While hands clutched at hearts, covered mouths in suspense and squeezed others’ fingers, the room went silent for less than half a second. Scattered photographs hung on the wall like a teenager’s bedroom behind a cluster of 50 ticket sales reps, jammed into a too-small conference room and buttoned up in a way that hid the confusion, frustration and exhaustion of the last three months since the franchise’s superstar tried to force his way out.
If you look closely, you’ll see moments both staged and candid inside the picture frames – All-Stars posing with low-level sales execs crowded around cubicles, as well as highlights of a staff swamp tour that took place just last week. Each, in their own way, celebrating the values of familiar closeness and organization-wide victories that bind the Pelicans ticket sales staff so closely.
“We spend so much time together that we really consider this our family,” said season ticket account manager Gena Boudreaux. Looking to the two team members to her left, she added: “I see (these guys) more than I see my own husband and son.
“It must mean something to us. It’s much more than a career.”
And that’s why Tuesday night, when NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum revealed the Memphis Grizzlies had landed the second-overall pick, giving New Orleans the first selection in this summer’s NBA Draft, the conference room’s silence broke – no, shattered.
Men stood on chairs, fist-pumping like the heat of a Metallica concert, their ties flopping up and hitting them in the face. Women collapsed on the large, wooden meeting table before grabbing thunder sticks and thumping them, transforming the Pelicans’ sales team war room into the celebratory moments similar to the trophy ceremony after an NBA Finals Game Seven in an arena’s lower bowl.
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Nearly 5,000 miles away Jesse Nantz, a senior group sales account exec, watched along at 2:51 a.m. local time in Paris, then grabbed his phone and immediately began dialing up some of his oldest ticket clients.
“We’ll see what happens when I hand in that expense report,” laughed Michael Stanfield, the team’s senior vice president of sales.
In step, the elation in the Airline Drive team facility morphed into busy energy, as feet shuffled back to desks to juggle the vibration of cell phones, the ringing of desk landlines and the pinging of email inboxes.
Motivated by the new guard that executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin has ushered in since his hiring in April, Stanfield had for days set up a laborious checklist in preparation for the six percent chance the organization’s basketball team – and sales team – won the NBA Draft Lottery and the inevitable rights to select Duke freshman phenom Zion Williamson with the first-overall pick on June 20.
The vice president turned servant, as he circled his team’s cubicles, offering water. He’d already ordered an override of the crew’s phone system that automatically sends calls to voicemail on weekdays after 6 p.m., on the off-chance an influx of calls motivated by the franchise’s single biggest win might arrive in droves. IT officials were on-hand, ready to remedy the 15 seconds where the office’s phone system failed.
Even gameday operations managers were on-hand to learn a crash course in over-the-phone ticket sales.
“You don’t just plan for success. You expect it, whether you’re on the court, the field or in the office. You expect success, and you’re ready for it,” Stanfield said.
It’s an attitude derived from Griffin, a long-time NBA executive who was part of three draft lottery-winning teams in Cleveland before ushering in the city’s first professional sports championship in 52 years – one of the sports world’s fastest rags-to-riches stories of the last decade. Someone who sees promise in repairing a broken relationship with Anthony Davis, who quickly secured the league’s leading strength and conditioning guru for the franchise most burdened by injury woes a year ago and who took a former coworker’s lucky tie and a fan’s lucky wooden angel figurine to Chicago and somehow conjured up the good fortunes of the ping-pong ball gods Tuesday night at the Hilton Chicago.
Griffin’s message of constant preparation and daily progress is why winning the rights to Williamson wasn’t seen by those in the basketball franchise’s ticket sales office like the start of a new chapter, as much as the team’s viral celebratory video may signal such. Instead, it was the spark that lit the fuse that Griffin and his team have been laying the groundwork for hastily this offseason.
“It’s just a cosmic validation of the things we’re doing,” said senior premium seating account executive Kevin Ferguson.
But that overhaul began even before Griffin’s arrival. Shortly after the start of the new year, while the rest of the league’s ticket sales teams rolled out package renewal programs with promotional fliers, audible gameday reminders and frequent phone calls, Stanfield said his team sat largely in neutral.
As longtime season ticket holders began to call and cancel future packages and others waivered, the sales department also decided to rid themselves of selling to out-of-town ticket brokers who made the Pelicans’ books appear as if the Smoothie King Center was near sold out, but left the arena’s lower bowl far too sparsely filled too many times this past season.
“Just because this is how the rest of the NBA does it, it doesn’t mean we need to,” Stanfield said. “Things have to be meaningful, purposeful. We’re here to make sure there’s an overly-competitive environment for the team to win. That’s what we do as a support role. We’re here to make sure it’s loud and it’s full.”
Rather than act with the frantic nature of trying to salvage a sinking ship while feeding an empty sales pitch to potential clients, the Pelicans’ sales department waited for the stable direction and vision Griffin has brought, then rolled it out in the moments following the lottery news, with some not hanging up the phones until the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
Then, some showed up as early as 6 a.m. to do it all over again, hoping to build upon the more than 2,000 season ticket packages they sold Tuesday night alone that included an annual suite, floor level packages that go for $75,000 a seat and tickets in the upper reaches of the arena that cost just $230 for the season.
“Around 4 p.m. (on Tuesday), I got a text message that said ‘If you get the No. 1 pick, I will renew my floor seats tonight.’ And guess what? As soon as I ran to my phone, he’s the first person I called on my cellphone, and he was my first sale,” Boudreaux said.
“I had four or five accounts that had been on the fence about renewing, and between last night and this morning, nearly all of them reached out to me saying ‘Hey, are my seats still there? Can I get back on board?’ ” Ferguson said.
In the midst of meeting with Williamson and his parents, speaking on conference calls with media and celebrating with the team’s head coach Alvin Gentry, Griffin found time to call the ticket sales office around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday night. In the midst of digesting the franchise’s major victory, he wanted to hear of the small ones happening back at team headquarters.
Both Ferguson and Boudreaux, who have been ticket sales reps with the organization for nine years, said Tuesday’s news – the gravity surrounding it, the positive energy generated from it and the excitement it evoked – was nothing like anything they’d every experienced, even when the team landed the No. 1 pick in 2012 to draft Davis.
Between now and June 20th, so much uncertainty still hovers – Will Davis stay? Will he still demand a trade? Will Griffin oblige now, and if so, where will he be shipped off to? National talk shows speak of unrest in Williamson’s camp about coming to New Orleans – “that’s the farthest thing from the truth,” senior vice president of communications Greg Bensel said. And there’s always the minuscule sliver of a chance the team falls in love with another prospect or trades the pick away entirely.
But things are starting to feel different inside the department charged with helping bring the electricity of last year’s postseason run to the Smoothie King Center 41 nights during the regular season. And without more than a few shouted cheers amidst the celebration, the ticket sales team’s viral 31-second video of immense elation said what words just quite couldn’t.
“I think this all says a lot about this city as a fan base and where we’ve grown over the last six years or so,” Ferguson said. “We’ve done some good work developing the fans in this city, and they’ve latched onto the idea of the Pelicans.”