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EDITOR’S NOTE: Since we conducted this interview before the Pandemic of 2020 hit, we asked Jim what his advice is for sales professionals during the pandemic. He offered the following:
- The evolving landscape is an opportunity to provide clarity of your brand: stay true to your foundational principles and let those guide your decision-making.
- Consistently showcasing your value will help you weather systemic changes. People expend resources – time, money or loyalty – based on its connection to a return on investment. Give them something to value.
- This is the time to qualify and quantify your stretch goals and look at them with fresh eyes. Don’t be burdened by past norms; it’s all a clean slate now. Trying to fit within previous models is a waste of effort, so choose to be bold.
EPISODE 230: Monumental Sports & Entertainment President Jim Van Stone Offers Engagement Strategies For Sports Sales Professionals to Prepare for Arena and Event Re-Opening
JIM’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “This is the time to qualify and quantify your stretch goals and look at them with fresh eyes. Don’t be burdened by past norms; it’s all a clean slate now. Trying to fit within previous models is a waste of effort, so choose to be bold.”
Jim Van Stone is the President of Business Operations and the Chief Commercial Officer for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the company behind the Washington Wizards NBA team, Washington Capitals NHL hockey team, and other teams and enterprises and the arenas where they play.
Like me, he’s from Philadelphia so you may hear a little bit of Philadelphia coming out through the course of the conversation.
Find Jim on LinkedIn here.
Fred Diamond: Jim, why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Jim Van Stone: Thanks for having me today, Fred it’s a pleasure to be with you, I’ve heard so many great things about your podcast so the opportunity to spend some time with you is fantastic. A little bit about my background, I’ve been in professional sports for about 25 years and started my career in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia 76ers really focused in the sales area. I sold tickets for the better part of 5 years and then got promoted to run the department and ever since then it was really the launch of my career.
I think one of the things in sports like many other industries is to get ahead and get more responsibilities and get promoted you have to move around. I’ve been in Cleveland, I’ve worked for the Cleveland Cavaliers, I spent some time with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Phoenix Coyotes. I did two stints with the 76ers and the Flyers and then I’ve been here at Monumental for the last 14 years. It’s a little bit of a journey across the country but it’s been a fabulous experience. Most of my career and background has been both in the NBA and the NHL.
Fred Diamond: Tell us what you sell today specifically and what excites you about that.
Jim Van Stone: My first job ever out of college, I sold telephone systems for a company called Executone. It was a great company, very forward thinking, probably ahead of its game when it came to the digital landscape of telephony but I didn’t really have a passion for it. I grew up playing sports like many people that are in the business and when you take a look at professional sports, everyone wants to be a pro athlete but there’s literally 300 to 500 pro athletes in the world. My best opportunity was really to get involved in it from a business operation standpoint and sales standpoint.
One of the things that I loved about selling tickets is that I felt like I was on the front lines every single day and it was a very transactional sales process when it comes to the ticketing side. You had the opportunity to close deals almost on a daily basis so that thirst for closing opportunities I thought was tremendous and it really helped launch my career. Right now what I do on a day to day basis is help set strategy for revenue generation areas. We have three main core areas that we focus on, one of those is certainly the ticketing business that we have and we have a beautiful building here that when people come down for a Caps or a Wizards game, we have 20,000 people in the stands so it’s a really great opportunity but we have a big sales force.
We work with our ticketing group to set strategy selling a variety of different product lines, I’m also heavily involved in our global partnerships group which sells sponsorships across our entire Monumental portfolio and our portfolio is interesting. We certainly own sports teams, we also manage buildings in the marketplace so collectively the buildings that we manage bring in about 4.5 million people a year through the turnstiles so it’s a pretty big operation from that standpoint. We’re also involved in the media side, we own our own OTT network, we have a big out of home business so we sell integrated sponsorship platforms across many of the different product lines that we have. The final area is our executive seating department which sells our 110 suites that we have in the building, our very many VIP clubs and spaces focused on the B to B community from a business development opportunity. Helping set strategy for those revenue generation areas is critical for us, we also have a big merchandise business that I’m involved in and I think working with al of our people leaders to make sure that they have all the resources that they certainly need is first and foremost my biggest objective.
Fred Diamond: On the executive suite side you mentioned B to B executive suite, so who do you physically sell to and why would someone buy a suite? Give us a little more insight into that.
Jim Van Stone: I think we’ve got a great platform here. We do about 230 events a year, about 3 million people through the turnstiles. I think Capital One Arena which makes us really special is that we’re a mile from the hill, a mile from the White House, really filled in an area that’s heavily populated on the B to B side. Our customers and clients that buy suites are businesses that are looking to grow their business. It’s a great facility for them to host clients, prospects or customers and spend three intimate hours with them at a live sporting event. That one-on-one relationship developing opportunity I think is absolutely tremendous.
We do very well, I would say. Most of our companies are large integrated businesses in the government contracting side, military contracting side but a whole host of different industries that really need that suite opportunity to invest and spend some time developing their business. A lot of the big companies also utilize them for employee incentive programs so that’s another really big aspect of hosting a suite. When you’ve got this private living room of your own in Capital One Arena and you’re watching a great Caps game, Wizards game or a concert, there’s no better way to entertain 20 guests.
Fred Diamond: Again, we have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe. Congratulations, the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup two years ago. Does it get easier or harder when the team hits the highlight and wins the championship?
Jim Van Stone: We’ve had tremendous success. It’s certainly the Capitals, the Mystics this year won the WMBA Championship, another great opportunity for us. I think winning and being a part of something special like that really congregates the community and everyone wants to be a part of it. I think we work really well with other teams in town also and seeing the Nationals win the World Series, I think when all boats are successful it lifts all tides and all the boats rise. It’s a great opportunity to really share in this. Winning certainly helps, but I think more importantly you need to have your strategy based on your business and health of the current time.
Certainly winning allows you to capitalize on some things but I think we also need to be in position when the teams are going through a rebuilding process. I think there’s a lot of strategy and a lot of focus that takes in that and that’s why we have a very large staff. I would say probably over half of our full-time employees that we have here at Monumental, our in revenue generating departments really helping us grow the business and becoming profitable.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned you sell executive suites as well. Who’s the customer for that? Is it marketing, is it HR, is it sales? Who do your people sell to for those?
Jim Van Stone: I would say most of the key and final decision makers are certainly your C-level executives, but I would say certainly the marketing departments, the sales departments are critical from that standpoint. I think they lead a lot of it, I would say probably about 3/4 of our customers that we have are using suites to grow their own business or retain their customers. I think certainly the sales and marketing areas, but I think ultimately it comes down to that C-level executive. Once you get buy-in from a C-level executive, I think that helps get those final contracts signed and get people activated and we have a great on-boarding program. When you take a look at 230 events a year, that’s a pretty big investment from a time standpoint so our job is to make sure that once we get a commitment from a company we do have someone to manage its suite for many organizations. I think making sure that they understand how to manage it effectively is critical and important so we definitely do a lot of on-boarding.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned that you started your career selling telephone systems. Tell us about how you first got into sales as a career.
Jim Van Stone: I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications so I think you were either going to do TV, radio or you’re potentially getting into sales if you’re a communications major. I ended up getting into sales and I sold for Executone for two years. My territory was Passaic County, New Jersey up in north Jersey and I went from business to business cold calling. Talk to someone about cold calling of what it was like in the early 90s, you’re banging on a lot of doors and you’re getting a lot of rejections so I think it really humbled you and forced you to be creative in terms of the way you approach the sales process. I found it really rewarding. Certainly when you get told no it’s not a fun experience to go through but I think it makes you better and I think it really prepares you for that next opportunity and I think once you are able to develop a good relationship with someone and you see some success and you get some deals done, it certainly builds your confidence.
Fred Diamond: We’ve interviewed some Sales Game Changers who’ve started their career that way, they were selling copiers or fax machines or something related to telecommunications door to door. What are some of the key lessons you took away from some of those first few sales jobs?
Jim Van Stone: I think just like everyone else in sales, never give up. You never know what that next big opportunity is going to be and you always have to be learning. I think being a student of the game is really critical, learn from other people, learn from the challenges that you face, learn from other industries. Always be learning is certainly critical in that process and not being afraid to fail. You’re going to get rejected quite a bit so I think the more that you can learn from those experiences, re-develop your skill sets, I think it’s going to put you in a much better situation to succeed long term.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about you, tell us what you’re an expert in. Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Jim Van Stone: Specific area of brilliance? That’s a tough question to answer. I think one of the things that we do well here at Monumental is I think we really work well as a team and I think working with others is absolutely critical. Building collaboration is really important especially if you are in a sales leadership type of role. We’ve got to work with many other departments, we’ve got to work within the team space, we have to make sure that everyone’s really working in the same common goals to really get us to accomplish what we need to. Collaboration is one of the things that we’ve learned quite well here as an organization, I think it’s one of the things that hopefully I do well.
I think listening to our team, especially also the sales executives that we have there on the front lines talking to customers every single day. We’ve got to be able to hear them give us feedback in terms of what clients want, what clients are looking for, what challenges people may be facing, what opportunities are and I think sharing that amongst the group of things that are working really well is critical and important for us. I think collaborating with the team first and foremost is what I try to do as best that I can on a continuous basis.
Fred Diamond: Again, you’ve been in sports sales, you’ve been selling tickets and related things for over 20 somewhat years now, two decades. You mentioned some of the teams that you’ve sold for, we’re doing today’s podcast, it’s 2020. How has the industry changed? The ticket sales industry, how has that changed from when you started from where it is today?
Jim Van Stone: Across all of our different revenue areas that we have, I think technology has changed everything. When I was selling I didn’t have beautiful programs like Salesforce.com or some of those different opportunities so I think the ability to connect with many more people today really puts the sales process in a completely different situation. When I was selling and just starting like many people in the early 90s I had my shoe box and my tickler file and I was going through that, but I think today’s day and age with technology we’re just really able to deliver our message in a much cleaner fashion. I think we’re able to canvas and connect with many more people than we ever did, I think certainly working with groups like we have an internal business intelligence team that works with us on strategy and analytics about the right customers to go after and we do a lot of lead scoring on that. Today’s day and age technology has really put many organizations in a much better situation.
Fred Diamond: Again, we’re talking today with Jim Van Stone, he’s the President of Business Operations and Chief Commercial Officer for Monumental Sports, they sell tickets for the Washington Wizards, Washington Capitals, you said 230 events per year?
Jim Van Stone: At Capital One Arena we do 230 events a year. We also manage EagleBank Arena at George Mason University, we’ve got Medstar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington which is our trading facility for the Capitals, we also have Medstar Wizards Performance Center in the new Ward 8 area that was just built and that’s our training facility for the Wizards and all of our basketball teams. Plus, we also have our Mystics to play all their home games over at the new 4,000 seat entertainment sports arena. I think when you take a look collectively at all the different venues that we operate it’s almost 450 events that we do on an annual basis and about 4.5 million people through the turnstiles. It’s a great opportunity, I think when our guests are coming to our beautiful arenas and facilities to actually see our teams play, perform, connect with people that they want to connect with, I think it’s an incredible opportunity and it’s something that we really take very seriously.
Fred Diamond: To get to this place in your career you must have had some great mentors along the way. Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales mentor and how they impacted your career?
Jim Van Stone: That’s a great question. I would say probably one of the most impactful sales mentors that I’ve had was a gentleman named Fran Cassidy who was my boss at the Philadelphia 76ers when I started my career. Fran was incredible at developing relationships, I think the other piece is that he was always very astute at looking at that next opportunity so he took a lot of strategy into the process. Frank came from a background of selling sports memberships and then I also worked with a gentleman named Pat Croce who started Sports Physical Therapist that was sold to NovaCare.
Fred Diamond: He owned the Sixers for a while.
Jim Van Stone: He did. Really great background but they were all about relationships and developing rapport with customers, getting to understand what people’s objectives are. One of the things I remember most about Pat Croce, for example, Pat would say someone’s name the first time he met them literally a dozen times and he was probably the best person I’ve ever seen of remembering a person’s name. Talk about how respectful that is and how it allows you to really connect with someone very quickly, that was fantastic. Fran, on his end, was someone that knew what buttons to push from a sales team standpoint, he knew how to nurture the team, he knew how to get people in their best prepared moment and at the end of the day, he was open to new ideas and he brought in incredible amount of strategies to the position. I learned a lot from Fran and continue to maintain a great relationship with him.
Fred Diamond: I have a quick question for you, a little bit different question. You talked about technology and you talked about all the things that need to happen today for a sales professional to be successful. Relationships, you talk about a guy like Fran Cassidy, I’m sure he had tremendous relationships in Philly with banks, hotels, hospitals, restaurants and retail institutions. Is that still important with what you do today? For someone to be successful let’s say at a junior level or coming into sales, how does that play now with all the technology and the transactional type of technologies?
Jim Van Stone: I think that’s a great question, I think that’s one of the things that we really focus especially with our younger sales team that we have in the thickening area is making sure that they’re continually working to develop that one-on-one relationship. I think sometimes that certainly does get lost with technology, technology is a resource for us but I think still people buy from people they like and people they respect and people that understand what their objectives and goals are.
I think that one-on-one relationship is absolutely critical and I think when you look at our facility here at Capital One Arena with the 230 events, for a given Capitals or Wizards game someone could come down here and have a game changing experience. They can see a Hall of Fame moment that happens and that’s a really personal experience when you’re there live and in person. For us, when we look at all of our guests and customers and they’re coming to see us, we take that very critical so I think getting out to meet as many customers as you can on a game night is important. I think many times people are experiencing some of the events that we have here with other loved ones that they go to games or events with so trying to get to know them on a one-on-one basis I think is critical. I think relationships are valuable and the better relationships that we develop with our customers I think certainly lead to high levels of retention and we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had high levels of retention for our customers, especially our season ticket holders on annual basis.
Fred Diamond: What are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Jim Van Stone: Certainly with new employees that we have, new reps understanding the process. We all have a journey and there is a runway there and it just doesn’t happen immediately so I think being patient certainly for a younger, newer sales rep is a little bit of a challenge. I think mentoring and working with people on a continuous basis is critical for us. I think the other thing that we have to be mindful of is that what we do in our business to a degree is somewhat of a luxury. We have to take that very serious and I think delivering value for customers is something that keeps us up at night and makes us always push to look at doing things differently understanding how trends change and what that process is in terms of what people’s interests are in some of the sports and activities that we have. Certainly that’s a part of the process that keeps us up a little bit.
Fred Diamond: That’s an interesting thing you brought up. On the Sales Game Changers podcast it frequently comes up that today more and more you need to provide more value. You’ve always had to provide value in sales, but you just brought up value as something that needs to continually be grown. What kind of value? Obviously if someone’s buying a suite or if they’re buying a block of tickets or something they know what they’re getting. They’re going to come for a couple of hours, watch a game, have some food. What more value could you provide to continue to grow your customer base?
Jim Van Stone: I think people want to feel connected, they want to feel like the insider so communicating to clients about the changes that we have on a consistent basis and being very proactive, that is really important. I think the experiential opportunity and making sure that experiential opportunity really builds a connection with our products and also the customer is important. We do some fabulous programs built around some of our biggest clients and even some of our not so biggest clients, we want them to feel connected to the players and feel part of the team. We’re always looking at things that are unique and different and establishing great programs from that standpoint.
This past weekend, for example, our suites department hosted many of our suite holders at Medstar Capitals Iceplex for an open skate program and they had the opportunity to have one of our players come out and do a chalk talk with them so they felt part of the team in that process. I think constantly looking at value opportunities that you can create above what just the ticketing experience is or the game day experience is important.
Fred Diamond: Obviously you’re going to remember the game but remembering the chalk talk with Ovechkin or whomever shows up, you’ll remember that for like 40 years and you bring your kid with you or something. That’s going to stick with you, again, the game is a great experience but all those unique things. Take us back to the #1 specific sales success or win from your career you’re most proud of.
Jim Van Stone: I don’t know if there’s one that stands out specifically. I think we have had some really large deals that we’ve been able to do the last couple of years but I think some of the ones that are most memorable and one of the biggest ones we’ve had was our Capital One Arena naming deal. We’ve had a long term relationship with Capital One and we understood what their values were, we understood what their objectives are and I think when the opportunity presented itself we worked a long time with their marketing team to make sure that we could put together the right program for them that would deliver value for Capital One.
Customers are really important for them so we worked on a variety of different programs that would allow greater engagements. One of the great opportunities that we have is that if you’re a Capital One card member or bank customer you get discounts on tickets, you get discounts on food and beverage, you get discounts on merchandise. We wanted to deliver value to their end customer so we worked really hard putting together some programs that met a lot of their goals and initiatives. I think that was a really rewarding deal for us.
Fred Diamond: Before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, again, you’ve been in sales your whole career. It’s very visible what you’re doing, people see the suites being used and they know what it is. Did you ever question, though, being in sales? Did you ever think to yourself maybe you should have gone the communications route back there or something? Do you ever say to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s really just not for me”?
Jim Van Stone: I don’t know. You’re in sales yourself, Fred.
Fred Diamond: We’re all in sales, my friend.
Jim Van Stone: When you’re in sales and you get a deal done and you close a big deal that you’ve been working on, I don’t think there’s any rewarding experience… It’s like being an athlete growing up and scoring the winning goal or winning basket, that high and that exhilaration that you get still pumps up a lot of sales executives and it’s one of the things that I’m passionate about. I think we all want to win more deals than we lose, but the deals we’ve lost we’ve grown from and we’ve probably tried a different direction as we move forward but I still think getting a deal done gives you that feeling of being an athlete and it’s a great rewarding opportunity. Seeing people successful as a manager I think is even a greater feeling because you’re seeing someone that’s poured their heart and soul into trying to get an opportunity closed and they see success on that. It makes it feel really gratifying.
Fred Diamond: Jim, we have listeners around the globe. What’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior selling professionals to help them take their career to the next level?
Jim Van Stone: I think the most important thing is to be open-minded and always be willing to learn new ways and new techniques. I think you have to practice to really customize what your presentation would be or your pitch but I think it comes from hearing a lot of different people and the way they do it and how they’re doing successfully. Always be committed to learning and trying new things. Even with my career, I still feel like I come in every single day and I learn new things so I think if you make sure that you continue to practice, educate yourself and continuously learn you’ll put yourself in a really good situation and continue to grow your career. I think the moment you feel like you’re an expert in one particular area, it’s probably going to pass you by before you know it so I think being open to trying new ideas and looking at different ways to do things is critical and important.
Fred Diamond: Along the lines of that, why don’t you tell us about one of your selling habits that have led to your continued success?
Jim Van Stone: One of the things that we do really well here and I think it is an important part and its probably what’s helped us get some of our deals is that when we approach a deal, it’s just not a one-on-one basis, it’s not a sales rep and the customer. When we go into large pitches we integrate many people in our organization into the pitch so I think having it be approached by a team effort really says to a customer that we really value their investment and their time with us and I think it’s very helpful. There’s large sponsorship pitches that we go in with literally a dozen people, people from our marketing team, people from our social and digital group, people from our business intelligence team, our service department, our sales leadership. I think the more that you can do things collaboratively as a group, it will lead to much greater levels of success so certainly having that team approach. We’re not looking for one hero, we want the entire team to be successful so I think approaching sales that way is really important.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.
Jim Van Stone: We’ve been very entrepreneurial as a company and we’ve looked a whole variety of different things. One of the areas that we’ve been really successful at is continuing to grow our media side of our business. A couple years back we’ve launched our own over the top network, Monumental Sports Network, which has been very well received, we’ll broadcast live probably about 500 live sport events traditionally focused in the grass roots area. Certainly high school sports is a big part of that but that’s been a new initiative for us on the media side that I think has allowed us to really think differently about some of the different programs that we’ve done. E-sports is another area, we’ve gotten very active in e-sports.
We own some equity in Team Liquid which is the most successful e-sports organization in the world and we own NBA 2K team and we’re very active on the NHL side. I think being very entrepreneurial in spirit, being open to trying new things is certainly some of the initiatives that we’re working on and some of the things that we want to continue to focus on. We’re always looking at what those next big opportunities would be and one of the big things that’s happening in DC that I think is going to be interesting is sports betting, legalized sports betting. We were the first organization to announce a partnership with a company called William Hill that is an industry leader in sports betting and we’re excited about once they get their application license, about bringing that to the marketplace. We think that’s an incredible opportunity that’s going to help us bring an additional million people to the complex on an annual basis. Being willing to try new things and being very entrepreneurial is really important to us.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned sports betting, you mentioned e-sports, you mentioned some of the new arenas that you’ve opened up in the last couple years. It’s not like 30, 40 years ago when there was one building, you had to fill it, you mentioned media as well so a lot of exciting things. I want to thank Jim Van Stone for being a guest on today’s Sales Game Changers podcast. Jim, before I ask you for your final thought, sales is hard. You have a lot of competition, you’re not just competing with other sports teams in town but you’re also competing with entertainment dollars, you’re also competing with people watching games at home. What is it about sales that has kept you going and what is it that you’re telling your team members about sales to keep them going as well?
Jim Van Stone: What we try to encourage people to do is to look at the big picture. Certainly when you go out and you find a new deal you’re the hunter in that process, so you go out and find that deal but what’s equally important is the relationship side and being a farmer and cultivating them. We think if we can establish a relationship, if we handle it the right way and deliver for customers, show value and deliver great customer service that we’re going to create an incredible customer for life and they’re going to be a fan for life. I think continuing to grow that part and that path is critical for us. Making fans and having people support your teams, I don’t think there’s any greater feeling but when you have a customer that is constantly renewing, wanting to be a part of it or growing their relationship with you, that’s also rewarding in that process.
Fred Diamond: Congratulations, you have a great product, the stadium is amazing, the arena is amazing, all of them are amazing, it’s a great time to be in sports in DC like you mentioned. Not a lot of people have historically thought of DC as being a sports center but the Nats, the Caps, the Wizards have some great players as well and the Mystics, like you mentioned, they won the WMBA.
Jim Van Stone: I personally think that DC is one of the best sports towns in the entire country, I’m passionate about it, we believe in it and the success of the last couple of years has really gone a long way. There was probably an absence of titles in this market for quite a few years between the Capitals, the Mystics and now the Nationals. It’s a really great vibe in this town and community.
Fred Diamond: I’ve got to ask you, though. You’re from Philly, do you still think Philadelphia sports or have you totally made the leap over to everything DC?
Jim Van Stone: I am all Washington, I believe in Capitals, in Wizards and in Mystics from that standpoint. I’m still an Eagle’s fan, tough day yesterday for us but no, I would say I’m all Washington and the Nationals certainly are the prize of the baseball team in this area.
Fred Diamond: Before we break, why don’t you give us one final thought? Again, we have Sales Game Changers, you’ve given us so much great insights here to think about, we greatly appreciate it. Give us something else, give us one final thought to inspire our listeners today.
Jim Van Stone: Be open to trying new things, there’s not one right way to do things. Continue to push yourself, continue to be aggressive, know that we’re not going to win every deal but the deals that we win are going to be big and it’s going to help you as you develop relationships with your clients and you’re going to be able to continue to grow them at a very fast rate.