3 tips for selling in college athletics

by Ashton miller - director of sales at oregon state university | May 02, 2019

College athletics holds a special place in my heart. I played football at the FCS level at Eastern Washington University. While I was there, we won three conference championships and one national championship. My time at Eastern was transformative, not just because of the success, but because of the people. My teammates, mentors, and our fans were all in it together through the ups and downs of the college experience.

In my first start as a Sophomore, I tore my Achilles in front of 70,000 people at Husky stadium. It was a yearlong recovery, and I believe this is when I first learned there was a business side to athletics. I was able to build deeper relationships with our administrators. We would sit on the sideline and talk about the fundraising it took to make the red field happen, (if you haven’t ever seen it, stop now and do a quick search of EWU red field) the ticket sales needed to fill the stands, and the process of buying the new helmets we were wearing the next weekend. This is when I really learned what it meant to be the team behind the team.

I was on track to finish up my MBA as my last football season came to an end. Like many recent grads, I was unsure of what I wanted to do, so I did what most said was a natural progression and jumped into finance. After some months, I realized I wasn’t fulfilled in my role and I missed sports. I wanted to work in athletics. I was lucky enough to come across an opportunity with Pac-12 Sales at Oregon State. Oregon State never had an outbound sales staff before, so we would be tasked with building one up from scratch. This appealed to me on multiple levels and I was excited to jump in. While gearing up to start, I researched the sports sales industry, because let’s be honest, I knew nothing. All the information I was reading seemed to be dominated by the professional perspective (NFL, NBA, MLB, etc.). While most of the material was relevant, there was still a void. Within the first year of being at Oregon State, there were three distinct items that stuck out to me:

Deep affinity - Leverage that to build stronger relationships.

College is an important time in a person’s life. Socially, they are developing the network that shapes their lives in many ways - friendships, professionally, and even romantically. The whole college experience is a maturing process. It is usually a person’s first time on their own and they truly transform from an adolescent to young adult.

A college’s fan base is made up of primarily alumni. These people aren’t just fanatics, but there is a deep-rooted love for their university. They spent their formative years at their institution and created lifelong friendships and memories. I’ve never heard a c-suite executive’s tone change so much when he began talking about the ‘good ole days’ when he was in school and had to camp outside of Gill Coliseum to watch the Men’s Basketball team play. These are the types of memories that create a fan base with unmatched loyalty. It isn’t about the wins and losses. I’ve had multiple conversations where prospects spoke fondly of the 1983 Civil War game that ended in a scoreless tie and has now been dubbed the “toilet bowl”.

To maximize your success in collegiate athletics, you must use that deep affinity to build strong relationships. Relationship-based selling is an important attribute to be a successful sales person in any industry, but it holds an even heavier importance in collegiate athletics. Alumni love their university and their teams, they want to see them be successful, and they want the stadiums full. If you can build true and organic relationships, you will be amazed by the lengths people will go to support however they can.

Staff size – multiple products. Prioritization and efficiency is key!

Collegiate sales staffs are typically small, and in charge of handling the new sales process for multiple sports. Most staff members are factotums, selling full menu for each sport. In some cases, the sales team acts as your retention team as well. For example, at Oregon State we have a staff of six that handles all new sales and renewals for Football, Women’s Basketball, Men’s Basketball, and Baseball.

As you could imagine, this can cause a team to be spread thin. However, it can also lead to great opportunity if tackled properly. The foundation to success is a laser-focused 12-month sales calendar that is synced with your marketing team. An equally important piece to success is properly qualifying prospects.

At times it can be overwhelming with so much going on and receiving an ambiguous response can send us down a rabbit hole chasing. It is imperative not to get fixated and strung along by prospects. We are on a large lake with only a few poles so we must fish where the fish are. It is such a simple concept, but as sales people, we are competitive by nature. We are told to be persistent, so it is difficult to ‘give up’ on a prospect if we haven’t heard a solid no come out of their mouth. But the truth is too much time and effort is wasted being strung along for weeks by someone who is not excited. We all have limited time, find the people who are excited and utilize them to expand your network. The better you can get at qualifying your prospect and understanding why and how they are a good fit, the more success you will have.

Prospects are pulled in multiple directions. Customize and find the right fit for them.

On a university campus, there is more going on than just athletic events, and it is likely your prospect is involved in other ways. Whether it is tickets, sponsorships, being asked to donate to athletic campaigns or their respective academic institutions, or being on boards and committees, alumni are constantly being asked to be involved in different ways. The university wants their time and/or money. The level of involvement can be overwhelming for some and each person has their own threshold of what is enough.

This should not be viewed as a negative thing. This is a great opportunity to not only build a relationship with someone who is passionate about the university, but it is also a great chance to strengthen your interdepartmental relationships. Maybe it may not make sense for your prospect to purchase season tickets personally this year, but building that relationship with the prospect and the departments working with them will allow you to be creative and look at alternative options.

During my first year at Oregon State, I worked with the CFO of a company in Oregon. He was a passionate alumnus but couldn’t justify season tickets anymore. He had a busy schedule and was also being pursued for a major gift opportunity at the time. After he dropped his season tickets, we continued to stay in touch. We talked about the football program, how sales were going, and what his company typically does for their employee/client events. I would also check in with his development officer to see if there was anything I could help with or provide insight on. After multiple conversations with him and his development officers, we concluded that a corporate event for his sales staff and some of their clients would option to try out. It was a win-win situation for everyone involved, he gave a large gift to the athletic department, his team loved the event and they continue to come back each year.

We don’t just see this happening with season ticket holders, I met a single game buyer at our signing day dinner who made it clear that season tickets were not in the cards for him. He was heavily involved with the College of Forestry, but he did love football. I followed up after the event and we started a dialogue about creating something larger around a football game with the College of Forestry. He loved the idea and connected us with the proper people in the department and we were able to put together a large group for an alumni event. Throughout the process, he was an advocate for the athletic department and pushed to make it happen. He was ecstatic as he watched his two world meld at Reser stadium that Fall afternoon.

It would have been easy to disregard a non-renewed season ticket holder, or a single-game buyer from an event, but it is important to create and build relationships with the people who are passionate about what you are doing. Regardless of their current level of involvement with athletics, recognizing their passion and learning how to focus that energy to create something larger, beyond that individual will lead to opportunities you may have not even thought of before. It is likely these people want to see your teams succeed just as much, if not more than you do. Ask them questions, get feedback, leverage their network to put yourself in a position to succeed.

-Ashton

Ashton Miller is the Director of Sales at Oregon State University Athletics. He's a former college athlete and is now been on the business side of college sports for more than four years. He has a passion for collegiate athletics, supporting student athletes and making a difference in peoples lives. He has a lot to offer on that topic and you should be encouraged to reach out to him if you ever want to learn more!