and fundraising, another position many universities have outsourced.

“Our portfolio has never been better,” Mr. Galosi said.

Other smaller schools have opted to maintain control of their ticket operations, holding on to all revenue generated in the process.

Bigger schools are finding the arrangement most advantageous in sports where sales previously were sluggish. The University of Alabama does not need much help selling out its football stadium as the Crimson Tide have won three national championships in the past few years. But there are a lot of empty seats at basketball games.

Pitt has used the arrangement to boost sales for its Petersen Sports Complex, which houses its baseball, softball and soccer teams.

“It’s not rocket science,” Mr. Wright said. “As we look at it, it truly is hiring the right people and as — they’re making the calls — proactively, aggressively selling ticketed sports.”

Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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