There isn’t any leader right now without a crisis. That is why crisis management is crucial. It is vital in navigating the pandemic and taking on the resulting new business landscape. In this episode, Lance Tyson sits down with Brad Alberts, President of the Dallas Stars, to discuss crisis management and leadership. Brad addresses the mindset, skills, and attitudes salespeople and leaders will need to adopt as we look to the future. But he always comes back to one of the foundations of sales: the need for us all to continuously improve and never plateau. Tune in!
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Crisis Management: How To Win Over The Pandemic With Brad Alberts
I’m excited about this episode. I’m bringing on Brad Alberts, who’s the President and CEO of the Dallas Stars. He and I were connecting. The last time we physically saw each other was at a rooftop bar in LA, at The Ritz or the JW Marriott there. That’s the last time we were physically together.
It’s been a while, Lance, and it’s good to see you. Thanks for inviting me to your show.
If somebody looks at your title, they know what a president and CEO do. Sometimes people don’t know the difference in the titles. With what’s going on now, what hat are you wearing the most right now?
It’s certainly very different than the hat that I was wearing several years ago. Now it’s crisis management and crisis leadership. That’s what I’ve been in since 2020. It’s been an incredibly taxing year for all of us in sports and entertainment. Every day there seems to be some crisis, as I call it, that needs to be managed. There isn’t any leadership right now without a crisis in front of that, Lance.
I like to say to our people, “I can’t solve the problems that the pandemic has created for our business until the pandemic is over.” We’re still not through the pandemic. We’re still dealing with all of those problems that are created for our industry. We were laughing before we came on. We used to talk about selling, we haven’t sold much since 2020 and it’s a completely different conversation than what we were all trained to do and what we were all accustomed to doing. Things are very different and managing the crisis is of the moment are my primary job, including trying to figure out how financially we navigate this.
That’s the big thing. I did a video post thinking about 2020. A lot of the leaders in my company are women. They helped us navigate through 2020, which for our business is holding onto what we had. We’re staying locked in and trying to give more, which sounds like it’s in your business also, but you guys have had some relative success on the ice, even in the pandemic. Is that cause more or less issues from crisis management or different issues?
I think different, Lance. The NHL went into the bubble in Toronto. We ended up in Edmonton this summer of 2021 and to finalize the 2020 season. Our team had great success and ultimately made it to the finals, but it was so bizarre because we couldn’t take advantage of it. From a business perspective, we couldn’t sell into it like we would have normally done. At the same time, your fan base couldn’t experience it live. It was all via television and you couldn’t even get together at the time to enjoy it.
Everybody was in their own homes, including me, because I wasn’t in Canada. I couldn’t get there watching it with your family. It was such a bizarre experience to go through those emotional moments that you typically are in the arena for and then to come out of it. Now to have this season what it is, which is unique and crazy in its own way. I used to work in baseball and I feel like we’re in a baseball schedule now for hockey that is playing every day, which is insane.
In times of crisis, study the data, be flexible in planning, and react to the situation.
Since you’ve been to the finals, that hasn’t stopped. You’re almost a little bit of a break there and continue.
The whole thing is beyond bizarre. I know everyone will say the same thing. We’re trying to get through it as best we can as a league and I’m hopeful that we can get to July 1, 2021, and put this behind us and start to plan for ‘21 to ‘22 being “normal.”
One thing Brad that you said, and this is this interesting jumping-off point. You’re leading through crisis, uncertainty and I’ve heard every word. What have you either learned about yourself as a leader or changed or adapted about your leadership in 2020?
A couple of things, number one, and I’ve preached it to our staff, patience. Everybody is frustrated and stressed. There’s anxiety about a number of issues surrounding and swirling around the business, as you can imagine. None of this was anyone’s fault. Being patient with our league, with all of the protocols that they’ve created, making it hard to navigate getting people in the building, you’ve got to be patient. It’s not their fault. They’re trying to do the best they can to get through this and internally, it’s easy to get frustrated. Everybody’s frustrated. It’s a very difficult time to be in the business. Being patient with one another is something that I’ve preached and that I’ve had to do too. I’ve got to be patient with everyone because it’s easy to get frustrated with so many challenges that we’re facing.
Number two, the focus on selling tickets is such a big part of our business. We haven’t done it since 2020. The traditional business pressures and business focuses haven’t been there where it’s a completely different situation. We’re selling out our building land selling 4,200 tickets. Matt Bowman and I looked at each other and we were like, “We can’t even make this stuff up.” We’re happy that we’ve got 4,000 people at the game. It’s a completely different situation. Coming out of this, we’re going to have to recraft and rebuild the business post-pandemic.
You’re going to have different types of objections you haven’t dealt with in the past. You’ve got to get the salespeople ready to go again because they’ve been servicing or staying connected with people. It’s interesting. You chose the word patience because one of the things we’ve been coaching sales leaders and sales teams on is being patient in the sales process.
I was on what the Jacksonville Jaguars. I mentioned that and somebody said, “How do you deal with the COVID-19 objection?” I said, “You have to be patient because it could be a smokescreen. It could be very real. You can’t show empathy to it. Everybody has dealt with it differently and it may cause people to hesitate where before you can be elbowy and enforce a move. Now you can’t. You’ve got to plant seeds.”
Coming out of this, we’re going to deal with things in the sales process that we’ve never dealt with before. Understanding how the consumer is going to behave is going to be interesting for all of us in sports entertainment. You might have different levels of it in different places, in different sports, all those things, like you always do. We’re dealing with something that no one has faced in the world. We’re going to have to see how the public responds and takes it patiently. See, study the data, be flexible in your planning and react to the situation. The teams and the companies that can do that will ultimately be successful, but you’re right. You do have to be patient. It’s going to be a different sales process coming out of this than it was going in.
You will be as patient as you would run into one of the shot clocks in basketball or on a power play. You’re looking into the corners and look for a shot. Let’s go back with you. You don’t land as President CEO of a major sports franchise, so give everybody your journey real quick. Did you start off in sales? Was it on the upside of the business? How’d you gravitate to this?
I grew up in the sales world, Lance. I started as a young kid, like so many others. I was selling tickets for this franchise, the Dallas Stars, when I was 25. I started here in the mid-’90s. I grew up, I was blessed and I have been blessed from my entire several years’ career in professional sports to be able to grow up and stay in one market. You know, Lance, that is unique.
The only other person I know that story is Greg Grissom of the Texans. He was the only person I’ve ever run into, like you, who has been able to stay relatively in a market. He had one instead outside of Houston, but that was it. You started the mid-‘90s. That was when the Stars won their first cup back then.
We had moved and the Stars came to Dallas in 1993. I started in the summer of ‘96. The team was new. I came in and walked in at the perfect time. Tom Hicks had purchased the team from Norman Green, who had moved it from Minnesota. We were building the hockey at the time in Dallas. We had one rink. It was over in Valley Ranch, right next to the Cowboys. We were geographically in a great spot.
My son has played there.
It’s old now and we’ve got eight of those rinks now. Sixteen sheets of ice, several years later, we’ve grown hockey anyway. I started then and we won the Stanley Cup in 1999. I was there right as the Stars reached their ultimate peak. I was able to benefit from selling into that. We sold the building out two years after I was there and then we built the American Airlines Center right on the heels of that. That was a great opportunity to move from one building to another, sell into that. Our owner at the time, Tom Hicks, bought the Texas Rangers. I was able then to emerge the businesses and I was able to work in Major League Baseball and the NHL for ten years. I was promoted all the way up, Lance. I sold tickets. They elevated me in ticket sales a year after that and I moved to sell our suite product at the time.
If you’re going to go there real quick, Brad. Go back to young Brad in ticket sales, the mid-‘90s. How are you as a salesperson? I’ll throw it out this way. I said to your neighbor, “When you were in sales with the Cavs, how were you as a salesperson?” He goes, “I was a solid 5, 6 or 7 on the board.” How was the young Brad opening up there, your career in sales?
I was a top-producing sales. I’ve told people in the past. They’ve asked me, “How did you progress in your career?” What I say is, “Be great at what you do. Master your craft.” When I was twenty-five years old, selling tickets for the Stars, I wasn’t thinking about being the president of the team. I was thinking about being the best salesperson and I did. When I was promoted to sell luxury suites, I was the best luxury suite person.
Was that at the Rangers?
Be great at what you do. Master your craft.
Texas Rangers is where I sold suites and they elevated me. Jim Lites has been a great mentor to me in the business. He saw my skillset, my abilities and they kept plucking me in promoting me along and they moved me into sponsorship shortly after that. They moved me into leadership roles in sponsorship, and then one thing led to another. Ultimately, I became the president of the team after my short stint at Legends in 2018.
Go back to that first role and then we’ll go to the next one. Tie it into how you are as a leader right now. You focused on being the best at that job. You said, “I didn’t go in and I’m going to be the president of the team. I’m going to be best at what I do right now.” As a salesperson, what did you accept? There are a lot of parts of sales, prospecting, asking questions, building rapport, negotiating. What was the part that, I wouldn’t say came easy, but it’s something you excelled at as a young salesperson?
It’s just having relationships and building relationships. I know I excelled at that. I’m a golfer and I used golf to meet a lot of people. I can trace that back to a lot of deals. Once I was in sponsorship, I ultimately did and closed because of relationships I met either directly golfing with or with people I knew as golfing partners that introduced me to somebody.
That’s what a lot of folks say, “I’m not a good golfer.” If you’re going to golf, you’re putting time in. You’re going a four-hour round with people. That’s not a short quick lunch you’d put that time in. If you go back to say some of your early managers in those first two jobs, what are some things they’d be frustrated with the young Brad? I wouldn’t say you pissed them off, but they’re like, “I’ve got to get him to do X or Y.” What was it?
I’m an intense guy, Lance. There’s no question. People that have worked for me are going to say I’m intense. That’s probably the word that somebody would use, “He’s pretty intense and he can get fired up from time to time.” I’ve tried to manage that, but it’s much different now than it was several years ago. Even the sales process, the way we prospect and look for sales using data now is way different.
I remember back in ‘95, we would get lists of people and you would blindly cold call people. You’d randomly get the person that had passed away. It’s so unscientific back in the mid-‘90s compared to where we are now. Growing through the business, being flexible and embracing the changes in the industry is important. You never want to get old in this business.
If you’re not evolving, you’re done. You’re going to fail miserably. There are two different sales because we had a lot of people reading that are in pro sports sales. When you’re selling a ticket, whether a club seat or a season ticket, it becomes either it’s B2C and sometimes every once in a while, it’s B2B, but it’s a little bit more transactional. You start getting the suite sales. Did you have to change your game or do you stick to your game plan?
Selling tickets is transactional, as we all know. There’s an element of relationship selling in that. In order to be a good ticket seller, it’s a volume business and it’s transactional. As you get selling premium inventory, suites, it’s much less transactional and much more relationship. Certainly, when you’re selling sponsorship, it’s relationship-oriented and time-consuming. It’s not transactional. In fact, you get in trouble if you try to make it transactional.
You do value it.
Just because you were a great ticket seller doesn’t make you a great sponsorship, but many people do translate. You’ve got to make sure that you understand the differences in the business. I’ve talked to people about that a lot that has worked for me.
A lot of leaders fail at the factor. You’ve got somebody who’s a great ticket salesperson. They think they’re promotable. If they’re B2C, sometimes they’re not B2B. It’s a different process and the evolution piece. You said it well. A $150,000 suite requires $150,000 presentations at the end of the day. If you’re transactional, it’s not going to translate it all.
You’re not going to ask for a credit card at the end of that. It’s a different close process, the whole thing. I tried to master my craft. Once I was out of ticket sales, I tried to master selling premium and suite inventory. It was different, but a lot of the same sales skills, work ethic, all those things are important. You have to change your conversation, how you close and who you’re talking to.
You get to that point and we’ll talk about sponsorship in a second because you make that transition there. Those first two jobs as you evolve, what did you start to realize about sales leadership? Think about this point. You’re in a sales job. What are you saying to yourself, “I’m going to fricking not do this, or I’m going to do this?” What do you start thinking at that point?
As a salesperson and not when you’re the leader, I was looking at trying to close deals, whatever they were. If they were luxury suites, I was looking at our inventory and I was looking at what we sold last year. I wanted that increase, and I was trying to make as much money for myself as possible and sell as much product that benefited the team.
Once you get into leadership, it’s building out the team you want and creating the sales culture you want. I had great leaders, some better than others like everybody does, but I learned a lot from their different styles. I took my personality and my style and implemented them into our various cultures. When you’re selling suites, you’ve got a certain culture that you need to have and when you’re selling sponsorship, you’ve got a certain culture that you need to have.
We are managing the people on our team, setting up attainable goals, motivating them and giving them the support to go out and do what they do, and recognizing that there’s an art to it. Everybody’s got a different style and not trying to turn guys into robots. I’ve always told our people, especially our sponsor people, it’s an art and everybody’s got to figure out their own way to accomplish the ultimate goal and everybody’s got a different style. As long as we’re getting things done, I’m okay with how they do it.
Everybody signs their name, but everybody has a different signature. That’s clutch. You get into the sponsorship world and you’re doing more or less of it because now you’re in a very long cycled sale. Sometimes premium and suite can be long cycled, but sponsorship is different. It gets very long-dated at certain points. You take that intensity because you have to evolve again. Talk about that.
You have to embrace the grind.
You’ve got to have short-term and long-term plans in sponsorship. Everybody that’s sold sponsorship can give examples of deals where that took years to mature into a good size sponsorship deal ultimately. You may meet somebody now which ultimately buys from you two years from now and that’s much different from ticket sales.
In ticket sales, you’re transactional. You’re trying to get credit cards now to move products. You’ve got to be patient, diligent and you’ve got to have, “I need to get things closed now because we have a season coming up and I’ve got my inventory that I’ve got to move. At the same time, I’ve got a prospect for long-term, things that may show up two years from now and not get antsy or impatient with that and then lose interest in that person because they’re not ready to purchase now.” It’s a very different discipline.
It’s like you talked about in the beginning. It’s that evolution. You’ve got to understand that game. Some things apply, some things don’t. The interesting thing about sponsorship is you’ve got to hunt, but you also have to turn on that long-term seed planting. You got to know when to move. It’s more both where you go back to ticket sales. It’s a very transactional business. Suites become more long-term and sponsorship becomes both at the end of the day.
In order to be a good sponsorship person, you’ve got to have great sales skills, but you’ve got to be smart, intelligent about the business, able to speak and interact internally with all aspects of a sports organization and company. You need to be able to deal with accounting and marketing. You need to be able to sell and talk about your sport. If you’re selling sponsorship in baseball, you’ve got to know about your team. You’ve got to be able to talk the game and hockey. It’s important to get people that grasp the business and are not just transactional sellers if you’re going to have a competent sponsorship department, in my opinion.
As a sponsorship person, you’re as good a business person as you are a salesperson. You’ve got to understand what drives the profitability of a sale and what brand fits with what. You’ve got to line it up. As you look at how you came up through the ranks, that’s period from the mid-‘90s to now. You’ve seen a lot of changes in salespeople. You’ve talked about culture a couple of times. What salesperson prospers under Brad Alberts’ sales culture and what type of salesperson doesn’t do well?
The people that have done well here embrace the mentality of selling. We celebrate success. It’s one of the things that we’ve done well here. Matt Bowman was a Legends trained guy and I love the Legends sales philosophy. We implemented a lot of those principles into our business here with the Stars. Matt’s done a great job of celebrating success, clearly articulating goals, so that everybody knows exactly what they need to do. When we accomplish those, we celebrate those.
We also embrace the grind. That’s the thing, Lance, you’ve got to embrace the grind. There are very few situations like a slam dunk, home runs, shooting fish in a barrel. I’m selling tickets for the Stars twenty-plus years after they came here. It’s a grind. We’re not a new franchise. We’ve had success, but we’ve had inconsistent success over the last several years. From a sales perspective, you’ve got to grind through the process. The guys and the women that have done well have embraced the grind.
Now is an uber-competitive market too in sports and entertainment. On top of the sports teams, you’ve got organizations like Topgolf that are gobbling money up. There’s a lot of things going on. You’ve got to embrace that grind and know that market. I agree 100%.
We have a great market, but it’s an incredibly competitive market. We’ve got every major pro sport, college sport, minor league sport, and you mentioned Topgolf. There is a tremendous amount of competition for the sports and entertainment dollar. We’ve got to compete against a culture of football. I tell people all the time, “High school football is a competition to us.” People are like, “What?” I’m like, “No, it is. Trust me.” It’s a much different grind than you have in other markets. The people that do well here embrace that.
We have people reading from all kinds of industries from pharmaceuticals, manufacturing. What do you think about moving forward? An organization like the Dallas Stars has had to deal with COVID-19, probably one of the worst industries to be in besides maybe a restaurant at this point in New York City. What do you think the salesperson the future looks like? There have to be some things in your opinion that might be a little bit different moving forward.
Summer of 2021 was going to be interesting because it’s going to be the first time we’ve engaged back into a sales campaign where we’ve got to start our renewals. We’re going to do that here, 30 to 45 days. We’re already late. We’re going to try to sell new tickets to a sport that’s coming out of a pandemic. Patience is going to be key, like we talked about before. The principles are still going to be there that we had before. We’re going to want to try to move inventory. We’re going to have things that we need to sell, but understanding the mentality of the consumer and our fan is going to be important for the next 6 to 8 months.
Somebody may not be ready to commit to come back to the American Airlines Center in October 2021 because they’re not ready to go on the public yet. That means we still want to maintain a relationship with them and we may need to call them back in February 2022. Maybe they come back in February 2022 when things are even better or they feel more comfortable with their health or the situation. We’re going to have to understand that there are going to be a wide variety of issues that we’re going to face more so than probably ever before. Why do people either can or can’t come to games?
It goes back to what you said, “The salesperson of future’s going to have to understand that market and be patient in certain scenarios.” I’ll add to it, if they’re seeing the momentum and it’s a regular situation, they’re going to have to make that adjustment. They’re not going to be able to treat everybody the same, which is big data points. We’re going to need salespeople to deal with a situation, situation by situation. It’s a very tailored move.
We’re going to have to be flexible. As leadership down to the sales management teams, we’re going to have to be flexible, hear from the reps what the consumers are saying, and be able to read and react with our strategy based on the data we’re hearing. I’m a glass-half-full guy. I’m hopeful that Dallas will be a market that’s going to be able to rebound from this well.
We’ve got a ton of people in Dallas. We’ve got great companies. There’s going to be societal wealth here, more so than in some other markets. I’m bullish on our market, on our sport and our building. People are going to come back, but until we see exactly how the customer responds, we’re not going to know. We’re just going to have to be flexible in our strategies.
I love the intensity and I could feel it. I’m with you. I’m flexible but intense and I need my organization to be that way especially moving forward because I don’t think this gets easier. As things open up, it’s going to be different. We have a new business reality. In sales, you’re going to have that intensity to want to learn and feel like you said, “Be agile.” Last couple of questions. Number one would be, you’ve done a ton of big deals in your life. I asked this question to everybody. If you had a song that you played in your head before any big deal, what’s that sale song for you?
You’re going to laugh, but probably, Don’t Fear the Reaper. I love that song and I play it a lot. I don’t know why but I love it.
The second question, if you had a 6 or 7-year-old niece or nephew come up to you and said, “Uncle Brad, what’s success?” You say what?
Success is always improving. You can set very attainable goals for whatever you’re doing.
My daughter is a volleyball player. I tell her that if you want to be successful as a young athlete, you want to continue to improve. You never want to plateau, especially too early. Success is always improving. You can set very attainable goals for whatever you’re doing. If you want to be an actress or an actor, or an athlete, there are certain goals that you can set for yourself that you want to accomplish.
If you want to add two inches a year to your vertical jump because, in volleyball, you jump higher, you set up a program, you did a fitness and strength program and you start going about it. If you accomplish that, that’s the success. Goal setting and always improving is a great measuring stick for youth. You never want to plateau at whatever you’re doing. That’s a great way to explain success to young people. Set attainable goals and don’t ever plateau. Keep improving at whatever you do.
It sounds exactly like what you did early in your career. You set those goals and moved, which is far from the course. The last question, bring this thing down for landing. If you had a gift one book, or have you gifted a book in your past, what book have you gifted? You can’t pick mine because I know that’s one of your top favorites.
I’m embarrassed to say in 2020, I didn’t read a book. I haven’t taken the time to read a book. I’m an autobiography guy, so I like to read about people’s stories. In my life, I’ve read about politicians and I’ve enjoyed reading about coaches, how they’ve handled leadership and their teams. I’ve read books by Pat Riley, Rick Pitino, Mike Krzyzewski, a number of our top-tier coaches. I love Bill Walsh’s story.
It’s a great book. I love that book.
I love a lot of the tentacles of things that he believed in, how he built and coached the team. I like to read about how people have lived their life or built organizations, not just sports, but other companies. I’ve read Jack Welch’s books in the past. I would recommend reading autobiographies of people that have built things.
Brad, I appreciate your time. I love your story. I know hope is not a strategy. However, my hope is we deal with the hand we’ve been dealt and can keep getting better. I appreciate everything.
It’s great to see you.