A Conversation with Chris Quinn

Senior Vice President of Business Development & Premium Seating
Palace Sports & Entertainment
ALSD Board of Directors Member

By Amanda Verhoff, Executive Director, ALSD

The sales leader of Palace Sports & Entertainment talks flip-flops and board shorts in Detroit’s winters, segmenting his arena into different environments, his start in the business as a runner for famous sports agents Leigh Steinberg and Jeff Moorad, and picking up a 350-pound nose guard at the airport in a Volkswagen Scirocco.

SEAT: Who is Chris Quinn?

Chris: I surround myself with smart people, get out of the way, and let them do what they need to do. I surround myself with positive thinking people, too; that’s how I thrive. It’s fun working in an environment like the Palace where that can happen. The way I manage is like a sports team – one for all, all for one. I like to give credit where credit is due, and when there is blame, I’m the first one to step in the firing line. I like to think I’m humble, and when I start getting cocky, I go and play a couple holes of golf; that humbles me right out [laughing].

Moving to Detroit was an eye-opening experience, coming from California. I’ve learned there is more to life than what happens in the SoCal region. It’s a melting pot here, made up of great people, who also aspire to build our foundation the right way.

I look at life as 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react.

SEAT: That’s the California in you? 

Chris: Could be! It could be the flip-flops in 40-degree weather and board shorts in 30-degree weather; those are tough habits to break.

SEAT: What got you into sports and specifically sales?

Chris: As a kid, my parents always got USA Today, and I read the transaction wire every day. My mom thought I was going to be a mathematician; I could memorize numbers really well. But really I just knew that seven plus seven was fourteen because that’s two touchdowns; I’m not some second coming of Albert Einstein.

I was surrounded with sports early on. My mom worked in Fashion Island [Newport Beach, CA] on the 9th floor, and her boss was Peter Ueberroth [President and CEO of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, operating the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, Major League Baseball Commissioner (1985-1989)].

On the 8th floor was a sports agency called Steinberg, Moorad & Dunn. At the time, Leigh Steinberg was the sports agent, especially in football; he was the Jerry Maguire of sports agents. Jeff Moorad, former minority owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Diego Padres, was the baseball guy. I was my mom’s secretary and their runner. There were days where I was grabbing Jeff’s or Leigh’s car and going to Orange County or John Wayne Airport and picking up Troy Aikman or Steve Young or Will Clark and guys like that. Those were the fun times!

So funny story, I had to pick up Ohio State’s Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson [drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals]. Of course, on this day, Jeff and Leigh were gone, so I had to drive my car – a 1979 Volkswagen Scirocco – to pick up this 350-pound nose guard. He hops in, and my car basically drops to the ground. So we pull up to Fashion Island and up to a speed bump, and I couldn’t get over the speed bump. I had to make “Big Daddy” Wilkinson get out of the car so I could get over the speed bump! Nice initiation into sports, huh?

From there, I went on to work in UCLA’s athletic department, where I was selling events like men’s tennis. I also spent seven years selling horse racing at Santa Anita Park. I started to understand what a “hard sell” really was.

SEAT: Talk to me more about the “hard sell” and how that makes a salesperson attractive.

Chris: As I interview people, I gravitate to those who have been selling hard things, like minor league baseball. I appreciate the creative, out-of-the-box thinkers, who may have had hard luck, as I have [laughing]. I look for résumés that list teams that aren’t predominantly in the playoffs. Right now, the Detroit Pistons are a hard sell. And that’s been fun, to bring the entertainment assets as well as the basketball assets to fans. We know winning is a cycle. We will be better, and when we’re better, the foundation will be solid so that we can take things to the next level.

SEAT: What do you bring outside of basketball in terms of entertainment assets?

Chris: We’ve learned that for some, the game is secondary. We’ve created “environments”, and we’ve put sponsors around them. I started learning about “environments” in horse racing. These race tracks were built in the 1920s and 1930s on 320 acres where you can kind of segment your infield fan, your turf club fan, your box seat fan, and your suite fan. You can do that in an arena setting as well.

With any building, you can segment lifestyles very easily. You’ve got diehard fans, casual fans, B2B-motivated fans. We’ve got nine clubs at the Palace, and we do a very good job of segmenting and delivering on clients’ objectives. If you’ve got someone who wants to be seen with his or her feet on the wood, we’re going to create a courtside club that allows that. If you want introductions to others for business objectives, we’ve got the President’s Club, which is conducive to a speaker series. We can create networking in a casual setting, too, because you know, sometimes networking can be a bad word; it’s hard. Our creative team and sales team, by way of introductions to other suite holders, do a great job of creating that non-threatening networking environment.

SEAT: You’re selling “fan experience”, the buzzword of the day, in every sense of the word. Do you believe it takes away from the basketball brand in any way or does it only add to it?

Chris: It doesn’t take away from the brand and here’s why. We sell around 3 M’s and 3 R’s: Relevance, which is on the uptick with [new Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations] Stan Van Gundy at the helm; Relationships, which is an interesting one. Of our 260 employees at the Palace, 180 are within two years of starting employment here. I fall into that category. The building of relationships equates to the third R: Revenue.

Media is the first M, pushing content and our brand out. Memories, the second M, we can control. We can make sure that Joe Fan gets a high-five from a player. We can provide memories you can’t put a price on. The last M, you can put a price on: Merchandise, which exposes the brand even further and is customizable.

We also realize that people talk. And while we have to avoid giving too much – that spoiled children syndrome – we provide something special that makes those on the outside looking in want to be fans. We build that foundation that others want to get in on.

SEAT: Are you doing outside-the-venue experiences to add value to packages?

Chris: Again, the goal is to create a memory you can’t really buy unless, our course, you have $400,000 [to invest in a Pistons premium seating package]. We’ve had success adding value with yacht parties and with our Aston Martin event [see page 30 of the 2014 Summer Issue of SEAT Magazine for more details]. We recently took new and existing clients to Chicago on the team plane to watch Andre Drummond play for Team USA. It stays within the 3 M’s.

Also something to keep in mind is to only offer the exclusive events to certain fans. Unfortunately, if you offer events like those above to everyone, you lose uniqueness and price integrity. It’s no longer exclusive and in a town like Detroit, again, people will talk.

SEAT: How are you overcoming the challenges in the industry?  

Chris: The sports landscape has changed. If you were to rebuild the Palace today, you wouldn’t build it with 22,500 seats and 180 suites. We are down to about 158 suites but are still second to STAPLES Center in number of suites, in a one-sport building with fewer ancillary events. We are doing a good job being creative. We offer flex plans, where clients can use x-amount of dollars on x-amount of events. We don’t discount; we put a premium on flex packages. Sometimes money isn’t money; sometimes time is money. We allow clients to set scenarios that work. We adapt to the building we are in, use the inventory we have, and create a win-win.

On the service side, Joann Flood and her team do a great job knowing who is in each suite. If she knows that Joe Suite Holder wants to sit in Row 2 for the night because he’s entertaining a special client, we encourage that. Remember, we want to create memories. These are unwritten and often unexpected opportunities. We are in the business of making our clients look very good for their clients. If we can take the extra step to escort them down to Row 2, and bring over a Vinnie Johnson [former sixth man for the Detroit Pistons during the team's NBA championships] to say hello, it matters.

SEAT: Some off-the-court All-Stars have come through the Palace. Solid résumés start at the Palace, huh?

Chris: It’s like you have to cut your teeth here. The Michael Yormarks and Tom Wilsons of the world have come through here as well as guys like Mike Ondrejko, Andy Blackburn, and Andy Applebee at some point. It’s almost a rite of passage; it’s quite incredible the names that have come through the Palace. That’s a recruiting tool of ours, too. For me presently, Dennis Mannion has been a really cool leader, bringing experience from all four leagues. He’s creating a unique culture with a group here, where over half are not from Detroit; it’s been fun to witness and to be an example for him.

SEAT: What have you learned about management and is there an adage you follow?

Chris: I tell my staff that I like to work smarter, not harder. Not to say we don’t have 18-hour event-days, but we can manage that time better. I also learned how to succeed by watching sales leaders, those that people gravitate to, like Scott O’Neil [currently CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Devils, and Prudential Center]. Follow the lead of natural leaders.