Volunteers to the Rescue

By Staff

Athletic Management, 15.6, October/November 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1506/wuvolunteers.htm

How much can you really expect to boost season ticket sales with one promotional campaign? How about 130 percent? That’s what happened this fall at the University of North Texas, thanks to a new program tagged “Operation Double.”

With tougher NCAA Division I-A football attendance mandates going into effect, North Texas was looking to increase its ticket sales in a big way. But when Director of Sales and Development Ryan Barnhart arrived at UNT, he found an athletic program largely ignored by the surrounding Dallas-Fort Worth community.

“No one had focused on ticket promotions since the 1970s, and interest had really diminished,” Barnhart says. “But the fans we do have take enormous pride in UNT athletics. They’re either alumni or longtime residents who know how important it is to the community.”

Barnhart turned to this core group of Mean Green faithful to help bring in more fans for home football games. He selected 20 perennial supporters and invited them to be part of “Operation Double,” an effort to double season ticket sales. In addition to their history of support, committee members were selected for their prominence in the community.

“We looked for people who have contact with a lot of different people,” he says. “We got bank presidents, CEOs, lawyers, and doctors, but we also got a couple of barbers, small business owners, and common folks who everyone in town knows.” The committee eventually grew to 50.

At the group’s first meeting, Barnhart laid out the volunteers’ mission. He told them their job was not to sell season tickets, but to infect others with Mean Green spirit.

“I didn’t want them to feel like they were expected to go out and hound people,” he says. “I gave them season ticket order forms, and if someone they talked to filled one out, great, but I told them not to pressure anyone. The last thing I wanted was for them to get rejected once or twice and give up on the whole idea. I wanted them to simply pass out information, and most importantly, spread their excitement about the football season.”

Barnhart armed the Operation Double volunteers with programs, media guides, hats and T-shirts, and even DVDs containing highlights from the 2002 New Orleans Bowl Championship. When a volunteer made contact with a potential season ticket buyer, he or she gave the prospect’s name and contact information to Barnhart, who followed up with a phone call or e-mail. “I let them know I was available to answer any questions they had,” he says.

Although Operation Double participants are volunteers, there is a little bit at stake for them. Committee members earn a point for each new season ticket holder they pass along. Ten points earns a hat, a window decal, and programs for all home games. For 100 points, a volunteer can get an expense-paid trip to an away game of their choice, a field pass for all home games, or a golf outing with the UNT athletic director and coach of their choice. In addition, there are a variety of incentives for intermediate point levels.

“In retrospect, we may have set the 100 point mark a little high,” Barnhart says, “but those are perks we don’t give to even our big-time donors. It was a way of putting a big carrot out there at the top and then having some smaller, more achievable ones that people could get excited about along the way.”

The incentive system has brought out a competitive streak that would please even the football coach. “Some of these guys call me every day to find out if anyone they referred has bought tickets yet and to see where they are in the running,” Barnhart says. “And I look forward to their calls because they’re so excited about it.”

Operation Double has netted impressive results with the 130 percent increase. The keys, according to Barnhart, have been constant communication with volunteers and frequent demonstrations of UNT’s appreciation for their help. Barnhart sends out a weekly e-mail updating the group on each person’s point tally and letting them know about upcoming events. Every two weeks, he invites them to breakfast, lunch, or happy hour at a local restaurant, where they’re provided with a meal, loaded with North Texas memorabilia, and praised for their hard work.

The success of Operation Double prompted a spin-off program. Barnhart sent a mailing to each of UNT’s season football ticket holders, asking them to talk to one other person about buying season tickets. “We asked them to mention it to just one friend, co-worker, or family member, and to relate their enthusiasm,” he says. “That initiative has brought in quite a few new ticket sales as well.”

UNT plans to continue both programs, and Barnhart is looking for a new twist for Operation Double. “I think it’s important to come up with a fresh angle so things don’t get repetitive,” he says. “I’m not sure what that will be yet, but that’s what I’ll be working on.”