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Seasoned Veterans

Feb. 2, 2010

by Jon Cooper, Contributing Editor

ATLANTA — A.J. Smith remembers having no problem buying into Paul Johnson’s system when, as a senior, Johnson took over as head coach prior to the 2008 football season.

“Coach Johnson came in, gave everybody their roles,” recalled Smith, who played on the offensive line from 2004 through 2008. “The main role as seniors was to get everybody to buy in to what he was preaching. We did and we had a great season, beat Georgia for the first time in who knows how long.”

Smith is still convincing people to buy into what Johnson is selling, as well as the product of basketball coach Paul Hewitt.

He is a member of The Aspire Group, a global management and marketing firm with offices in Atlanta, Denver, London and Toronto that is headed by Berne Mullen, former CEO of the Atlanta Hawks, Thrashers and Philips Arena.

Aspire has a diverse client list that includes the NBA, NHL, WNBA, CFL (Canadian Football League), the Ontario Hockey League, and pro sports franchises like Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Timberwolves, Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Ottawa 67s.

While it primarily does consulting, Aspire was hired by Georgia Tech about a year ago to take a hands-on approach to help boost football and men’s basketball ticket sales. So far, they deserve a hand.

“It’s fair to say we’ve nearly tripled the revenues in comparison with the outsource group that they used prior to us,” said Bill Fagan, general manager of Aspire Tele-Sales, who began his career in ticket sales with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and worked with the Charlotte Bobcats and Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) before getting a call from Mullen to set up the Atlanta chapter of Aspire.

“That’s fully attributed to us being on campus,. That helps bring us some credibility, and actually working so closely with the athletic department and having some fruitful leads that have never been touched before.

“Then we had some help from the teams. With the football team making it to the Orange Bowl and being ACC Champs, and, obviously, with Paul Hewitt’s recruiting class being one of the tops in the country and being a nationally-ranked program… certainly has helped generate interest in the product.”

Smith always had interest in the product, but re-joining the program was serendipitous.

Following graduation, he took a sales training program sponsored by the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Then, while rehabbing from elbow surgery at Tech, he came upon Aspire, whose offices are located in Alexander Memorial Coliseum. A career opportunity was created as well as a chance for Smith to give back to Tech.

“On Saturday, at the football games, you’re in the stands and you look at all your hard work that you did during the weeks to help fill the stadium,” he said. “That’s probably the most rewarding thing, seeing the fans in the seats at the game.”

Smith admits that on more than one occasion he’s had an opportunity to reminisce with prospective buyers.

“Sometimes I’ll say, ‘This is A.J. Smith with Georgia Tech Athletics,’ and they’ll be like, ‘You played football at Tech.'” he said. “Then, of course, they’ll want to hear all the war stories and all the in-depth info., the inside info. That’s fine. But at the same time they’re very respectful that I have a job to do as well.”

Coincidentally, Smith is not the only former Paul Johnson disciple who works at Aspire. T.J. Anderson was a running back at Georgia Southern from 2001 through 2004 and, like Smith, played for Johnson for just one season (his freshman year).

Smith says they frequently trade Paul Johnson stories, as well as stories about Tech assistant Mike Sewak, who had been Johnson’s offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern before succeeding him as head coach. “I’m trying to get going and T.J. will bust out a one-liner,” said Smith. “It’s funny stuff.”

Smith and Anderson have brushed up on their one-liners and football stories as Aspire, which is in negotiations with other schools and teams, recently started its promotional campaign for the Yellow Jackets’ 2010 football season, which will go right up to kickoff in early September.

“We’re introducing ourselves as Georgia Tech and looking to build relationships and ultimately sell them tickets,” said Fagan. “That type of approach is pretty radical for the college landscape. There aren’t too many schools that have that approach and we’ve had a high level of success the first seven months or so.”

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