As Jacob Stoker picked up the phone call he had been waiting for, he tried to remember his training: keep the introduction brief, be personable and ask the right questions without being too pushy.
He had been tasked with selling a premium ticket package for an Atlanta Hawks game to a mystery buyer.
“That was something I used as a strength, just being personable, being able to talk to the person but find a way to ask the questions I needed to,” Stoker said. “That was definitely my biggest strategy.”
The exercise was part of November’s qualifying round for the 2022 National Collegiate Sports Sales Championship. Stoker, a senior sport management major at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, placed 35th in the nation, securing a birth for the upcoming championship round, and helped UMSL’s team to a top 25 finish.
Seniors Alonso Argotte and Eddie Cooney joined Stoker to round out UMSL’s sales team.
Hundreds of students from 52 universities across the country are participating in the competition, which serves as an opportunity for college seniors to showcase their sales skills. Competing students role-play scenarios where they attempt to sell ticket packages for professional sporting events to potential buyers. Those “buyers” are actually volunteer sales managers and recruiters for professional athletic organizations.
The qualifying round consisted of three 20-minute phone calls for each sales team. After every call, judges scored students’ performances based on an established rubric, and the top sellers from each university are moving on to next month’s championship round at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta. In the final bracket, eight students will duke it out to be crowned winner.
The Atlanta Hawks, Baylor University’s Center for Sports Strategy and Sales and Eventellect are hosting the event, as well as an accompanying conference, where students will have the chance to network with industry professionals. Numerous MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL and NHL organizations also pitched in to sponsor the competition and will be recruiting for entry-level positions.
Argotte decided to participate because he transferred to the sport management program, which is housed in the College of Education, as a junior and was interested in gaining more experience in the field and building his resume. Stoker also wanted to gain experience and try his hand at something new. He was surprised by how much the competition has grown since its founding in 2019.
“I didn’t realize this was such a popular contest,” Stoker said. “There’s people from different ESPN shows and personalities that were sending shout out videos. It’s definitely a big deal.”
Alex Elmore and Jacob Vogel, juniors in the sport management program, also took part in the team’s preparation for the competition and will join their senior classmates in attending the championship and conference in February.
Elmore looks forward to competing next year and wanted to start preparing as soon as possible, while Vogel thought participating in the competition training sessions would be a good opportunity to explore a different area of the sports management field.
“I think this competition was a perfect time to be able to learn and see if it’s something that we can have a future in, and it’s something good to know,” Vogel said.
While enthusiastic about the competition, most of the students didn’t have any background in sales. To get them up to speed, Karen Boleska, director of the sport management program, brought “guest coaches” to UMSL leading up to the qualifying round in November.
Over the course of seven weeks during the fall semester, professionals from a variety of organizations, including the St. Louis Blues, trained the sport management students on the basics of sales and how to craft an effective pitch to potential buyers.
“The fact that Dr. B got all those coaches was really awesome,” Argotte said. “We learned a lot, and she opened it up to all of our classes. If any students wanted to come and learn and sit in, they could. I thought it was a really cool experience. We got those coaches, and we got to network with them and hear great tips and advice from people that have been in ticket sales a long time.”
On Mondays, the coaches would explain the key tenants of sales conversations and review a study guide provided by competition officials. On Wednesdays, students would roleplay sales calls with the coaches, who took on different buyer personas.
After receiving feedback, the students learned to streamline their introductions, control the pace of conversation and counter objections. However, the most important lesson came from reevaluating the product. The coaches tried to convey that the students were selling more than tickets. They needed to sell an entire organization and all that comes with it, including its hospitality, traditions and values.
“We’re selling experience,” Vogel said. “We’re trying to sell them something that’s going to give them an experience that they’re not going to forget.”
The seniors put those lessons to the test during the qualifying round.
Argotte felt that his call went well even though he wasn’t able to close a sale. His buyer had an objection to the price of the ticket package, and he backed off when, in retrospect, he had some leeway to press the issue. Stoker was also positive about his call but acknowledged that he felt pressured as it neared the 20-minute mark.
“You feel like you have a lot of time when you first start the call, but when you’re in the middle of the questions, the time just disappears,” he said.
Nonetheless, their performances earned top 100 finishes individually – Stoker at 35 and Argotte at 79 – and pushed UMSL into 18th place overall heading into Atlanta. Stoker will represent UMSL in the championship round.
“I think it’s pretty exciting,” he said. “A career in sales wasn’t a thought for me until this fall semester, so seeing that I was fairly successful against other students looking toward this career path is pretty fulfilling and encouraging. The publicity of the top 100 through the NSSCC on LinkedIn has already helped me connect to sales reps with multiple organizations.”
All of the students plan to take advantage of the opportunity to network at the championship. Those not competing will still be able to take part in smaller, on-site competitions and mingle with industry professionals.
Elmore and Vogel both have internships with UMSL Athletics this semester but hope the trip to Atlanta will help them find prospects for future internships or full-time positions after they graduate.
“It’s important that we network with people and make sure that we are making connections over there,” Vogel said. “That’s the whole point. The other point is, can we do something to better ourselves or look good, since we’re not competing? How can we get these businesses to look at us?”
Argotte and Stoker aren’t sure if they’ll go into ticket sales after graduation, but no matter what they do, the experience has been incredibly valuable to their professional development.
“I’m trying to start a photography, videography for sports business,” Stoker said, regarding the future. “Applying what we’ve done these few weeks has helped me not only get more contracts and more offers to work but to keep relationships because I know how to have those conversations.”