ATLANTA — Nikki Maroney says she loves the competitiveness of sales.
The Trine University sport and recreation major proved how well she thrives in competition, finishing second in the annual National Collegiate Sports Sales Championship held Feb. 7-8 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
Maroney, of New Buffalo, Michigan, first learned about the competition last spring when posts from Trine students on the 2020-21 team showed up in her LinkedIn feed. She asked Brandon Podgorski, associate professor in the Ketner School of Business and advisor for Trine’s team, to be part of this year’s competition.
“Last year, I really took an interest in the sports sales industry through many networking calls and research I had done,” she said. “The people who work in sales are very passionate about the organizations they work for.”
Open only to graduating seniors and graduate students, the championship began with team competition, held via Zoom in November. In addition to Maroney, Trine’s team included Hayden Jones, a sport management major from Richmond; Caleb Gonya, a sport management major from Angola; and Alyssa Moore, a sport management major from Pendleton.
“Our team would role-play our sales pitch meetings with different buyer scenarios,” Maroney said.
Trine finished 12th out of 37 colleges and universities nationwide, placing highest among NCAA Division III schools and schools from Indiana, besting Indiana University and IUPUI.
Following the team competition, the top 100 students were ranked, with each school choosing their top two students to advance to the single-elimination, 64-student championship. Maroney ranked 11th and Jones ranked 64th to qualify.
“When I came back to school in January, I hit the ground running with preparing for the championship round,” Maroney said, “I wanted to break into the Top 10 to show that I had taken in the feedback I had received from the first round and that I was serious about this competition.”
A few days before the championship was to begin, another spot opened and was given to Gonya. Moore, who was taking part in a Living Sport 10-day internship at Super Bowl LVI, did not make the trip to Atlanta.
At the championship, students take the part of a ticket sales representative for the Atlanta Hawks in a business-to-business, role-play scenario. Students were given the buyer’s profile prior to the competition; the same profile was used until the final round.
The competitors try to sell full- or partial-season ticket packages, including premium suites and clubs, to buyers, played by sales staff members from professional sports teams.
Each student competed against one other student from another school in each round. Students pitched to the same buyer for 20 minutes and were scored by the same judges in areas including speech content, delivery, voice and language, with the high score advancing to the next round.
Winning brought the opportunity to stand out to job recruiters in addition to bragging rights. About 20 teams and organizations conducted job interviews during the event.
Jones and Gonya were both ninth seeds in their brackets. Jones fell in the first round to a Kansas State University student who advanced to the quarterfinals. Gonya was defeated in the first round by Kyle Gaspari of Arizona State University, the eventual champion.
Maroney entered the championship as a third seed. She said the first five rounds, held on Feb. 7, “flew by.”
“Hayden, Caleb and professor Podgorski were my hype people throughout the rest of the rounds,” she said. “We were constantly refreshing our brackets to see what the scores were.”
Podgorski said Maroney showed outstanding sales technique through the entire competition.
“Nicole did an excellent job of diagnosing her buyers’ needs, overcoming objections, asking for the sale and showing empathy to the buyer,” he said.
The championship round, between Maroney and Gaspari, was held on a stage on the Atlanta Hawks practice court, in front of everyone in attendance.
“I went in very nervous, but from what others have said, I seemed very calm and natural on stage,” Maroney said. “I felt very good about my pitch and, no matter the outcome, I was proud of the progress I had made throughout the competition.”
Maroney received multiple job offers during the event. Podgorski said Jones and Gonya also interviewed and networked with professional and college teams.
“No matter where you go to school, if you are willing to put in the work and prepare, you can be successful in the sporting industry,” Podgorski said.
Podgorski said Trine’s Sport Management capstone also sets students up for success in sales. The class includes projects such as including selling group tickets to businesses and organizations for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and hosting and operating the Ketner School of Business Golf Scramble.
“Even if a student decides not to go into sales, they will have to sell something at some point in their career, whether it be an idea or themselves,” Podgorski said. “It’s one of my favorite classes to teach and one that our students really enjoy.”