Recently, I was fortunate to catch up with Bryant Pfeiffer, VP of Club Services for Major League Soccer (MLS). We connected over our shared affinity for improv comedy, as he has been infusing improv concepts into training for ticket sales reps for multiple sports leagues over several years. In his current role, Bryant is charged with working closely with senior club executives and ownership around the league to help the 20 clubs become more successful. More specifically, his group provides data, best practices and consultative feedback to various teams, growing each within their respective local markets. One of his successful programs has been the National Sales Center based in Minneapolis. Bryant and his group host three 4-month sessions per year, featuring 15-20 trainees hired from over 200 applicants per session. We spoke about his revolutionary training program and how he has involved improvisation as a key component in his sessions.
How did you originally get involved with improv comedy?
One of my best friends tried some stand-up comedy for a while. I started to come across improv while supporting some of his performances and was immediately drawn to it.
When did you realize it could apply in professional sports?
About ten years ago, I thought it would be fun to push myself to take an improvisation class as a professional development experience. I would meet once a week with a group of strangers from different occupations (I remember a lawyer, dentist, teacher, etc…). I remember laughing so much at these silly little exercises and games we would practice with and how they forced you to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. At the time I was leading a large sales force for the Minnesota Timberwolves (NBA) and it dawned on me that the fundamental principles of improvisational comedy really overlapped with sales. I started introducing improv games and insights to our weekly meetings and it completely shifted the culture of our meetings not to mention helped build confidence with younger sales people.
Were there any obstacles in getting your training program created?
I joined the league office of Major League Soccer in 2007 and in 2010 we built an innovative training program called the MLS National Sales Center. The purpose of the National Sales Center was to help our clubs with recruiting and hiring talent, enhanced sales training methods and serving as a test lab for sales management innovation. When we launched the program we partnered with the Brave New Workshop, which is the oldest running improvisational theatre in the US. Improv became intimately embedded into our curriculum ranging from producing daily video vinettes with sales tips from the eyes of an improviser to the School of Improv teachers leading training sessions at the facility to our trainees actually performing on stage.
What are the main lessons you teach through the program?
In addition to teaching the fundamentals of ticket sales we are trying to build confidence in young sales people. Improv is a great tool for that. There are so many principles of improv that overlap with sales such as accepting all ideas, deferring judgment, bringing a “yes and” mindset,” declaring your point of view and thinking quickly on your feet.
What kind of results/feedback have you received?
The program is one of a kind in the professional sports industry, has won awards for innovation and attracted attention from other sports leagues from Australia to Japan. In 2013, the #1 sales person in the entire MLS was an alum of the program and over 20 graduates have already been promoted to sales leadership positions inside the league.
What are your expectations for the MLS over the next 5 years?
In 2014 MLS averaged over 19,000 fans a game (more than the NBA and NHL). Impressive for a league that’s only been around for 20 seasons. The league will grow to 24 markets in North America by 2020 and over the next 5 years our goal is to be considered one of the top 3 soccer leagues in the world.
MLS is growing rapidly, drawing talent from abroad and retaining top US players. I’m planning on attending their National Sales Program soon to audit and learn, and can’t wait to report on the innovative way they are training sales people in the sports industry.