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Interview with Chicago Fire Director of Ticket Sales Mike Ernst

Chicago Fire Director of Ticket Sales Mike Ernst was kind enough to spend some time with HTIOT to answer some questions about the success of season ticket sales around the stadium for 2011.  We've already reported on how Section 8 is up to 800 season tickets (and the latest count is up to 922).  Non Section-8 season ticket sales are up 100% too.  I asked Mike about the reasons behind that success and also got to hear about his life in Iowa, his stint in Seattle, and being at the game where Jim Bullinger of all people had a one-hitter.  Our first exchange is below and the rest of it is after the break.

Tweed Thornton: What was it like growing up in Iowa?

Mike Ernst: It was one of those situations where you don't know what you don't know.  I thought it was great.  Being from Iowa, I was a big time Iowa Hawkeyes fan and it always a dream of mine to go to the University of Iowa.  I also grew up a big Chicago fan.  The unique thing about being from Iowa is you gravitate towards the sports teams or at least the ones that are closest to where you live in the state.  I was a huge Cubs, Bears, Bulls, everything Chicago ever since I was little kid.

TT: I was wondering about that.  I was wondering what teams you followed given that Iowa doesn't have any professional major sports teams.  Were you unique in that way or did most people from where you were follow Chicago teams?

ME: Most people did and most people from where I'm at followed Chicago and if they were into baseball, the Cubs.  It was very much the three major sports back from when I was younger, baseball, basketball, football, everyone was Chicago.  Where I grew up was Eastern Iowa right across the river so we were almost in Illinois.

TT: That make senses, I was actually born in Des Monies.

ME: Were you really?

TT: Yeah, but only for two years so I don't really remember anything really but I know the territory.  While growing up were there certain Chicago sports management figures that you admired?

ME: When I was a kid, I always liked Jerry Krause.  Obviously since he put together the dynasty that was the Chicago Bulls.  My dad was a basketball player all through high school and college so when we were growing up he always stressed that he wanted us to play basketball so we did.  Obviously growing up in the late 80s and 90s, it wasn't hard to fall in love with the Bulls team that was taking shape back then, so I was a huge fan of that.  From the standpoint of the overall experience, I can still remember my first Cubs game.  It was 1985, a game against the Phillies.  I'll never forget and it is something I tell my sales reps all the time.  It had a huge impact on me, that experience.  I can vividly remember the smell of the grass, seeing the diamond for the first time, the sights and sounds of that.  Yet, sometimes I struggle to remember what my wife told me two weeks ago...  As people involved in the front office, we always have to be conscious of the fact that people are coming to Toyota Park and they might be having that experience for the first time.  The next moment could be the one that impacts them and it could be a life changing thing.  It could be the difference between having a lifetime commitment to the Fire or having the one game and being done. That type of experience that I had as a kid impacts how I work with the reps and how I approach the sales process here.

TT: What was your first job in sports management?

ME: It was inside sales with the Seattle Sonics in the NBA.  When I first got out of college, I took a job, and this also shaped the way I work, I took a job doing bill collections for a telephone company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Quickly determined it was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  I got my masters in Sports Management at the University of Iowa and took the job as inside sales in Seattle.  I worked my way up through their system to be a Senior Sales person before the team moved to Oklahoma City.  My wife and I made the decision that we just didn't want to move to Oklahoma.

TT: What were your impressions of Seattle as a city and as a sports town?

ME: From an aesthetics point of view, that city is one of the most gorgeous places I've ever visited.  You have the mountains, you have the water, you have the evergreen trees.  It's just an absolutely beautiful place to live.  My wife and I loved it.  I had only been there once before we moved there, before I took the job with the Sonics, so it was very foreign to us at first but it turned out to be one of the best experiences I've ever had.  One thing I did learn from my time out there is that Seattle is that town that's love a winner and they love the cool thing.  When it comes to the Sounders for example, I'm not surprised at all that they are having the success they have in the stands.

TT: I have this theory about the Sounders that centers around them being the largest Metropolitan area in the United States that had only two major league sports teams.  I'm wondering if think that has anything to do with their success or if it was a bunch of things?

ME: I do think it is a bunch of things but I also think there is something to be said for timing.  Number one they did a great job of priming the market with things like the international friendlies they brought in and getting people excited about the sport.  When the Sounders did launch it was a real time of turmoil and change in the sports market.  The Sonics had just left, the Seahawks were down after having a long run of success, and the Mariners unfortunately were just not as relevant as they had been when Ken Griffey, Jr. was there.  I think all those things helped culminate into the success they've had from the standpoint of the crowd and season ticket holder numbers.

TT: So far all of the newer MLS clubs have enjoyed great success.  Do you think they have been able to capitalize on not spending money on other areas where the older clubs spent a lot of money and made mistakes?

ME: We talk about the teams that have come online in the past 4-5 years, Toronto FC moving forward to Vancouver and Portland this year, obviously the league has found a formula for success when launching the new teams.  In my mind and what we are working on here is how do we create that formula for success for our team that has been around since '98 or the other teams that have been in the league since '96.  It is a question that I don't think is fully answered yet and it is something we talk about everyday.  Maybe not how do we get to 32,000 tickets holders like Seattle because we don't have that many seats at Toyota Park but how do we get to 20,000 season ticket holders?  What are the things we need to do?  Some of that was the changes you saw this year with the dynamics of how we are selling our season tickets.

TT: What dynamics did you find to be the most motivating for season ticket holders?

ME: We wanted to understand what prevented people from buying season tickets. We found that there were three primary roadblocks to purchasing. Those roadblocks are not enough time, too much money, and not enough perceived value. We addressed the time concern by making our exchange program more flexible to include Bonus Games, the money question by creating a 12-month payment program, first of its kind in MLS. The perceived value concern was a bigger issue that we tackled by adding in parking or providing discount parking, providing a 20% merchandise discount, a concession discount, and giving our season ticket holders the best seats for matches like Manchester United.

TT: Do you run into people that are disenchanted with not necessarily the Chicago Fire but MLS given that it was rolled out with things like shootouts and some of the other rule changes that have taken place?

ME: I would say that overtime there are people that for whatever reason, MLS has fallen out of favor with them in their opinion, which is natural I think.  There is the soccer purist standpoint that would tell you MLS is different than EPL or La Liga or whatever league you want to talk about.  Part of our job is sharing the story of the Chicago Fire and why supporting your local club is as important as your club that you watch be it based in London or Madrid or wherever it may be.  It is important for you to support your local club because if you want soccer to be at that level in the states, this is where it starts.  There are a lot of great stories to tell about the Chicago Fire coming out of matches and that is part of what we do on daily basis.  It's kind of like a hand to hand combat trying to get people to see the same vision that we do.

TT: Speaking of vision, who came up with the idea of getting 800 season ticket holders in Section 8?  At the beginning of he year, I was skeptical that it would happen.  Who were the first people to come up with that goal?

ME: It was a lunch that we had between myself, Emigdio [Gamboa, Vice-President of Chicago Fire Soccer Club], Tom [Dunmore, President of Section 8] and Ben [Burton, former President of Section 8] in Oak Park and we were talking about the need to help Section 8 continue to grow as an organization and a dominant presence in the stands.  The goal is to help create an environment here in the park where we have a definitive home field advantage.  We were just talking about that [before the interview, Mike mentioned coming from a meeting].  I believe the original number we threw out was a little bit higher but we also wanted to be aggressive but realistic.  If you look at the season ticket numbers in 2010, it was 386.  We asked, how can we do this?  I threw out to Tom, what if we doubled it so we would be at 800?  That seemed like a good idea, a nice round number.  Section 8, Section 800, sounds good, there are a lot of stories there.  Now, how can we make this happen?

TT: It's interesting because it's not just Section 8 that is up 100%. When Andrew Hauptman was doing media interviews, he mentioned that ticket sales are up 100% around the entire stadium.  Is there one strategy that you point to or what efforts were made not just for Section 8 but the entire stadium?

ME: I think it is as simple as listening to our fans.  I started with the club in September of 2008 and unfortunately have been a part of some regime changes.  We've have seen a lot of what has worked and what has not.  What we decided last year was let's let the fans help us.  We asked, what is it that you love about the club?  What would get you to tell your friends to come out?  What things could we change?  We used that to set about shaping our season ticket package.  One of our directives from the top was 'we need to double our season ticket base', 'we want to be where Seattle, Vancouver, Portland and all those other guys are, now how do we get there?

TT: Well, what were some of the things you did to make it happen?"

ME: We conducted a survey of our current season ticket holders in late July to better understand what was missing. Also, we held collaborative meetings with Section 8 leadership to discuss what could be done to double the base. Section 8 put together a business plan on how we could get to 800. The Fire Front Office was dedicated to helping them via creation of a co-branded online sign up form, printing of grassroots materials, and information sharing.

TT: Section 8 has not stopped at 800 either.  The numbers continue to rise.  No doubt the Manchester United game is playing a role in that as well.  What is going to be the greatest challenge the front office faces in terms of working with season ticket holders on the Manchester United game in the different stadium of Soldier Field?

ME: For me it's how do we turn what could be just a one-day great experience into a life changing event.  Okay, so I might have bought a season ticket for the first time this year and because of the numbers we have, a lot of people fall into that boat.  So how do we utilize that experience, that game and have them change their hearts and minds toward the club going forward?  At the end of the day it's great that they bought a season ticket this year but if they don't make the same investment next year, then we just have to start all over again.  Then we don't really build up to the numbers we want to be at if we continue to lose season ticket holders because we aren't developing that relationship with them.

TT: If I'm someone who hasn't bought season tickets yet but I did want to see the Manchester United game, what is your strongest reason for me to just go ahead and take the plunge?

ME: It may sound like a PC answer, but it does vary by the person.  One thing that I've learned in my time in sales is that if the person you are talking to doesn't feel like there's anything in it for them, then there's really no point in it.  For example, if I was talking to you about why you should become a season ticket holder, I would ask you what is your favorite memory of coming out to a Chicago Fire game?  What is your history with the Fire?  Why do you support the club?  At the end of the day, that's why we have things that are packaged in there like guaranteed 100 level seat to Manchester United because we know that once we put it on sale, the 100 level and the 200 level is going to sell out right away.  People want to buy additional tickets for their friends because they want their friends to come out and experience that game maybe they would do it if they didn't have to rely on Ticketmaster.  Then there are the benefits we put into place for people when they come out to Chicago Fire matches, like the free parking, the exchange program, the concession and merchandise discount.

TT: Now that you have the numbers where they are, simply maintaining them would be an accomplishment in itself.  What is the number one priorities for maintaining and continuing to grow that base?

ME: The number one thing is that we do a good job creating relationships with people so that the only time that we talk to people is not when they need to put in their renewals for next year.  It's simple things like visiting people in their seats on game day, sending them a card on their birthday, giving them a phone call to make sure everything is going okay with their season tickets.  I think we could do a better job on that end, being proactive instead of being reactive.  One of the things we are already talking about is how do we do that for this year?  How do we create a relationship with our fans so that when it comes time to renew, it is not a question of 'if', but 'when'. 

TT: Maybe this could be part of it, had an article yesterday about teams like Philadelphia and Colorado running programs where fans got reward points for doing things like attending rivalry games, purchasing concessions, merchandise, even if the team wins.  The fans then can trade these points in for various perks around the stadium.  Are there any reward type programs that are in the works?

ME: Yeah, I would say it's not anything that would be announced soon but it is something that we have discussed.  We talked about launching something this year but timing wise we didn't feel prepared because we didn't want to roll it out and just have it be something that only a couple of people took advantage of.  We want to have a comprehensive plan for when we do so.  I think the start of it is when people get their season ticket holder stadium card like with the merchandise discount where they can save 20% on our new store here at Toyota Park or they get the concession stand discount on game day, that type of stuff.  You are right in taking it to the next level in how you earn points just like you would through an airline.

TT: On the topic of great sports promotions, Chicago had one of the greatest sports promoters of all-time in the legendary Bill Veeck.  Do you draw any inspiration from some of his best work?

ME: I do.  I do from the standpoint that he got it.  He knew how to engage the fans and how to get them out to the ballpark.  It's something that especially in Chicago with its rich history, you have to have.  You have to understand it and you have to know what motivates people here.  Bill Veeck is very much part of the sports culture and it is something we are cognizant of as far as learning lessons from the past.  We haven't always done that but we are mindful moving forward. 

TT: Another Chicago legend, George Halas use to do a variety of things including selling tickets on the opposing team's bench until the league stopped him.  Are there kind of one-time things you would like to see happen or what kind of things can the ticket sales force do to make Toyota Park atmosphere intimidating for the visitors?

ME: Well, I guess we haven't gone as far as George did.  That's a good one.  I wasn't aware of that one.  For us, getting more season ticket holders, developing relationships, it's thinking outside the box.  How can we get people out here?  Based on the research that we've done, we know that a person is 85% more likely to return if they have come just one time to Toyota Park for a match.  So how do we get people to come out for a paid try-out tocheck us out and then hopefully we can win them over with the experience. 

TT: Do you have a favorite Chicago sports story besides one with the Fire?

ME: I don't know if it's a favorite because it's a good thing or a bad thing...

TT: Or perhaps a best Chicago sports story to tell?

ME: Best story?  Okay, here we go, when I was a kid I attended the Jim Bullinger one-hitter game [link located post-interview].  Probably the shining highlight in Jim Bullinger's pitching career with the Cubs.  I remember going to the game.  It was against the Giants.  I remember sitting along the first base side with my dad, mom, brother, and sister.  One of the things that I always did because I was a pitcher as kid was watch what the pitcher was doing the whole time.  I remember when he started the game and got through the first inning, I said to my dad 'he hasn't given up a hit yet'.  So then as we kept going through the innings... and I can't remember if it he lost it in the 8th or the 9th now... but I remember being so pumped with every inning and telling my dad, 'he made it another inning!' 'it's been seven innings now dad!' and then he made it so close, I remember thinking 'wow', that it was one of the coolest things I ever saw.  I almost saw a no-hitter.

TT: Moving on to some more lighting round questions, have you ever enjoyed ketchup on a hot dog?

ME: No, I don't think it has a place on the hot dog.  I enjoy onions, I enjoy relish, give me some mustard on there.  I think that if you are from Chicago, you shouldn't have ketchup on your hot dog.

TT: That's a great answer.  Italian beef or deep dish pizza?

ME: Italian beef.

TT: Best Chicago hole in the wall?

ME: I'm a little bias because of its name.  Hawkeye's on Taylor Street.  My wife and I will go there.  I started going because I thought it had some affiliation with the university but actually it is named after the character form M.A.S.H.  We still like to go down there when we can.

TT: Best place to take the family out besides Toyota Park?

ME: Since my daughter is so young, it's hard to really take here out.  So I would say the park, Millennium Park. 

TT: Have you tried Malort?

ME: Not yet, I'm looking forward to having my first Malort experience on the bus to Columbus on June 12th.

TT: You've already answered my last question, but Cubs or Sox?

ME: Yep, it's definitely Cubs for me.

TT: Closing thoughts?

ME: I think it's important for everyone to know and I hope it translated in this interview but we appreciate everyone's efforts from Section 8 to season ticket holders that are vested into this club, they are buying into a vision of what everyone wants the Chicago Fire Soccer Club to be.  That's to be the gold standard in the MLS, eventually a gold standard across the globe as far as soccer is concerned.  Right now it is about building and this year was a great step in that process and now we need to continue to work.  The hard work in my estimation really starts now with making sure we get people to come back and continue to grow the season ticket base.