Gabriela Vazquez studied criminology at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, played on its women's soccer team and landed a job at a hotel just out of school. Wanting more, she turned back to soccer and this summer found herself at the National Sports Center, the giant sports complex in Blaine with 50 soccer fields.

But she wasn't playing on any of them.

In early June, Vazquez and 18 other young adults, some just out of college, became the latest recruits in a sales training course run by Major League Soccer at the center. The program, unique in professional sports, is a mix of classroom and real-world work with a giant incentive: the prospect of a job offer from one of the league's 22 teams.

"Sales gives me that butterflies feeling that I used to get on game day," Vazquez said. "I get that competitive edge here instead of on the field with soccer."

Most days start with motivational words from the program's leaders and a group huddle to sing a chant familiar to soccer fans: "Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé." Then trainees hit the phone bank, calling fans and prospects around the country. One day, the group may represent the New York Red Bulls, the next day the LA Galaxy, the next day another team.

Trainees ring a bell when they make a sale.

"I would be lying if I said it didn't affect me when you hear the bell," Anthony Nahill, another trainee, said. "Something clicks in your head. It's go time. They are a step closer than I am to getting placed or getting an interview. You have to push yourself harder so you can ring that bell."

'Like a college campus'

Called the National Sales Center, the program was created in 2010 by Bryant Pfeiffer, now vice president of sales at Minnesota United. Pfeiffer, then an MLS marketing executive, was trying to bolster sales efforts that he and others considered to be poor relative to other pro sports.

Pfeiffer located the sales center at the Blaine complex because it had a residence hall, cafeteria and location that encouraged work. "If we did this in Chicago or New York, the cost for the trainees would be high, but the distractions would be high as well," Pfeiffer said. "This is a place for high-intensity learning and practice. It's much more like a college campus."

Running three four-month courses a year, NSC has created a consistent pipeline of sales representatives for MLS teams. Its alums stay longer with the teams and sell more. Six have risen to director of sales for teams.

"We need people to hit the ground running, and the folks that come from the sales center are good at knowing how to approach sales and are really passionate," said Mike Ernst, vice president of sales for the Chicago Fire, which has hired 15 NSC trainees.

Attendance at MLS games is up 30 percent since the sales program's inception, though part of that is due to the rising popularity of the sport, greater TV exposure and improving quality of the league's teams. Other professional sports leagues have reached out to the MLS to learn about the sales center. The program has had visitors from the NBA, English Premier League, a Japanese soccer league, Australian rules football and even a cricket league.

The program's success has had another effect: Each session now attracts around 200 applicants. For students and young career-changers eager to get into the sports business, the NSC offers a salary, commission and the chance at a permanent job.

Over the past decade, careers in sports marketing and management have exploded. As the internet and digital devices fractured the media business into interest-driven niches, sports remained a reliable way for advertisers to reach large audiences. The number of universities offering a major in sports management is up about 75 percent in that time, and the number of accredited programs is up 50 percent, said Laura Finch, chairwoman of the sports management department at St. Cloud State University.

While trying to get an internship with a pro sports team last year, Ben Holbrook, then a student at the University of Michigan, realized he needed more sales training. He sent his résumé to 20 teams and got a response from just one: the MLS' Sporting Kansas City. While he was there, another employee told Holbrook about the NSC program and encouraged him to apply.

Arriving in June, he and the other trainees learned how to build a rapport with customers, ask open-ended questions and ask for the sale. They also learned a lot about soccer.

"It was intimidating," Holbrook said. "I don't think I knew what I was getting myself into, but we all understood that if we all did well we could interview with a club."

In the second month, work heated up. Trainees hit the phones and made hundreds of calls a day. Sometimes, they would reconvene as a class to listen to recordings of their calls, breaking them down the way athletes review game film.

Holbrook often encouraged other trainees to slow down on calls and be patient. He emerged as the group's top seller in part because he treated the call as a normal conversation.

Teamwork, competition

Vazquez compared the balance of teamwork and competition in the sales training program to her time on the soccer pitch.

"At UNLV we were all fighting for that starting 11 spot. Here, it's fighting for an interview with a team," she said. "We all want each other to succeed, but at the same time we all want to be the best."

Five to seven candidates usually get interviews with teams after the second month of training. At the end of July, Holbrook was one of them and wound up with an account executive job at DC United. Vazquez wasn't far behind, and she took an offer with the Portland Timbers in her home state of Oregon.

"I came in wanting to go there," she said. "I was so nervous for my interview. I got my dream job, but this is just the starting line."

Five others also got job offers at that time. After the seven posed for pictures holding up jerseys of their new employers, the other trainees returned to the phones — and continued to ring the bell.

Christopher Martinez just missed the cut in the first wave of interviews. He said it was humbling but also lit a fire under him as the sales program headed into its third month.

"You have to grind and put in those long hours," Martinez said. "The competitiveness is insane."

Patrick Thomas • 612-673-7740