Box Office Pro and INTIX member Jason Varnish leads university class on ticketing
- by Dave Brooks
- Published: October 1, 2012
It’s a class where the nightly course reading includes trade magazines and settlement reports, and where a final project includes planning a mock Lady Gaga concert, or working the early rounds of the Final Four.
Welcome to Point Park University in Pittsburgh, where box office professional and INTIX member Jason Varnish teaches one of the only college-level courses in the country focused on ticketing.
The elective class is part of the Sports, Arts and Entertainment Management (SAEM) undergraduate degree at the school. Varnish, who heads up box office operations for Consol Energy Center, home to the city’s 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, started the class earlier this spring. Varnish is co-teaching the class with Anthony Dennis of the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Varnish is no stranger to academia — he has an undergraduate degree in communications from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a graduate degree in sports management from Slippery Rock (Pa.) University.
“While I was at Slippery Rock, I began an internship at Heinz Field (in Pittsburgh),” he said. “I met one of the Slippery Rock alum at the stadium and he took me under his wing and helped me later get a job at Mellon Arena,” which was later demolished and replaced by the Consol Energy Center.
Varnish said he landed at Point Park through his relationship with another Pittsburgh fixture, Ed Traversari. The long-time Pittsburgh promoter had spent decades putting on concerts through DiCesare Engler Productions before the firm was purchased in 1999 by SFX Entertainment. Traversari started teaching at the school in 2007 when the Chevrolet Amphitheatre at Station Square, of which he was general manager, lost its lease and closed.
“I did a few panels and guest speakerships with his class,” Varnish said, and eventually the school administration reached out to him to start a class.
“It was an easy decision because I always loved speaking to the students, especially interacting with those who would stay after class and leave me their resume,” he said. “That was me 10 years ago and it felt good to give these guys a shot.”
THE BEGINNINGS OF THE PROGRAM
The SAEM program was created in 2002 by Steve Tanzilli, a Pittsburgh sports agent whose firm Sports Legends Group represents a number of high profile clients, including four members of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team — Willie Parker, Ryan Clark, Ryan Mundy and renowned outside lineman James Harrison.
“I would have a lot of young people tell me they wanted to get into sports because they loved going to games or watching it on TV, and I felt like that was the wrong reason,” Tanzilli said. “The reason you get into the business is to build a brand, or make money or utilize sports and entertainment to sell products and services.”
Tanzilli said he regularly polls and surveys his students and what he often heard back was that students wanted a college level course on the business of ticketing. Like his other instructors, Tanzilli said he sought out Varnish and Dennis because they had real world experience and were younger, and more relatable for the students. Varnish said part of his goal is to change the students’ understanding of box office operations and understand how the profession fuses customer service with business strategies and long-term fiscal planning
“We don’t exist in the bubble inside the box office,” Varnish said. “I regularly interact with marketing, with operations and with outside promoters. I wanted to let the class know that there’s more to an event than just walking up to a window and buying a ticket.”
REAL WORLD SYLLABUS
Varnish said the class covers negotiations and working with promoters to nail down open dates and working backwards from a gross revenue objective to price tickets and attract acts.
“As well as operationally, making sure you have enough seats in the building with the proper stage design mixed with the correct floor set up,” he said. “And I rely on my experience from helping to open the Consol Energy Center from the ground floor up. I talk about creating ticketing manifests and seat maps from architectural blue prints and CAD designs.”
He also brings in guest speakers, asking local reps from companies like Ticketfly to speak to his class. During a course on the secondary market, Varnish’s co-professor Dennis brought in a ticket broker to defend scalping and talk about what it’s like to resell tickets.
“It was funny because it was actually the day I brought in a rep from Ticketmaster to speak, so they had a bit of a debate which was fun,” Varnish said. “By the end of the discussion, I realized that I recognized the broker’s name and had even blocked some of his ticket purchases before. The Ticketmaster rep said he had even voided out the guy’s ticket account one time. Thankfully the broker kept it really amicable and our students said it was one of our most intriguing classes.”
Varnish also recruited a few of the students to work at the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Second and Third rounds.
“They worked in the front windows and were liaisons to the school reps,” he said. “We also took them over to PNC Park and they were able to get on the Tickets.com system. It was a great experience to work with the platform.”
For class materials, Varnish said he relies on trade magazines and special sections, even using Venues Today’s “Ten Years in Ticketing” article from the January magazine. He also assigns Dean Budnick’s well-known history, “Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped.”
For a final project, Varnish created several mock events at the Consol Energy Center — an arena concert for Lady Gaga and a rock festival headlined by British band Arctic Monkeys and The Killers — with an assignment to scale, budget and ticket the events.
“I want them to walk out of our school with a good grasp on what issues the business is currently facing,” said Tanzelli. “We spend a lot of time in the program talking about trends and how things like social media affect the way an act is marketed, how piracy hurts the music business and how pricing strategies for ticket sales are continuously evolving. We want our students to have a well-rounded understanding of the complexity in the industry,” he said.
And to help the students understand the ticketing landscape, he assigned small groups to study and write reports on the various ticketing solutions available on the market.
“A lot of them went through the purchase process to show the differences each system offered,” he said, emphasizing each company’s strengths, whether it be the ability to customize one’s database or handle a huge onsale.”
“I really want my students to get out there in the profession and be able to network and talk with others with a solid understanding of the industry,” he said. “There are so many people who want to work in sports because they love what happens on the field, but they don’t take the time to learn the business side.”
Interviewed for this story: Jason Varnish, (412) 804-2678, Steve Tanzilli, (412) 392-4742
- by Dave Brooks
- Published: October 1, 2012