For Anthony Parilla, the New Orleans Pelicans and Saints Sr. Manager of Sales & Retention, now is the time to double down on client communication and touch points. In surveys he’s done, Parilla has found that communication from employee to client is overwhelmingly considered the most important aspect of service. Relationships allow teams like the Pelicans and Saints to anticipate their clients’ desires before they even ask.
A people pleaser at heart, Parilla has always been on a trajectory to lead as an industry steward. While his road in, out, and back again to sports has been winding, he’s always invested in making meaningful connections and molding impressionable counterparts into future stewards as well.
The ALSD caught up with this two-team star to understand more about his communication and leadership as well as what paved his path in sports.
There is no one-size-fits-all career journey. You took a unique path to get where you are.
I think in sports and in sales - and sports specifically - everyone wants to achieve a certain milestone eventually. Many look at the VP of Sales role as a milestone. You go from Inside Sales, to Account Executive, to Middle Management, and eventually to a Vice President role where you’re overseeing an entire department.
I joined the Saints and the Pelicans in 2012. I left in 2019. I had that trajectory, from a 22-year-old to a 29-year-old, everything I did was with that in mind. I bled black-and-gold for the Saints, same idea for the Pelicans. The work I put in was to achieve that goal. One thing I realized, now looking back, is that your career is not as big as your life overall. And that was tough for me, because if you talk to anyone who knows me, my career is really important to me.
I met my now-wife Kaley back in 2018. We started doing long distance; she was in Idaho and I was in New Orleans. It was my seventh season working for the Saints and the Pelicans, and I had experienced tremendous growth from being an Account Executive to Manager, then Director of New Business Development, and then eventually to Director of Premium Sales and Service. I was really happy professionally, growing in more ways than one, and my path was quite linear in that sense.
But, Kaley and I made a difficult decision. We decided to move to a new city together. We didn’t fully know what was going to come of it after that, but we picked up and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, a great place to live and restart our careers.
However, I got the itch to get back into sports when I was in Scottsdale, so I got a job as a premium service rep for the Diamondbacks. I went from “Director to Premium” to “Service Rep”, but my goal was just to get back into sports. I knew that with my work ethic and mindset I would hopefully climb the ranks. Little did I know that a month after my start date the pandemic would hit. That hindered some of what I had in mind as far as growth potential.
Kaley, my fiancé by then, and I talked about our plans long-term. Luckily, I'd kept a great relationship with all my former colleagues here including Mike Stanfield, our Senior Vice President, and there was an opportunity to get back into leadership.
When I tell people the story that I left a seven-season career with the Saints and the Pelicans as Director of Premium Sales and Service, I tell them I moved for love. It sounds silly but I couldn't be happier because I'm married now, and my goals included getting married, settling down, and having kids.
I think it's important for others in the industry to know that sports are not our entire lives; there's a lot more to it. I certainly took three or four steps backwards professionally but I'm getting back on track and I'm excited to be here and working for the Saints and the Pelicans. It's been an adventure!
Also unique to your story is the two-team dynamic for which you work. The New Orleans Saints, the New Orleans Pelicans. Explain that and how your days go.
It's an incredible opportunity. My business card has Saints on one side and Pelicans on the other.
It's super unique to the sports industry. We have an NBA and an NFL franchise here. On the recruiting front especially, that's the number one question we get: “What does that dynamic look like? What are my responsibilities?” And it very much is a responsibility on both sides.
On the Saints side we've been sold out of season tickets since 2006, after Katrina hit, right when we got coach Payton and Reggie Bush and Drew Brees. We have a strong focus on our suite side of the business. On the Pelicans side, like many teams, it's really any ticket product under the moon, such as season tickets, suites, groups, etc.
From an opportunity standpoint, you couldn't really ask for more. On top of that, we don't have many professional sports teams close to us, geographically speaking. The closest big market is probably in Houston, still relatively far away. We don't have a monopoly by any means, but we have a relatively cornered market, in a sense. It's really cool for us to be able to hire someone and tell them that they can sell a Saints annual suite on any given day, or they can sell any Pelicans product.
Time management can be a challenge. But in any role, you deal with that, and we see it as more of an opportunity. We staff up accordingly. And we have some only doing Saints or only doing Pelicans on the sales and service side. We have certain days and weeks where we're focused on one more than the other.
What is something your teams have implemented recently that have had positive returns?
Many things can be revolutionary. Whether it's technology, or a heavy set of events. I think what we're realizing – pandemic or not – is that connection, person-to-person, is extremely important.
Especially throughout the pandemic, it comes down to communication. Certainly, we do shock-and-awe - customize a Moet bottle - or get an autographed jersey to someone who wasn't expecting it, but I think what we're doing now is we're really doubling down on our touch points and client relationships.
Some of our clients have missed that in-person interaction. That's no secret. Whether it be Season Ticket Holder events, an autograph session opportunity with a player or a photo op, or Pelicans Fest. And while we can't do some of those things due to protocols or health guidelines, we can still text, email, make phone calls, and leave strong voicemails. At the end of the day, I always tell my people what's most important is the communication with their clients. When they get a phone call, they should answer. When they miss the call, call them back as soon as possible, and over-communicate to clients via email.
I've done surveys asking, “What's important to you as far as the service your rep provides?” and overwhelmingly it's the communication from the employee to the client.
It's extremely important that right now we're doubling down on what that touch point looks like. What's the content? What event can we have coming up to talk about, what benefits do we need to educate them on, what games coming up might they need to swap and use ticket flexibility for? So, if there’s something we’re doing really well and focusing on strongly right now, it's touch points and how we execute those.
Let's talk about something you're passionate about right now, your sales and sports publication.
SalesInSports.com was really created during the pandemic. I was with the Diamondbacks, loving my time and the people I worked with. And I had time on my hands. Previously working in sports, my hair was always on fire, especially working in New Orleans with two teams and in a leadership role. In a non-leadership role during the pandemic, I was focused on my clients and providing a high level or service. But there was a void not managing people, a void in helping others in the industry.
Inside Sales Managers, while they think they may not be in the sexiest position, manage the most malleable group of any ticket sales professionals. What we teach them is going to be their foundation for the rest of their career. And I missed having that responsibility to teach, to help them. My managers in Arizona will tell you I took it upon myself to do my own trainings and to help the Diamondbacks staff. I really enjoyed that.
But I wanted to do more, and so I said, “Let me give this a go.” I've always been interested in learning new things, reading, so I took upon myself to create a website. My brother has his own website and I asked for some advice. I purchased a domain, learned how to create it and it took off. I dedicate myself to writing at least (starting small) one article per month that can help someone looking to get into sports, or take a next step. I've spoken to sport management departments at different universities, and one of the coolest things is when I'll get a random message on LinkedIn like, “Anthony I love what you're putting out on the Sales in Sports blog, keep it coming.”
I try to find topics that will help everyone. Most recently I started the Front Office Friday initiative, where I'll highlight a front office executive a couple Fridays.
Sometimes here in New Orleans, a client might be looking for advice to get their kid into a role that we're in, or they’ll ask, “What did you study in school?” They want to know what their kids should do. There are so many people who want and need advice. The written form is something people can read on their own time.
As the industry evolves, how are we addressing and perhaps solving the retention and renewal equation?
Definitely a hot topic. If you look on social media, there are questions like, “Is the season ticket dead?”, topics like secondary market versus primary market price. There's a correction in the market, but I think it comes down to that relationship. The relationship between the service rep and the client is always going to be the end-all be-all. Every year on the Pelicans side, we look at what our benefits are going to be as well as the event access. Right now, we are ascertaining what’s possible when it comes to things like ticket flexibility with ticket swaps, buybacks, discounts or credits for merchandise or concessions.
At the end of the day if we don't understand what makes people tick, all the benefits that we create go to deaf ears. So, the answer to the retention or renewal dilemma is that we just need to dig deeper into what makes each person tick.
That's why I always come back to the relationship. If you hire the best people, you're going to generate more revenue. And when you hire the best people, you want to develop them, train them better…that’s going to be helpful. But at the end of the day if I can hire the best people who are really good at developing relationships and being likable then I think that's going to really help us solve our renewal equation.
There might be people who don't come back. Maybe it’s due to COVID or it's not for them anymore. They can't make the commitment to 42 games perhaps. But we have to find out - maybe Joe Smith couldn’t care less about getting an autograph from a player, but he's got two share partners and he needs ticket flexibility. So, when he needs help on moving a game around and if we have the inventory, we’d better take care of him.
Another client might be the complete opposite. They might want all the love in the world, and they want the photo opportunity with the players. We will continue to talk about data, analytics, pricing, and the like, but often it comes down to the relationships. If we lose that battle, Iose that connection, we're going to lose clients.
Did COVID affect many of your client relationships?
Teams are going through a transition where clients want more events, they want more player access, they want more access overall. We are working on many things like that, as protocols soften. Our relationships teach us what clients desire coming out of COVID.
What can the industry glean from a city like yours in terms of spending on entertainment and changing buying habits?
We are a smaller market, one of the smallest markets in the NFL and NBA. Nevertheless, we try our best to capitalize on the tourism factor here and the entertainment industry as a whole. Not only are there opportunities to capitalize on those coming in to visit Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, and the great number of conferences, but we also try to make a play on both teams.
For example, we have a big game coming up: Saints versus Cowboys on a Thursday. We also have a Pelicans game against the Mavericks on a Wednesday. At least some of our strategy is focused on who's coming out to the Dallas game? We have a lot of Saints season ticket holders that live in Alabama or Mississippi. Are they are coming in? That's a great opportunity. If we have a certain number of suites left for the Mavericks game, we can capitalize and reach out to them. That strategy seems simple, but it's the execution of it that really gives us some of that success.
We must also make the delineation between business use and personal use. If we did a deep dive, there are ticket holders under the company or the decision maker's name, but they are given to family or repeat clients often, for instance.
What do you envision as a pathway to leadership in premium seating?
There are so many ways you can get there. If I had to pave the path for someone else, I’d take a page from Coach Sean Payton’s book: “Do your job”. In this era, everyone's looking for the next step. It's easy to forget that you have to do your job really, really well in order to move on to that next opportunity.
If someone's looking to get into leadership on the premium seating side, first off, I’d let them know that the job is difficult, even compared to other sectors in the business, whether it's group sales, service, sales and retention, inside sales, whatever. And that's not to take away anything from those roles; I've done some of them too.
But when you're looking at premium, most often you have many premium offerings and a big responsibility to move them.
There is so much that needs to be done from an accountability of inventory standpoint, from a people management standpoint, and then from a premium service standpoint. Those are three big responsibilities, and then you must train and develop continually. It's difficult to handle just one of those.
To provide a high level of service, for instance, might mean developing an amazing away trip for suite clients, while making sure communication to clients is great. At home games, the suite level and floor level have to look amazing for 42 games a year.
There is so much to do on the premium side. So, if you want to get into that type of leadership role, you must be dynamic and quick to adapt. You must be okay not being perfect at everything. Also, you have to make decisions, and move forward in order to see progress.
One of biggest mistakes people make when they're looking for their next leadership role or their first leadership role is declaring they don't have training or interview experience or other skills necessary for people management or leadership. You must be intentional and seek those opportunities from your direct manager, to learn those skills to move forward. They'll give them to you if you're a top performer.
If you combine all those factors, the opportunities present themselves.