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September 1, 2016

Making Pitt Work: Athletics ticket office

Pitt’s senior administration grabs most of the headlines. The faculty here get noticed when they bring in research dollars, win teaching awards or publish in their fields.

But behind the scenes, University staff, some 7,200 strong across five campuses, often toil in jobs ranging from the mundane to the esoteric.
From mailroom workers to data entry specialists, costume designers to biosafety officers, photographers to accountants, staff at Pitt perform tasks great and small, year-in and year-out, for the greater good of the University.

This is one in an occasional series profiling University staff, providing a glimpse of some of the less recognized employees whose primary business is making Pitt work.

Justin Acierno, left, and Ben Smith

Justin Acierno, left, and Ben Smith

One of the undergraduates who handles calls for athletic tickets is upset, says Ben Smith as his boss, Justin Acierno, steps into Smith’s office just behind the ticket windows in the Petersen Events Center. Acierno is assistant athletic director for ticket sales and operations. Smith runs the ticket operations.

The student is upset because one recent caller made quite a fuss: He had requested more tickets to the Pitt-Penn State football game on Sept. 10 than he got. More than 4,300 emails offering extra Penn State tickets to football season ticketholders had just gone out, six weeks before football season, resulting in an avalanche of requests for more tickets than Pitt had available. This caller, with two season tickets, was eligible for two extra tickets — more if had been a donor to Pitt athletics’ Panther Club.

“We had so many requests, we knew we wouldn’t be able to fulfill everybody’s,” Smith says. By restricting per-person ticket access, the office was able to spread the wealth. But too many people requested tickets up to their limit, so the donor-club membership-level restriction also kicked in. The office had begun receiving requests for PSU tickets as soon as the announcement of the renewed match with Penn State was made — during the 2015 football season.

“They don’t realize why we put those policies in place,” Smith says of callers. “By us setting those limitations, it allows us to help lots more people.” Nor do callers realize that ticketing policies are instituted at a higher level in the administration.

Callers also don’t realize who is at the other end of the phone line: one of eight undergraduates who are perhaps hoping for a career in athletics but today are just fielding calls for many Pitt sports, here in cubicles behind a line of 10 windows that front the ticket office.

“When you get a phone call like that, you start to think, ‘Will every phone call be like that?’” says Acierno about his student worker.

But the story has a happy ending. When the call from the PSU ticket hopeful was passed to Smith, Smith was able to sell him eight three-game mini-packages, including the Penn State game, to get his additional eight seats.

However, given the high demand, those packages no longer can include the PSU game.

“It’s interesting when those calls get to us,” says Smith. “I’d say we probably get the better end of it when they get to us.”

Acierno welcomes those conversations with customers. “They allow us to get a pulse on the market. Ultimately, our goal is to make every customer happy. There are some times when we have to say no,” he adds, such as when someone wants to buy the seat next to him, for instance, when that seat already has been sold.

“I had a customer tell me one time we should move the ticket holder next to him,” Smith reports. “He said, ‘I’m ranked higher than him.’” That seat remained unchanged, he adds.

The Penn State ticket release was not a typical day for the Pitt athletic tickets office — but then there are no typical days, says Acierno, a former Pitt football player who graduated in 2005, earned a degree from the Katz Graduate School of Business and joined the ticket office staff in 2008. “It’s very cyclical,” he says, based on the ebb and flow of the seasons for sports with ticket sales: women’s and men’s basketball season tickets as well as volleyball, baseball, gymnastics and wrestling single tickets. After football and men’s basketball, women’s basketball is the third most popular sport for ticket sales at Pitt, followed by wrestling.

“Everything comes in waves,” adds Smith, who came here one year ago after holding similar posts at East Carolina, Arizona and most recently Nevada-Las Vegas. New coaches bring renewed interest in teams; women’s basketball turns a few games every year into educational events for young kids, which brings a lot of fresh faces to Petersen seats as well. All of that creates extra, but welcome, work for the ticket office.

Besides overseeing all the ticketing operations, Acierno supervises the sales team, determining whether they are making the right number of calls and reaching the right groups for sales potential, examining the sales plan and ticket renewal plans, making price recommendations based on revenue projection analyses and ascertaining whether his office is covering its budget.

In the weeks after the Penn State tickets went on sale, Acierno, Smith and their staff concentrated on away-game football tickets: allocating seats; charging credit cards; shipping tickets; creating welcome packets for each city where the away games are located; and letting ticketholders know what gate to enter and local phone numbers to call in case of problems.

In addition, they were gearing up to mail out football season tickets to 11,000 accounts.

All those season tickets had been shipped to the ticket office and needed to be sorted. Unpaid tickets were held and payments requested, while prepaid tickets were mailed to fans on and off campus, with runners deployed to hand-deliver season tickets to VIPs on campus, such as those in the Chancellor’s office.

“Once we get into season is when it gets a little easier,” Smith says.

“It gets easier and it gets fun,” Acierno says. “Now we’re actually working events.”

“You get to see all your work come together — after all the hours we’ve put into it,” says Smith. The staff spends late evenings and odd hours stuffing and preparing those ticket mailings for football season, which includes printing all their own UPS labels and putting fan guides into each envelope.

Fans may not realize that the ticket office handles parking distribution for football season ticket-holders as well. This summer the City of Pittsburgh surprised the office with news that it was building a parking garage on the North Shore, after Pitt season ticket- holders already had purchased parking. That meant 400 surface parking spaces temporarily were lost. Football fans who tailgate may care deeply about where they park. “For a lot of them, the experience they have prior to the game is really important,” Smith says. The ticket office had to reassign 1,600 accounts to reshuffle parking equitably, due to the lost spaces. “We didn’t want them to be surprised when they get their seasons tickets in the mail,” he adds. The effort took more than a month.

The ticket office also handles donations to the athletics department, which are required for purchasers of club seats at Heinz Field. It fields a barrage of questions directly and peripherally related to tickets, Acierno says, including: “Why did ESPN choose noon for a kickoff time?” Pitt has no say in such matters, Smith says.


Only three of the 10 front ticket windows are really used today; the rest have supplies stored behind them. With more digital tickets being printed at home by purchasers, the office gets fewer game-day pickups than when The Pete was built. In cubicles behind the ticket windows, 10 employees of the agency IMG Learfield Ticket Solutions are soliciting group ticket sales on phones, making 80-100 outbound calls each per day.

The ticket office has one employee who works with Pitt’s business office to make deposits and check the ledger — a much easier arrangement than at other universities, Smith says, which may have a business office employee popping into the ticket office to catch up on ticket sales periodically. “I feel like we really have a pulse on what we are doing on a daily basis” at Pitt thanks to this arrangement, Smith says.

Other cubes in the ticket office hold seven full-time staffers who handle customer service and operations: making sure the phone lines are open and that printing and mailing tickets runs smoothly, handling daily financial deposits and ticket troubleshooting.

While the great mass of football season tickets are printed by an outside firm, if people buy them early enough the ticket office is even able to print the ticket booklets on their own printer in a conference room behind the cubicles. This is also the spot where ticket stuffing takes place.

One problem that some ticket offices sometimes face — mass purchases by ticket brokers, who then try to resell the tickets at a higher price than face value — isn’t too much of a problem for Pitt, Acierno says.

Within 48 hours of a home game, the ticket office disallows print-at-home tickets to try to thwart potential ticket resellers, who can do more potential damage than scalpers on the street. That’s because these ticket resellers may make credit card purchases using stolen cards, which later may be reversed by the card’s owner or bank, meaning Pitt loses all profit from the sale.

To prevent such purchases, Pitt reviews in-house data to check potential disconnects between credit card addresses and ticket mailing addresses. Orders for a maximum of 10 tickets are most suspicious, Acierno allows.

“You can tell if some orders seem suspicious,” Smith says.

What else marks potential trouble?

Acierno smiles: “I don’t want to give away all of our secrets,” he says.

—Marty Levine 

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