When Emily Morris joined Major League Soccer's sales training program, the Texan didn't know it would involve becoming a comedian.
Morris, 25, spent hours learning the art of improvisation. She jumped up and down in high heels to loosen up. She ad-libbed scenes with her instructor, including a scenario involving the discovery of some dinosaur bones on a spelunking trip.
"I kept thinking, this is fun," Morris said.
After all, sometimes it might take some theatrics -- and a little good humor -- to sell soccer tickets.
More businesses are embracing the notion that improvisational skills can play well in the sales arena. Major League Soccer officials say it's simply good strategy for its sales team to develop a little of the timing, confidence and attitude that you would find in a comedy club.
"Our motto is deadly serious, yet deadly playful," said Bryant Pfeiffer, vice president of the league's club services. "Sales is tough. You're expected to make a lot of calls and hear a lot of no's. The more fun you make it, the longer you can make people laugh, they stick with it and overcome the tough periods."
Last week, the Major League Soccer trainees performed scenes at Brave New Workshop, a comedy theater in Minneapolis. The requirement was, no matter what your partner said, you had to reply, "Yes and ..." while trying to stay on topic. Morris volunteered to go first.
"We decided for this spring we were going to go spelunking," said improv instructor Mike Fotis.
"Yes and it was very hot," Morris nervously replied, gazing at her peers in the audience.
"Yes and it was so hot, that we decided we weren't going to wear all of our protective gear," Fotis gleefully exclaimed. "So we ripped off all the sleeves on our protective suits and we looked really bad-ass."
"Yes and... I," Morris stammered. "Yes and...," Morris said, lifting her hands, trying to find the words to say. "Yes and ... it was awesome?"
Morris said she quickly realized how important it was to follow the customer's train of thought.
"When you ask a person a question, they respond. You can't cancel out what they said," she said. "You have to build upon what they told you."
In many ways, acting and selling a product are similar, analysts said. You study a script but adjustments must be made depending on the audience.
The 45-day training program is a major change for Major League Soccer. Eleven trainees are picked from a hundred applicants who make short videos explaining why they love sales and soccer. The program prepares the selected team to sell league tickets.
On some days, trainees make more than 100 calls each, some of which are recorded and critiqued. In the past, salespeople were trained for just a few days or at league meetings.
"Tickets are the lifeblood of professional sports teams," said the league's president, Mark Abbott. "We saw an opportunity to make a direct impact on one of the most important areas of our business and I think that's what we have done."
The program began last July and is in its fifth session. In its first four sessions, 42 graduates landed jobs, and in their full-time positions have produced more than $1 million in sales. The league declined to disclose the program's budget.
Some analysts compare the craze to when businesses took their employees to the woods for a ropes course. The Groundlings, a Los Angeles improv and sketch comedy theater, saw an increase in its corporate training business last year. Sessions, requested by businesses such as Yahoo and the Gap, generally range from $750 to $2,000. A few attendees have even signed up for more classes.
"It's tension release," said managing director Heather de Michele said.
For Major League Soccer, the challenge ahead is to compete for fans and against international soccer events. Attendance last year was just 16,675 people, up 4 percent from 2009, according to Soccer America magazine.
Morris said she believes she's up to the task. Morris was recently offered a job selling tickets for Chicago Fire Soccer Club.
"I think the program has given me all the tools and all the knowledge to be successful in this industry."
And how to get in a good laugh along the way.
Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712
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