SportsBiz: Selling a new career

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A creative, real-world program designed to find fresh sports salespeople is expanding in 2010.

After a successful first year, the Sport Sales Combine will be rolling out in at least three new cities beginning in January, including a stop next month with the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

The combine also will head to NBA arenas in Phoenix and Orlando in February with a possible stop in Chicago later in the year.

The program, created by sports sales veterans Bill Sutton and Richard Irwin, includes three days of training and evaluation in everything from making the pitch to closing the sale and offers teams a chance to examine candidates in a real-world setting. The addition of three new dates follows combines at Philips Arena in Atlanta and PNC Park in Pittsburgh in 2009.

“It’s worked out really well,” said Sutton, who is the associate head of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. “I don’t think we thought about this when we first did it, but it looks like it’s a pretty cost-efficient way of doing it because you’re interviewing somebody that you’ve already observed doing the things you need to have them do. And that has a higher rate of success.”

The whole premise behind the combine is to find out things about candidates that might not be apparent in a traditional job interview. Are they professional in dealing with the public? Are they energetic and positive? How are they on the phone? During the combine, candidates are tested on all these things as they seek out sales leads during a live game, collect surveys from fans and then follow up with calls the next day. Candidates also will meet with sales professionals from the teams hosting the combines.

Sutton said that from his experience in Pittsburgh, candidates who appeared out of their element during the initial interview often shined during the sales process. Others, he said, came off initially impressive but didn’t excel in the real-world exercises.

“There’s no fooling firsthand observation,” Sutton said. “The combine is like an audition. Once they audition, you know if they can sing or not. The margin for error is a lot lower.”

Details on the combine curriculum - as well as some entertaining YouTube clips of candidates in action - are posted on sportsalescombine.com.

At least 15 teams from the NBA, NHL and MLS are scheduled to attend the combine to look for salespeople, who are in demand because many teams are desperate to boost attendance. Sutton said many teams have entry-level sales positions open because many of their most experienced staff members have been tasked with selling luxury suites and premium seating, which are harder to move during a tough economy.

“Once you start moving people up, you’re going to start looking for people at the bottom,” he said. “You’re always trying to create some sort of pipeline, and it’s a way to keep your candidate pool stocked.”

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