The Upward Aspiral

Aug. 18, 2011

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

Do something one time and maybe you were just lucky.

Do it again and you’re good.

The Aspire Group has proven that it’s good. It’s been especially good for Georgia Tech. So much so, that the two groups have extended their contract through 2013.

The brainchild of Dr. Bernie Mullin, former President and CEO of the Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Thrashers and Philips Arena, and a trail blazer in sports marketing for more than 30 years, The Aspire Group (TAG) has been a player in sports marketing since its inception in 2008.

TAG was primarily engaged in professional sports until entering into a partnership with Georgia Tech last summer. The goal was to pump up Yellow Jackets’ season-ticket sales for football and basketball.

In two years — the anniversary was celebrated in July — Aspire has brought in more than $1.5 million in ticket sales and other athletics-related donations, a 25 percent increase from the previous year’s results.

“We didn’t know what to expect. We went into it with high hopes. We thought that we could really make an impact,” said Georgia Tech Senior Associate Athletic Director Wayne Hogan. “This has come at a really good time for us because this is a time that the economy is really wreaking havoc with college programs all over the country, including ours. We’ve seen a pretty hefty decline in our season-ticket renewals.

“The folks that have been in the fold and have had season tickets certainly are going through some economic difficult times and we’ve seen that reflected in our year-to-year renewals,” he added. “But because Aspire is selling only new season ticket holders, they’re only bringing in new dollars. Everything they’re doing is making up for this loss in renewals.”

Aspire’s success has led to its entering into partnerships with eight other colleges, including ACC rival Maryland.

Hogan credits the hungry yet caring approach of the Aspire sales staff for helping widen the Yellow Jackets fan base. The one-on-one approach has helped get those on the fence about committing to season tickets off the fence and on board.

“You have certain folks that are going to be with you come hell or high water and then there’s that fringe group, that’s the one we’re really reaching out to,” Hogan said. “It’s those folks who are not season-ticket holders currently. They like Georgia Tech, they kind of like to come to the games, but they’re not all the way in the pool yet. Those are the folks that we’re trying to reach out to. When you have a live voice, a live person that is talking to you about the attributes of the program and about Coach Johnson and about the players, it can give you some real insight into what you’re about to purchase. It makes a big difference. It’s different than sending something in the mail or sending an e-mail or putting up a billboard somewhere.”

Spearheading Aspire’s effort in Atlanta is former Yellow Jackets offensive lineman A.J. Smith (Class of ’08). Smith has worked his way up from salesman to Manager of the Fan Relationship Management Center in Atlanta.

“I am thrilled with the results that our sales team produced for Georgia Tech,” he said. “As an extension of the Georgia Tech Athletic Department, our mission is to know every Georgia Tech fan on a first-name basis and build a personal relationship that creates fans for life.”

Hogan believes Smith’s tie to Georgia Tech gives him credibility when talking about Yellow Jackets football and the athletic program.

“A lot of the folks that we’re calling are Georgia Tech alums. They have reasons to have an affinity to the school,” he said. “A.J., being able to relate to them on an alumni-to-alumni basis, I think, was critical for him.

“The other thing, he brings is passion about the program and the success of the program. He imparts that on the other sales people. That’s rubbed off on our other team members down there.”

The school’s Athletic Administration is doing its part by offering an innovative ticket plan for college basketball. The Jackets will be playing their games at Philips Arena this coming season, while Alexander Memorial Coliseum undergoes renovations. Hogan is excited about the 10-game home package. (official dates have not yet been released).

“It’s a unique sale. What we’ve done, though, is create a real nice package,” Hogan said. “It’s 10 games and every one of those games is high-profile. Of the games that we’re selling at Philips, there are eight ACC opponents, also there’s Alabama and Northwestern, part of the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. Once we nail down the dates I think people are going to get excited about coming down there.”

He believes that Aspire give peace of mind to first-time ticket buyers who might be uncomfortable in their new — albeit temporary — surroundings.

“That’s the other thing about Aspire. They can actually talk the fans through this,” Hogan said. “If they do have trepidation about going to Philips, about how they get there, about where they park, where you go in the facility, by being able to talk to these various ticket buyers one-on-one, they can talk them through a lot of those types of things. We wouldn’t have that luxury if we didn’t have the Aspire guys doing that.”

For right now, football is top priority and while season-ticket sales are still slightly below the projected goal — Hogan estimates approximately a thousand short — there is the usual flurry of activity as kickoff for the Sept. 1 opener against Western Carolina approaches.

This year there will be a reward for those who act.

“One big advantage, obviously, is that it has a ticket to the Georgia game in the season-ticket package. If you buy a season ticket with us, you will have the ability to purchase additional tickets to the Georgia game. So there’s a real hook there that we’re going to use hot and heavy over the next week or two to kind of close some of these deals that we feel are still out there. I think you’ll see a flurry in the last two weeks.”

With Aspire’s track record of making things possible, next summer should make for an interesting third-year anniversary.

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