Major League Soccer (MLS), now in its twentieth season, is off to a record start in terms of attendance, averaging 22,188 through 4 weeks of competition. More than half of the league’s 20 clubs are experiencing growth in average attendance per match, and it doesn’t hurt that the newest additions, Orlando City SC and NYCFC, are off to very successful starts with regard to match day attendance, averaging +46k and +35k per game respectively.
As the league and the sport continue to grow in the US, it is important to recognize that this growth is occurring in one of the most competitive professional sports markets in the world. Throughout the MLS season, clubs have to compete with all four of the top professional sports leagues in the US, including the NBA, NHL, MLB, and NFL, all of which have continued to perform well in recent years and have remained very relevant and top of mind for the American sports-goer.
Not many fans of the game understand what truly goes on behind the scenes in ticket offices at clubs around the league and what it takes to fill those seats. MLS has made a strategic effort and investment in developing a program that helps cultivate strong selling skills in its sales representatives. Most in the sports industry would say that this is approach is not unique to MLS. What IS unique, is the fact that MLS started a centralized training ground, located at the National Sales Center (NSC) in Blaine, Minnesota just north of Minneapolis (the same complex where Minnesota United FC plays its home matches), that serves as a structured developmental program for potential MLS ticket sales candidates, to help ensure that consistent best practices and strong selling skills are instilled in as many of the league’s personnel as possible. To better understand the NSC and the success it has brought the league, Business of Soccer took a trip up to Blaine and met with some of the folks that call it home.
MLS VP of Club Services, Bryant Pfeiffer, who helps oversee the operations of the NSC, further explained the idea behind the creation of the program and what value it brings to the league.
The NSC was built to help our clubs with recruitment, training and sales management practices. We have built one of the top sales training curriculums in professional sports designed to attract and develop future sales talent across North America. The training focuses on teaching trainees the fundamentals of ticket sales and exposes them to the nuances of all selling environments; from phone to face to face to game nights to social media. Commissioner Garber’s vision has been to develop one of the top three leagues in the world by 2022 and the investment in developing our executive talent off the pitch is important just like it is on the pitch.
The visit started on a cold (very cold) Friday morning in late February with an hour-long game of pickup soccer on the indoor training field where MN United FC holds its sessions with Pfeiffer and the NSC’s current crop of trainees. The score at the end of the match was not nearly as important as the experience the trainees received working as a team and cultivating relationships of trust and respect with one another, no matter what their skill level – and the full spectrum was covered.
Following the match, the trainees began to trickle into a room filled with cubicles, telephones, headsets, and a lot of MLS gear strewn about the walls – something you might see in the ticketing office of any MLS club. Jeff Berryhill, Director of the NSC, and Melanie Seiser, Manager (and graduate) of the NSC both wait for the young bucks to file in, while I get a few more questions in and understand things from their perspective – the folks that run the day-to-day at the NSC. Jeff tells me,
We’ve created an intense curriculum that is designed to teach and reinforce the fundamentals of ticket sales in all selling environments over a 60-120 day period. Trainees sell a wide variety of ticket products for all MLS clubs as part of the program. Our curriculum is set to teach the basic core skills and philosophies early in the program and then set engagements that will educate, model, and reinforce those skills and philosophies throughout the entire program.
The program that started with a focus on entry level sales personnel has developed into a mechanism by which the league can also help develop other aspects of the organization, such as management techniques and other programs. Pfeiffer and Berryhill mentioned some of the ways that they test and learn different techniques with the NSC in the areas of recruiting, culture development, campaign management, and motivational techniques. One of the more interesting parts about the program in this regard, is that the NSC partners with Brave New Workshop (the oldest improvisational theatre in the US) to assist in the development of its trainees. Berryhill explained,
Trainees are exposed to seeing sales through the eyes of a professional improviser including working with School of Improv teachers and performing on stage. The goal of the training is to help trainees become “comfortable with being uncomfortable” and to build confidence.
The NSC curriculum is not limited only to entry level sales personnel, however, and as the trio explained, it is rather common for the NSC to play host to a few manager-level colleagues from around the league and have them shadow Berryhill and Seiser for a few days, to see what they might be able to bring back with them to their club or office that has been successful at the NSC. Pfeiffer also mentioned that the NSC has caught the attention of many in the sports industry on a global scale, and not just in soccer, saying that he’s had discussions with counterparts in other professional sports leagues in the US about the program and the success they’ve had thus far. He added,
The program has garnered attention from sports properties and leagues domestically and internationally. We recently had visitors from the J League (with interpretors) visit to learn about the program. We are currently supporting both USL and NWSL with training content support for their entire league.
The main benefit for the league though, other than the talent the NSC has produced, comes in the form of actual ticket sales for its clubs – real dollars that the league can trace back to the NSC, which, according to Pfeiffer, is in the millions of dollars thus far in its brief history. Trainees throughout the course of the program are actually selling live with real customers for real matches for clubs throughout the league. Berryhill explained how it all works.
Our Trainees make live calls for our MLS clubs. Along with being a learning tool for the Trainees, this provides a call-center-type sales support with week and month-long sales campaigns to assist selling a variety of ticket packages for our clubs. This provides an extra reach that their current staff is currently not touching. Between sales campaigning, producing qualified candidates, and our sharing of sales management ideas, we provide assistance to all MLS clubs, regardless of their situation.
One piece of the training that is important to highlight, is that trainees get the exposure and experience of selling for multiple clubs throughout the league. This provides them with the opportunity to work within multiple ticketing strategic frameworks that will depend on the situation they are selling against for the club at the time, as well as the different events that each team are involved in, such as MLS playoffs, CONCACAF Champions League, US Open Cup, etc. It also provides them with an opportunity to experience what it’s like to sell within different markets throughout the country and learn how to apply the different techniques taught at the NSC in various selling situations. Selling a season ticket package for the Columbus Crew in the Ohio market is not going to be the exact same experience as selling the same package in Vancouver for the Whitecaps, or in Houston for the Dynamo, etc. By gaining this multi-market selling experience the trainees emerge much more valuable and more appealing to clubs throughout the league. As a graduate of the program herself, Seiser explained how the NSC prepared her for the world in MLS at a club.
It goes without saying that I would have never been able to find success at the club level had I not gone through the training provided at the NSC. I admittedly struggled with the notion of being a salesperson, even after I had applied and been accepted to the program. Had I gone straight to a club, I would have floundered as I tried to navigate the sales process, eventually fizzling out within six months.
The 45 days I spent at the NSC were invaluable, but a pleasant surprise for me was what I found out AFTER I left the program—that my network of peers from the NSC gave me an immediate edge on everyone else on my sales team at the Crew. With 10 total people in my session, I had 9 others scattered across the league who were facing the same struggles and successes as I was. It made for a great forum for idea sharing. If I was stuck on a group night idea, I suddenly had 9 new ideas that were working in all the different markets. If I was meeting with a CPA firm about season tickets and needed a good success story, I could share one that my colleagues at FC Dallas had shared with me. It was a huge advantage for all of us from Session I, but it only grew as more and more NSC grads entered the league and continued to grow the network.
The NSC network continues to grow and add value to the league with every graduating class, and according to Seiser, helps play a big role in the connectivity throughout MLS. Sure, when it’s match day, clubs are obviously vying for the three points and there is a competitive nature among everyone at every level of each team. But at the end of the day, everyone has the same goal: to grow the beautiful game and to make MLS one of the top leagues in the world. As MLS continues to progress and grow on its way to achieving that goal, the NSC will continue to help play a big role in filling the seats of stadiums across the league and in developing top talent to spread throughout the broader organization – something that just like the overall MLS mission, everyone in the league can get behind and support.