College sports are becoming more like the pros every day. To fill stadiums and maximize revenues, college football programs are outsourcing ticket sales to aggressive, leave-no-money-on-the-table sports marketing firms. Sales staffers work on commission—some even get commissions from donations accepted while selling tickets—spend their days cold calling alumni and casual fans to pitch them on ticket packages, and are known to say things like “Non-profit is a tax classification, not a state of mind.” A USA Today story of the outsourcing of college sports ticket sales says that not long ago, the situation was quite different:
There not only was no need to be pushy in order to sell tickets to college games, there also was a fear of offending donors and deep-rooted fan bases by allowing non-profit colleges to have even the appearance of a chase-every-possible-dollar, professional sports business.
The days of relying on alumni to buy season tickets year in, year out simply because they have a soft spot for the old alma mater are apparently over.
Nowadays, specialty marketing firms like the Aspire Group have taken over ticket-selling operations for the likes of Georgia Tech, Rutgers, Louisiana Tech, and Army. And the approach of Aspire and other firms sounds like it was crafted in the college business school, not during a cozy meeting of rah-rah alumni:
“An empty seat is a cancer to your brand, and no athletic director wants that,” says Aspire’s general manager, Bill Fagan.
To avoid cancer (i.e., put paying customers in the seats), the marketing firms benefiting from outsourcing utilize “proactive” ticket selling techniques that universities rarely employed when operations were in-house. The proactive tactics aren’t unlike those used by all sorts of random telemarketers: Locate would-be customers via contact databases, call them up, and give them your best pitch to convince them to buy.
Another interesting—and potentially annoying and offensive—way colleges are trying to milk more money out of fans is by varying ticket prices based on the opponent, and demanding donations for the right to buy tickets at all. Notre Dame charges $80 per ticket for home games against Michigan State, USC, and Boston College, but $70 a pop when they’re playing South Florida, Air Force, and Navy. A donation of at least $100 is required for an ND alumnus to buy two tickets; non-alums, meanwhile, have to donate at least $1,500 before getting the university’s blessings to buy tickets.
Whenever complaints rise about college coaches’ astronomical salaries or hundreds of millions being spent on new college stadiums, all you ever hear about is how much money college sports—football especially—make for the universities. Well, here’s how they manage to be so lucrative.