By Adrien Bouchet, PhD
A look inside the challenges of implementing a ticket sales department within a college athletics department.
Recently, my colleagues and I completed an academic paper that explored how one athletic department struggled with adopting a ticket sales strategy to help in revenue generation. This study chronicled the University of Miami from 1998-2008. Miami was one of the first athletic departments to utilize an aggressive outbound ticket sales staff to help in revenue generation.
Based on our findings, we found four obstacles that athletic departments must overcome if they wish to operate a successful ticket sales department. While we acknowledge that all athletic departments operate in different economic, cultural, and political environments, we feel that the propositions listed below will benefit any athletic department interested in implementing a ticket sales initiative.
Historically, many college athletic departments have been reluctant to commit resources to an aggressive outbound ticket sales department focused exclusively on the selling of season and group tickets. Whereas professional sport organizations use their ticket sales departments to promote and sell tickets to their organization's events, the majority of college athletic departments have been unwilling to adequately fund, hire, train and maintain a dedicated ticket sales staff.
The challenges facing the implementation and management of a ticket sales force in an environment such as a university athletic department are extensive. Foremost among these challenges is gaining a commitment from senior level athletic department personnel to provide managerial and financial support to ticket sales initiatives. Unlike professional sport organizations, which are motivated by bottom line profits, athletic departments frequently rely on university support to help subsidize revenue shortfalls. This support often comes in the form of student fees, donations, or direct payments. Because of the university support, initiatives to increase revenue through aggressive outbound ticket sales departments have been, for the most part, overlooked by many athletic departments.
1) Frequent Turnover of College Athletic Administrators
Frequent turnover at the senior leadership levels of a collegiate athletic department and the resulting changes in priorities adversely affect the chances of success for a ticket sales department. A committed effort to establishing strategic initiatives regarding ticket sales is directly related to the priorities set forth by current athletic department administrators. As such, the ticket sales initiatives implemented within athletic departments are often short lived due to the frequency with which assistant and associate athletic directors are replaced. Such turnover among upper level administration does not allow managers of ticket sales departments to maintain a consistent strategy due to the various differences in priorities and tactics brought about by each subsequent change.
2) Limited Ticket Sales Experience of Senior Administrators
Because of the limited experience most senior level athletic department administrators have regarding ticket sales, a commitment to establishing a tickets sales department is hindered. The reluctance of senior administrators to create and adequately fund tickets sales departments will only change when athletic directors hire senior athletic department administrators that have ticket sales experience.
While some athletic departments have recently started ticket sales departments there has been a reluctance to hire or promote the heads of ticket sales departments to senior level positions. The trend is to hire administrators for senior level positions that have experience in donation or fundraising despite the fact that ticket sales typically generate much more revenue. Because of this, many prospective college athletic administrators rightfully look at the donation and fundraising positions as the key to advancement up the athletic department ladder.
3) Difficulties in Reporting Structure
Most sports organizations do not function in an entirely formal or structured environment. In fact, many organizations have effective strategies in place that create channels of communication outside the hierarchical structure.
The channels that exist between various operations within an athletic department do not always function as efficiently as an organizational chart might imply. That is, a majority of ticket operations departments at the university level report directly to the Chief Financial Officer/Associate A.D. for Business whereas the ticket sales department often reports to the Chief Marketing Officer/Associate A.D. for External Relations. This often creates confused lines of communication concerning the priorities of revenue generation within the department.
4) Recruiting and Compensating Ticket Sales Staff
Recruiting sales force personnel is often challenged in collegiate athletic departments because of the unwillingness of most universities to pay competitive base salaries and sales commissions relative to those in professional, for-profit industries. Some of the challenges facing ticket sales departments in college athletics stem from the fact that many state supported universities have bylaws forbidding university administrators to grant commissions or bonuses to employee staff.
Many of the challenges also result from an unwillingness of athletic departments to pay competitive salaries to any non-senior level administrator regardless of the amount of revenue generated by that particular person. This is a problem that very few professional, for-profit companies have. For these companies, sales personnel are often some of the highest paid employees in an organization. In athletic departments, they are often the lowest, however.
On a final note, the majority of college teams compete in older stadiums and arenas. The change to newer and larger athletic venues will create a motivation for athletic department personnel to make funding and services more readily available for ticket sales departments. As such, a greater commitment to ticket sales departments should be realized during this time of new venue construction.
As athletic departments move closer towards a more professional model, it is essential that department administrators understand the conditions and consequences necessary to insure the successful implementation and management of ticket sales initiatives in college athletics.
Adrien Bouchet, PhD, is the Warren Clinic Endowed Chair Professor for the Collins College of Business at the University of Tulsa.