Every Little Step, the Journey of Chris Nichols

By: Amari Dryden, @Amari_Dryden

Chris Nichols, the Manager of the Fan Relationship Management Center for The Aspire Group Inc. at Louisiana Tech University

Front Office Sports is proud to have sat down with Chris Nichols, the Manager of the Fan Relationship Management Center for The Aspire Group Inc. at Louisiana Tech University. Sports have always been a part of his life which led him to discover the business side of sports. He was gracious enough to offer up his wisdom about the most rewarding parts of his job, how to achieve a work-life balance and how everything he does is to get him one step closer to his ultimate career goal.

You graduated from Eastern Illinois just a few years ago. What has your journey been like since graduating?

I graduated with both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from EIU. I wanted to get into development, but without a development background, I found it challenging to break through. I actually found my way in with The Aspire Group, which is a ticket sales and marketing company. I was told by my mentors that if I could generate revenue, there would always be a place for me. I’ve prided myself on being able to do just that.

For me, it was a whirlwind because I was moving halfway across the country with my wife and daughter with no support system or family to lean on like back in Illinois. To top it off, I was going from being a marketing graduate assistant to selling tickets over the phone, which I had never done before.

The last year has moved ridiculously fast; I’ve been learning and honing my craft in sales and have received two promotions in less than a year. I’m now leading my own sales staff and trying to find that work-life balance to make sure I’m spending time with my family at home, too.

What inspired you to work in the sports business profession?

As long as I can remember, sports have been a part of my life. Some of my earliest memories are watching my dad coach my sister’s softball games while playing in the dirt next to the field. I grew up playing baseball and basketball and when I wasn’t playing, I was watching. I was a sports nut, reading and learning about sports history and current events; that was my entire childhood.

When I went off to college, I majored in business and became more interested in the business side of sports, particularly on the collegiate landscape. I looked at the athletic directors around the country and thought how cool their job must be; so that became my new goal, to be a part of a department and then eventually to lead one.

Everything I do now is in preparation to reach those aspirations. It’s a fun, engaging, and constantly evolving workplace. I knew people growing up who didn’t love what they did and I saw how much they hated their jobs. I knew that if I wasn’t making sports my career, I too would be unsatisfied professionally.

What is your average day like?

There is not an average day when working in sports. The hardest thing about the industry is that while each day is similar, each day there are changes. Our industry is so competitive and we are fighting for the elusive entertainment dollar. We are battling Hollywood, professional sports, concerts, etc.

Two things that I do each morning is check the D1.ticker newsletter & the NACDA Daily Review. I get those emails every morning to ensure that I don’t miss any updates on what is happening in the industry.

I get to work around 8AM. I go through all my emails before briefing my sales staff on the day ahead. I check in on what they are working on, and find out how I can assist them in accomplishing their daily tasks and weekly goals.

From that point on, my day becomes less average. I have a variation of meetings, phone conferences, sales/marketing planning, developing new packages, working with staff on their own individual projects, and just the daily grind of leading a staff and trying to get better each day myself. My day typically ends around 5:30 or 6PM, during the summer, however during the academic year there are nights where we are in the office until 9 or 10PM.

What are some of the challenges working in your field?

Ticket sales is a mentally challenging job. I always compare it to baseball where you’re going to strike out a lot more than you are getting a hit. The biggest thing is that we aren’t here to sell wins and losses. We’re here to sell experiences for our fans, alumni groups, and businesses to leave a lasting impression on people. We’re here to create an environment that is fun and enjoyable.

The biggest challenge in this industry are the long hours. We’re here working everything from sporting events to alumni association dinners to fanfest events. These events are what makes the job enjoyable though. I love interacting with ours fans and alumni. We get people who call & send thank you notes for the experiences & customer service that we provide and that makes it worthwhile.

What qualities should a person have to succeed in your job?

These qualities crossover into any workplace you’re in, but particularly in ticket sales, you have to have a strong work ethic and be highly organized. You’re going to be working with hundreds of people each week so you have to take good notes & follow up with people constantly. With The Aspire Group, we stress to our staff to under-promise and over-deliver. If they are doing that, their clients are going to be more than satisfied with their experience and keep coming back to them.

If you don’t work hard, people are going to notice that. If you’re not organized, it’s going to be hard for you to be successful, so those two things tie closely together. You have to be open to learning and finding ways to get better at your craft as well. You need to be able to take constructive criticism from your leadership and self-motivate.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Nothing beats seeing youth groups on the field or the court and seeing their eyes light up. So often when you work in the industry you forget what it’s like to be a fan. We get used to being on the field or court with the lights on and having those close interactions with the players and coaches.

For me, it’s getting to give people an experience that they’re not going to get at home in front of the TV. It’s so easy to watch sports at home now. No traffic, your couch, ability to pause, etc. We have to give our fans an in-stadium experience that tops all of those things. Whether it is giving groups a tour of the arena, or being part of a high five tunnel, or taking a season ticket holder for an inside access tour, those are the ways that we build a connection to our programs. When our fans get to interact with our players and coaches it builds a personal connection between both sides. It allows our fans the chance to see the person behind the student-athlete and our students the chance to connect to the kids and alumni.

This past year our men’s basketball team had a Thursday night primetime game on FS1 and we had an Upward basketball league who were going to be playing at halftime. We had about seven thousand people here, near capacity, on a Thursday night. It was very cool to see the student section and the crowd stand up and cheer for them when they ran on the floor and made a basket. Those kids are going to have that memory forever. You can’t get that anywhere else.

What is your ultimate career goal?

My ultimate career goal is to be an athletic director at an FBS school. Everything I do is based on fulfilling that dream. I constantly analyze what other ADs are doing and what other administrators are doing here at Louisiana Tech. I try to be a sponge. Looking for what other schools are doing from revenue generation, to the student athlete experience, to how they are handling public relations. I take notes of these things because I want to make sure that I’m prepared for as many situations as possible.

Here at Louisiana Tech, we have the youngest athletic director in the country at an FBS school in Tommy McClelland. He’s a great leader and a mentor for us here. I really look up to him and what he has been able to do both at McNeese State and Louisiana Tech at such a young age. He’s been an AD since he was 25, which is the age I am now. That just blows my mind! Additionally, I have great leadership within The Aspire Group in our CEO Bernie Mullin, Sr. VP Bill Fagan, & my Regional VP, CJ Wiatr. They have taught me what it means to be a part of a work family. I always feel like I’m part of something bigger than just a company. They have emphasized what it means to work without borders and work across the company to utilize everyone’s individual strengths. I am forever grateful to The Aspire Group for both the opportunity and the training they have provided as both a consultant and a leader.

Like I said, everything I do revolves around getting to that pinnacle of my career, but I won’t be disappointed if I don’t. It’s a pipe dream. There are only 128 ADs at the FBS level so it’s not necessarily a failure if I don’t reach that level, but it’s definitely my goal.

If you view everything less than your dream as a failure, then it’s going to eat at you forever and I don’t think it’s worth that misery. Knowing what you’re working towards is very important, but don’t view not reaching the pinnacle as a disappointment.

Parting wisdom?

It goes back to the qualities a person should have. I think it goes for both young and old, that you have to continue to work your tail off. Don’t ever stop trying to improve. When I was growing up, I had a quote on my wall that my high school basketball coach gave us at youth camp by Vince Lombardi that said, ‘You should always be practicing because someone else is and when you meet, they will win.’ I think the same goes for your career preparation. Evolution is integral because you must be open to change and new ideas. New ideas may not always work, but if you never give it a shot, you will never know what the result could be.

Be sure to pour your heart and soul into everything that you do because that will show in the kind of work you do. In the end, when all is said and done each day, just make sure that you can walk out the door and look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I did the best I could at my job today’. If you can do that you will be successful.

We would like to thank Chris for his time and insight and we wish him the best in all his future endeavors!

You can follow him on Twitter here, or connect with him on LinkedIn here!