This interview is presented to you by the University of Nebraska – Lincoln Master of Arts in Business with a Specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration.
By: D.J. Podgorny, @DJPodgorny
Prior to his junior year at the University of Miami, Bill Fagan, Chief Operating Officer of The Aspire Group, had virtually never considered a career in sports. While in the fall of his third year on campus, where he studied marketing within Miami’s College of Business, Fagan enrolled in a seminar that introduced him to a whole new world of possibilities.
“The course had guest speakers for every single class. That was very enlightening because one of the first guest speakers was a representative from the Orange Bowl Committee. They announced at the end of class that they hire one intern every year in their sponsorship department and that anyone who was interested should go up and talk to him after class.”
Undoubtedly, Fagan was among the few that expressed interest in the role, throwing his name in the hat for consideration. After submitting his resume and nailing a face-to-face interview, Fagan was granted the unpaid internship that lasted until the event’s completion that winter.
“The internship ended successfully and then I was anxious for more internship opportunities. From that point forward, I always had internships for the balance of my two years of undergraduate studies. While taking a full course load and interning I also worked 20-30 hours a week in part-time jobs in retail or restaurants.”
The next landing spot for Fagan was the local NFL team, the Miami Dolphins. During his senior year, he spent his Sunday’s supporting the game day operations department of the team. And while the experience certainly piqued his interest, Fagan realized he preferred the dynamic nature of his previous sponsorship role.
Thus, upon graduation, Fagan’s hustle continued as he applied for over 150 jobs within the sports industry. Despite his impressive resume, filled with an abundance of internship experiences, he struggled to get his foot in the door full-time.
“I started searching throughout my senior year and graduated, but still didn't have anything. I continued to work outside of the industry through the summer after graduation and then started to get a couple of interviews. Finally, in late summer I received my first real face-to-face interview in Cleveland, with the Cavaliers.”
Fagan seized the opportunity, performing extremely well in the interview. The only catch: the Cavs currently had no positions open. However, having made such a strong impression, the leadership was more than willing to provide introductions to various other organizations that may be in need of Fagan’s services.
One of these introductions, to the Phoenix Suns, was particularly promising. After a phone interview and screening, the Suns invited Fagan to their facilities for a face-to-face interview within their sales department. After yet another stellar meeting, the Suns were very interested. However, the response was like a broken record: they currently had no positions open.
Somewhat distraught, Fagan returned to Miami, when two weeks later he received a call that would change his life forever. Late on a Friday night, the Suns informed Fagan that one of their members needed to relocate, opening a position on their ticket sales team. He had finally got his foot in the door.
“That was when I got my first real break. It was not so much the internships, but it was that full-time position, which frankly wasn't guaranteed past 10 months. But I knew that top performers often had opportunities to stay and get promoted, but there were no guarantees past that point. I accepted the entry-level job, $18k per year plus commission and relocated across the country. My life changed.”
When Fagan arrived in Phoenix, his entire team had a four-month head start on ticket sales. Determined to catch up and make a name for himself, it didn’t take long for Fagan to make a difference. Within his first four months on the job, he had completely caught up with his peers.
"I felt like I really belonged. I took to the training, I took to the fundamentals and really enjoyed the job, the people and the whole environment. I was hungry to be successful. I just focused, focused, focused."
Fagan went from being the ‘new kid on the block’ to a top performer overnight, making him part of the group that was promoted. His first year was so successful that he broke the record for highest producing rookie sales representative in Phoenix history, generating over half a million dollars in revenue.
Successful as he was, the current role did not provide Fagan with the career development opportunities that he craved. His promotion placed him in the role of account executive, granting him an opportunity to lead. By focusing on the fundamentals and the root activity, Fagan was able to lead by example and continue to produce at a high level.
Once again, Fagan’s hard work and leadership did not go unrecognized. The next year, he was promoted to work on the newly acquired Phoenix RoadRunners, an ECHL hockey team. Management needed someone to take ownership and focus on the sales end, the perfect fit for Fagan.
"We were starting from scratch, but that provided a lot of opportunities. I was paired with another sales rep who I mentored and guided and we did really well there, too. The numbers were really great, but more importantly I was recognized as the go-to guy for ticketing for that team, which was pretty special two years into my career."
Fagan’s team led all of the ECHL in ticket sales, leading to yet another promotion, this time in sponsorship sales. This new role marked a shift from traditional consumer sales to larger sales to both local and national businesses. With little guidance early on, Fagan leveraged his business school education and developed a playbook, codifying the job as much as possible.
In addition to his day job in corporate sponsorships, Fagan also began volunteering his time back to the ticket sales department to assist with training up-and-coming sales representatives. This experience in mentoring and teaching enthralled Fagan. So much so that he began expressing his interested in moving into a more formal leadership role where he had people management responsibilities. “I wanted to give back to the department which molded me into the professional I had become.”
In Phoenix, there were no management roles available, but when the RoadRunner’s GM, Ray Delia left to serve as the GM of a Canadian Hockey League team, Fagan was given the opportunity he longed for. After nearly four years in Phoenix, Fagan moved to Canada to become the Director of Sales and Services for the Moncton Wildcats.
The move to Canada was filled with challenges and learning experiences for Fagan. Operating in a primarily French speaking region, along with being thrust into his first leadership position made for a wildly educational tenure. Then, after nine months in Canada, the phone rang once again for Fagan.
Fagan’s old manager, from his time in Phoenix, Mike Tomon had intentions to recruit him to be the manager of the Charlotte Bobcat’s inside sales team. Fagan was put into a position to work with his mentor and manage a larger staff with NBA best practices. After a productive year back in the NBA, Fagan was content.
Content, until one more opportunity came across his desk.
"Sometimes when you're not looking for opportunities, they just find you. And yet again, this happened to me. I've never applied for a job since I applied for the job in Phoenix. Technically, I didn't even apply for the job in Phoenix, I was referred. I have never sent my resume out for a job since and I hope I never have to again. The referral network is so strong, the moral of the story being that if you do the right things and focus on doing the job you have today, opportunities will find you. That's not unique to sports, that's global. I've been very fortunate that's happened to me and continues to happen."
This time, he received a call from someone who had conducted sales training for him back in Phoenix who then introduced him to a roll at The Aspire Group. Aspire was on the verge of becoming the first company to provide outsourcing of ticket sales for college athletics. They wanted Fagan to build the Fan Relationship Management Center at Georgia Tech and lead the operational efforts to grow the business.
Faced with a difficult decision, Fagan ultimately left the comfort of the ‘Big 4’ professional network to be on the front lines of the entrepreneurial venture. In 2008, Fagan joined The Aspire Group. In their first three years, Aspire produced $4.5 million in new ticket sales working with Georgia Tech. Today, Aspire has worked with over 130 sports and entertainment properties and has grown to more than $250 million in annual tickets responsibility for its client partners.
Early this summer, Fagan was promoted to become Chief Operating Officer of The Aspire Group. When Fagan, who oversees the majority of Aspire’s roughly 200 employees globally is not at work, he spends his weekends studying at the Goizueta Executive MBA program at Emory University where he will gradute in 2017.
When reflecting on his successes, Fagan repeatedly cited his mentors as linchpins for his sustained excellence:
“I just became a sponge [around my mentors]. I think there is merit to seeking mentors and in the event you are seeking a mentor, I would suggest that you go and look for somebody that is not like you. For people that are just starting their careers, I would talk to people in positions that not necessarily in the jobs that you think you want today because chances are that will probably change.”
“If you just surround yourself with people that think and act like you, you won’t learn very much. If you can carve out time to talk with people that come from different industries, backgrounds, that you respect and can add value to your thinking, you will in turn become more valuable because of that.”
In addition to having diverse, high-achieving mentors, Fagan encourages young professionals to hone in on the things that they can definitively control:
“It is all about work ethic and controlling the controllable. You can control your attitude and your work ethic. If you have a great attitude every day, you work very hard, you're doing the right activities at the right time and you listen while you are continually open to learning, you can do anything.”
“That applies not just to revenue generating positions, but any position. You can do a lot of things and go anywhere you want to go in your career. Opportunities will find you, but you've got to stick to it and you have to be laser-focused on making the most of every single day.”