Dan Lefton On Calculating Risks And Putting People First
In this episode, Lance Tyson has a profound talk with Dan Lefton, Chief Revenue Officer and EVP of the Detroit Pistons. Dan walks us through his professional journey, from his time in Philadelphia, to what landed him in Detroit, and everything in between! He brings tremendous wisdom not only from his mentors but also from his own personal experiences, from calculating the right amount of risk to standing his ground on issues that matter. One of Dan's highest priorities is making sure he and his team provide solution-based thinking for partners and clients, and always putting their needs first.
Listen to the podcast here
Dan Lefton On Calculating Risks And Putting People First
This is one of those episodes that I’m talking to somebody I’ve known for a while and we have a lot of laughs with each other. We both pride ourselves on being extremely good negotiators and we are always elbowing each other. I’d like to welcome Dan Lefton, Chief Revenue Officer for the Detroit Pistons, to the show. Dan, how are you doing?
I’m great, Lance. This is long overdue. I am looking forward to doing it.
We’re having dinner not long ago talking about this. I was like, “I can’t wait for this one.” I know the audience. Everybody knows what a chief revenue officer does, but my experience is different titles wear different hats. Tell everybody about your role now, how many people report up to you, the major goal of your job, and major KPI.
As you noted, there are a couple of traditional verticals that roll up to me, all revenue-driving. Our corporate partnerships department and engagement and service teams are under my purview. All ticketing, hospitality, and service as well. The one piece that might be a little bit different is that all of business intelligence is under my purview.
I love having that piece because our business intelligence unit is a couple of things that you might find interesting. One, that is one team within the Detroit Pistons that is 100% remote. When you think about coming out of the pandemic and what are some things that have changed, that team’s completely remote. We’ve got people from all over the US who are part of that team.
That team serves as an agency of record for the organization. Certainly, the majority of the time, they’re supporting revenue, helping with ticketing pricing, distribution strategy, the partnership side, providing research and insights, and then for the rest of the organization, whether it be finance, legal, or HR, providing support as well.
It sounds like the BI team or the Business Intelligence team is a little bit of a linchpin to help the organization turn or be agile.
The great part of it is with them having their proverbial hands within the organization and being sticky, it allows for that connectivity. Sometimes, you’ll find this in organizations, and we’re all guilty of this. As best as possible, it eliminates the silos that sometimes occur.
It does because you have real-time information and you’re making decisions not off of the field. The organization that owns the logistics and the strategy or the professionals that major in tactics are the amateurs. It definitely forces that. All in, how many souls report to you?
I’m lucky enough to have about 60 people under my purview.
How many direct reports up in your org chart, you personally?
It’s six that directly report to me, mainly the vice presidents of the different verticals.
You got to the Pistons in what year and in what role and then you’ve been named Chief Revenue Officer, correct?
As we go through my background, you’ll see a consistent theme that you can go home again. I had the pleasure of being at the Pistons when sports and entertainment were in ‘03 to ‘07. What you’re referring to now, back in June of 2021, is when I returned to the organization. When I joined the organization, I was Senior Vice President of Business Strategy. At that point, all the verticals I talked about at the outset were under my purview with the exception of the partnership team.
We’ll talk about that because you’re managing two different sales processes. One is a very consultative sale and the other is a B2B high-volume sale at some level, but it’s two distinct ways or places to sell. Let’s start off because you and I have known each other for many years at this point when I’m thinking back to New York, and we are both Philly guys, which is exciting. Coming out of school, how did you get into sports? What’s your first sales job? Is it a sales job? What does that look like?
I’ll dive into the background, but I thought you’d get a kick out of two stops in my sales career and sales being in my blood from the jump. One is junior year of high school, there’s a company called Junior Achievement. They broke the class into two different teams and you had to form your own company. I was fortunate enough to be voted President of the company. The name of the company, which I think you’re going to like, was called IBUSTTRAC. Early in my career, I’m already getting the acronyms in there. IBUSTTRAC stands for Intelligent But Unmotivated Students Trying To Run A Company. Sarcasm started it early for me.
At least you were in branding pretty early.
What we wanted to sell at the time was bottle openers that had our school logo. Right away, the principal shot that down. He’s like, “We’re not pushing beer products. Junior Achievement’s going to give us a grant. What are you guys thinking?” We then wanted t-shirts. The other company won the coin flip. Early in my career, I got comfortable with losing when it comes to luck, team performance, or any of that.
We wound up selling beach towels and we set the record for Junior Achievement. They couldn’t even produce the amount of towels that we sold in time. There were people who ordered towels. A year and a half later, and I’m in college at this point, and friends of my parents are like, “Was that a donation thing, or are we ever getting these beach towels?” That was my first foray into sales. I thought you’d appreciate that.
The second one was the summer of my sophomore year. I worked at a telemarketing firm. The reason I bring this up is twofold. One, what I was selling was 90-day trials for postage meters. Anyone who knows Lance on this show knows you hate sales scripts. On my first day, I was handed a 47-page sales script. I had to earn a few dollars so that I could go out and have some fun with my friends over the summer.
Now you got the Magna Carta.
“If they say this, then say that.” It was a foreign language. Fast forward, I decided, “No, I’m not doing this,” for a variety of reasons. I go, “This is summer. This isn’t school. I’m not studying.” What I was fascinated by was hearing the people around me and what they were saying on the phone. The ones that were following the script was click, next call.
There were 1 or 2 people. There was one guy. He was reclining in his chair. He had his feet up on the desk. He probably could have been a little bit more courteous to our manager walking the floor at the time, but he was breaking through and he was getting sales. Once you got a sale, all you needed to do was get somebody to say, “Yes, sign me up for the 90-day trial.” I went home that night and started tearing up the sales and I said, “It’s not a sales script. I need an outline. I need to do my homework. What are the reasons why someone could benefit from having a postage meter?”
I quickly found out none. All I needed to do was basically find a way to tell somebody, “This is a zero risk. Why don’t you sample it? That’s the best way you’re going to find out. I can tell you all these great benefits. I can do a needs analysis, but at the end of the day, why don’t you try it out? It doesn’t cost you anything.” I quickly became a top salesperson that summer alone. I outsold the person who had been there the year prior and was number one in the entire Northeast. I got that taste pretty early on.
Now, your original question. I started my career in college athletics, which I highly recommend in the sense that, akin to minor league sports, you’re doing everything. You run lean. My first job at Temple University was in marketing and promotions. It sounds glamorous. Most people out of school want to work in the marketing department. What I did for the first three months on the job was staple papers. I literally spent three months just stapling packets and making sure everyone in the office got one.
I said, “This is working in sports?” I step back and I go, “This is pretty good. When I’m out with friends, I can say I work in sports.” That job quickly pivoted to putting me on the phones. At the time, Temple University was going to be voted out of the East and the football program needed to average 20,000 fans a game. It didn’t matter if it was paid or comped.
We started a program called the Bobby Backer Bus Brigade. Bobby Wallace was the coach, highly touted, and had a lot of success at Division 1AA. I was calling people to send a free bus wherever they wanted to go and bring them to the game. The goal was to bring 50 buses to the game and we started having some success. There were some games where we were bringing 1,000 buses a game. You can imagine the expenses that rolled up, but that was my first job out of school. That transitioned in Temple University to ticket operations where I got my first taste of the box office and how important ticketing connectivity is in general.
How long were you at Temple?
I spent four and a half years at Temple University.
Were you an alum of Temple?
I wasn’t. I did my undergrad at Penn State. The great thing about working at Temple is they paid for my Master’s. I got my Master’s in Sports Education.
At the end of the day, you probably came out on the better end. I’m starting to see a theme here. You go back to your Pitney Bowes days, which is interesting, knowing you as a leader. With you, it’s always like a simple genius. What’s the most direct path? That obstacle sometimes is the way because that’s what you did with that script. It sounds like you’re also very mission-oriented too. When they hired Bobby Wallace, I was racking my brains thinking about it because I was like, “They finally got a good coach,” and it is Temple at the end of the day. No offense, Temple fans. I used to have Temple basketball tickets. I get it. I was always a big John Chaney fan.
When I was doing ticket operations, he wanted to make sure the only thing he cared about was that I didn’t mess up the four comps that he had behind the bench.
It’s important. You got to know where your bread’s butter is. From there, you go where? What’s the next move?
I was Director of Ticket Operations, which was an amazing opportunity given to me. In my mid-twenties, I’m running ticket operations. It sounds glamorous. I was a one-man band. I was a student worker. I knew I always had the dream of working in professional sports, especially the NBA. I had a great love for the game. I grew up a Sixers fan. I honed in on this website called Teamwork Online.
My boss at the time at Temple joked around and said, “Teamwork Online, that’s a resume graveyard.” You talk about being from Philly, the gentleman who called me when I applied to a bunch of different jobs, I applied for a job at Palace Sports Entertainment because I didn’t even know Detroit, Michigan. I was like, “I know Michigan football, but I didn’t know much about it.”
I applied online, and a guy by the name of Joe Barber called me because Joe grew up in the Northeast in New Jersey and was like, “It’d be cool to have somebody from the Northeast here.” I winded up getting hired in the group sales department working for a woman by the name of Sarah. I spent about four years at the Pistons and worked my way up to premium sales.
I had no clue that you had once worked for the Pistons. That’s news to me. Not that I’ve crept into your LinkedIn profile to see that, but I did not know that at all. You’re very familiar with Detroit. I didn’t realize you’ve lived there. Were Estes and Draco still at Powell’s at that point or they had exited?
They had left at that point. Tom Wilson was the President and CEO, one of the visionaries in this business.
Was Powell still in the Tampa Bay Lightning at that point?
Those guys were there. Correct.
You started group sales, which no offense to any group salespeople. Once dubbed a group salesperson, you never break your way out of that, which is interesting. What’s that transition look like at Palace?
In my career, as we go through some of the background stuff, I’ve been very fortunate to break some of the molds.
They’re box office people.
Sometimes, all the grumpy box office person. For me, it was learning another skillset and realizing how important it was understanding the connectivity.
Did you make the jump because of pay or were you ready from Temple?
I made the jump because I wanted to get into professional sports.
It was a career move. It wasn’t like, “I’m worried about pay. I’m worried about anything else.” You’re right, Detroit from Philly. It might as well be Mexico City, as far as I’m concerned. You’re not even thinking that on the East Coast.
You bring up a lot of good points. One, that move was two steps back to take the eventual one step forward. I was a Director at Temple, went in as an account executive, pretty junior. The only inside sales was “on the org chart” a little bit lower. The thought of from a pay standpoint, as a Director of Ticket Operations, I wasn’t independently wealthy. It was salary. It was no commission. Whereas I was going to a low-salary job and it was 90% commission.
It was a huge leap of faith not knowing anyone except for one person in Michigan. If you gave me a list of states, quite frankly at the time, and almost ignorantly, I probably would’ve put Michigan near the bottom of the list. The four years I spent there were some of the most rewarding and all the great things that Michigan and Detroit proper have to offer.
It’s interesting because I’ve trained more Millennials and Gen Z-ers than anybody could possibly imagine. I’m the guy who’s training all the younger folks. I think generations are more similar than they’re different. One thing about this generation is people want quick moves. At this point, you’re late twenties because you’re out of school and you’re over the midline. You take essentially a step backwards. At that point, a young Dan, is that a calculated risk? Were people telling you not to do it?
I need to bifurcate it into the family and friend circle versus industry people. The family and friend circle, “You’re going to be a plane ride away,” or, “What are you thinking?”
I got my Philly cup here. Especially Philly people, you talk about parochial, you move from Yeadon to Media. In Delaware County, you might as well move across state lines, so I can imagine.
Industry people were interesting. Dave O’Brien, the late athletic director and probably what turned into one of my first mentors in this industry, along with Chris who gave me my first start in sports, they both had a different take on it. They said, “Where do you want to go?” Dave said to me, “Do you want to be an athletic director? If you do, don’t leave.”
Chris said to me, “How much do you believe in you?” I said, “Excuse me, Chris?” He’s like, “How much do you believe in you?” It stuck with me because, at the end of the day, you got to bet on yourself. There’s going to be a lot of different times where you’re going to have options. One isn’t necessarily better than the other on paper. It’s more what’s best for you at that time.
There will be a lot of times when you will have options that aren’t necessarily better than the ones on paper.
For me, knowing that I wanted to get into professional sports, when I was at Temple, I sent out 126 resumes. I know people don’t send mail anymore, but that was every NFL, MLB, NHL team and NBA team. I heard back from 3 of them and 2 of them wanted to offer me an internship. You want to talk about taking a step back. The other one wanted to offer me a job where they were going to pay me $200 a week. Now I’m having the Pistons call me from applying online. I got to jump at this chance.
The other thing too, and I think it’s interesting if you’re reading this, is whether you’re in the pro sports industry or not, and this is not a knock on Dan, you’re on the pro sports side and you see somebody from the college side, it’s not necessarily, “Let me get somebody from pro sports. That’s a great move for us,” thus why he gets less than a 0.5% return rate on 143 prospecting emails or letters. That’s interesting.
I got a quick question for you in terms of your theory in sales because I want to get into Dan the sales guy in a second. You got the junior achievement stuff and you’ve moved from Temple, which is a massive move. It’s not Penn State. It’s not an easy sell. Are you more of a gambler or are you more of an odds guy?
It is where I’ve evolved. I started earlier in my career as much more of a gambler. Now, I truly believe in art and science. Maybe that’s the experience I’ve had on the BI side of things. Understanding where it can help support the sale, why not shrink the odds? The other thing being a gambler and what the science won’t always tell you is you got to always ask for the big sale. You talk about when we first met, I remember when you trained the first team ever when we worked together in terms of them starting at the top. Do your proper needs analysis and let them work you down, but don’t start in the middle or at a lower price. You don’t know anything. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Always ask for the big sale.
Let’s go back to Palace. Group sales, four years there, what’s the trajectory? Start talking about Dan the sales guy there because no doubt you have to sell.
It was hard and I wasn’t great right out of the gate. I humbly bragged about IBUSTTRAC and Pitney Bowes. It was a real adjustment for me. I had Sarah Daniels as my manager. We had 6 other sellers, and interestingly enough, 4 of them were female sellers. I developed great relationships with all of them. Early on in the way the Palace was structured, it was a competitive environment to the point where in the beginning, I was going to lunch by myself. I’ve always been a real social person, always friends with everybody and diverse of friends that I had.
I remember it was being at a Boston market and I’d been at the job about 60 days or so. I go, “I have no friends. This is ridiculous.” I’m struggling a little bit with getting appointments. I remember thinking, “You’re blowing this. You’ve always wanted to work in professional sports.” All these are terrible excuses. “All the important categories are spoken for. I started in September. A lot of the fan experience packages that group sales are known for selling are booked. What are you doing? I’m blowing it.”
I remember thinking, “I got to reset my process. I got to stop looking at what others are doing. How am I going to define success? Let me win a day. Let me win a week. By the way, it might be nice if I socialize with some of the people there. They could rebuke me, but what am I standing on ceremony for people to come to my cube and talk to me? Who am I?” I put myself out there, allowed myself to be vulnerable, asked a lot of questions, and admitted things I didn’t know.
This is the first a-ha leadership moment. Sarah Daniel was an empathetic leader who cared and wanted to make sure that I was comfortable in my chair. “How are you getting adjusted? What are you doing on the weekend,” and spending part of my one-on-one time not criticizing my lackluster sales numbers? Fast forward a year later, I’m the top group salesperson. Not only am I the top group salesperson, but I’m moving my way up the board and competing with some people who have been there for 10 to 15 years. They moved me over to premium sales, where I got my first glimpse into selling high-ticketed items, sweet leases, and premium tickets. I spent about two and a half years doing that at the Palace.
You make the decision to go. You get into some bad head space. I’m not a clinical psychologist but we’ve all been there. You looked in the mirror and said, “I better wake up because this isn’t going to bode well for me. It’s actually not who I am,” which is understandable. We all go through it, especially when you’re in a new spot like comfort zones, and then you move your way up.
At that point, what was it about your style, your personal signature on how you sell, and what’s still the same now for you? You sell ideas now, and I’m pretty sure like most chief revenue officers I know, you’re involved in enough deals at some point to bring it across, whether it’s coaching or FaceTime, so what’s the signature? What’s still the same about it?
It’s developing a process and being able to identify quickly what are things not to do. Don’t double down on those, move on quickly, and take each experience. For me, the principle that has worked and carried through now is developing relationships. Really care and listen. I know a lot of times people will say that, but more times than not, we’re in a situation where we politely shut up and then wait for our turn to speak. It’s taking and proving to the person on the other side not only have you listened, but you’ve got a thoughtful diagnosis for what they told you. When you follow up, you’re integrating some of that initial conversation. Ultimately, a lot of times, most people’s favorite topic is themselves or their or their family, or you and I are talking about our affinity for Philadelphia.
There will always be some bond that unites you with the person you’re trying to sell. That clicked for me and it became relationship selling. Sometimes, that can have a negative knock where it’s like, “Are you only a service person?” No, it’s relationship selling. When that person says, “You’ve been fantastic, how can I help you? What can I send you? Can I send you a gift card?” no. The best thing you can do is load me up with referrals or tell other people how great the experience with the organization and working with me is.
I was going to tag you with a follow-up question like relationship selling is cliché, but you blocked me off before I was going to do it because I think you said something there I’ve never heard before and I hope everybody read it. If you’re going to be in relationship selling, it’s a proving ground. I’ve never heard anybody say it like that before. You’re right. It’s not what you can do for me. It’s what I can do for you. It’s like that. It’s not a service mentality. It’s, “Let me prove to you that this could be valuable for you.” I like that concept.
It evolved over time, and it’s been honed and fine-tuned. You say “What is it that I still carry with me now?” It’s that aspect of it. It’s where people sometimes get tripped up that are good enough to get through the gatekeeper. They’re able to have that dialogue. They’re able to do the presentation. It’s asking for the sale. It’s saying, “Lance, based on everything we’ve discussed, this is a great fit. By the way, here’s what I want you to pay me. Here’s why you’re going to derive so much value from this investment. Think about it as an investment,” versus, “Here’s how much it’s going to cost on an annual basis.”
That’s the mix that you said before. Sales is half art and half science. I’m going to flip it over. You go back to those four years when you moved up the ladder. Before you take another step, group sales, which is a little bit different sales than selling a high-end premium item, is more of a customized and herding cat mentality because it takes a lot of logistics to do that. The other one is like, “I want you to buy something expensive that you might not need for your business but would augment it,” or you personally, what did you suck at? What were you bad at? Maybe even to this day, you’re like, “I struggle with that or I struggle with it then,” at least.
As I think about it, I smile and I go, “Maybe there’s more than one thing that I got to rethink this.” Where I always have to continually remind myself is to slow it down in terms of letting it breathe a little bit. I know I’m a good company here. One of the things that resonated with one of the times you were training, rolling up your sleeves, and getting on a call. You’re going back and forth. You’re battling objections, and all of a sudden, you pause and there’s dead air. I’m like, “What is Lance doing? Is he okay? Do I need to check on him?” All of a sudden, the person felt the need to go on more because you weren’t satisfied with what they told you.
This guy’s playing three-dimensional chess. That’s been an a-ha and something I constantly remind myself of. Let it breathe. Even if it’s a reaction that you don’t want to get, don’t negotiate against yourself. Sometimes we’re so anxious to prove we’re knowledgeable about our product, “Here’s 8,000 things I jotted down. I did all my research before calling you.” It will take time. If you’re not being rushed off the phone or you’re not being rushed through an appointment, let it breathe. My wife’s a big wine drinker. I don’t indulge in wine, but they tell you when you open a good bottle of wine, let it breathe for a little bit.
Don’t negotiate against yourself and be too anxious to prove your knowledge.
It’s interesting you said that. We’re going through massive growth at Tyson Group to the point we grew 66%. I told the team that 2023 is going to be the year of think of like Jake Tapper’s Bar Rescue. We’re going to stress-test ourselves. We came out like a bat out of hell the first month of the year and we’re debating on an org chart on a couple of things at the senior team.
I had one of my senior team members go, “Stop trying to sell me so hard.” I go, “I’m not actually trying to sell you anything right now. I’m trying to speed learn you a little bit on some things you’re not seeing, but it’s coming off heavy-handed.” Let it breathe, let it resonate. I should’ve given her 24 hours like, “I’m with you.” I still struggle. I get very excited and I get enthusiastic.
That’s what happens. I get excited too.
They want to move the needles. You’re there for four years. Where do you land at the Pistons and then what’s that next turn?
The Pistons were generous and knew more about the industry than I know now. The NBA does this annual sales and marketing meeting and it’s usually all sales leaders. For whatever reason, as a sales rep, I had indicated to my managers at the time that I had an interest in leadership. They brought me to the league meetings. You don’t see sales reps usually at these meetings. It’s usually candidly VP and above.
I met a gentleman by the name of Fred, well-known in the industry. I remember having a conversation with him and he said, “Let’s stay in touch,” that polite throwaway line where it’s like, “We’ve talked for ten minutes. There’s 8,000 other people here that I want to say hello to.” We actually did stay in touch. He had approached me about what working together could look like.
Later on, you might ask me, “What would I tell my younger self?” I wasn’t patient. Fred, we had had a conversation. There was a job that was open. He called me and he’s like, “You can interview for it. I don’t think you’re the right fit because there’s going to be something better down the line, but I need you to wait a couple of months. I need to navigate a few things.”
The Washington Commanders had an opening to sales sweeps. I went there, and six weeks into the job, Fred calls me and he’s like, “I created a job for you. Many people think of sales and service as separate. I’d love you to come in and be our assistant director of ticket services. I’d want you to manage all of our courtside accounts, but I also want you to help our director manage the department.” I just signed a lease on a place. I was working for Washington at the time. Early on, I knew that wasn’t going to be long-term for me where they were as an organization. To their credit, I raised it with my manager at the time and he was like, “If you think this is a great opportunity, you should explore it.”
I was in Washington for four months, which I don’t recommend people taking a job because the New Jersey Nets were such a great opportunity. Quite frankly, in September of 2007, when I joined the New Jersey Nets, one of the pitches was, “We’re going to be moving to Brooklyn in the next year or two,” which we can get into. Fast forward five years later, Brooklyn actually comes about. Working for the New Jersey Nets changed my life.
Now you’re in a risk move because you took a job with Washington. It can piss some people off because any of us in leadership now put ourselves in that position. You showed some impatience, but it came to fruition. You leave enough of an impression on Fred, who’s a great guy and then you come in at the Nets. You come as an assistant director. You’re managing a major book of accounts, I can imagine. The Nets, brand-wise, are not the Brooklyn Nets they are now. They’re out playing out Prudential.
We eventually played two seasons at Prudential, but we were playing at Continental Airlines arena.
I used to remember that airline. You got a little bit of a promise that you could be involved in something pretty new with the New Jersey Nets at the time moving up to Brooklyn.
It was fantastic. It allowed me to manage a staff, which I hadn’t done since my first job out of school. At the time, I was directly responsible for about 75% of the ticket revenue. It combined my love of sales and relationship selling, that stigma of service people. It was an a-ha moment that I carry with me now in terms of how I view service and retention roles and placing some of your best salespeople in there. Fred had told me, “One of the reasons we want you in this role is we’ve identified you as a high-level seller. We want to shift the mindset. We want to still provide best-in-class service, but we also want to be sales-minded when we do it.” That was a light bulb moment for me.
You’re quasi-leading or co-leading. You’re selling. What’s the first challenge around at the Nets’ end? There are two full-time jobs there.
Two very common challenges that young leaders will run into sometimes, especially those that are selling is that viewpoint of, “Are you competing against the people you’re managing? How do you show them that you’re putting their self-interest prior to your own but knowing that you have a number to hit?” Quite frankly, early on, I had a director, but a lot of my responsibilities were almost seen as co-directors and navigating that because it was a process where it was Fred and a few other people making that decision.
That dynamic with the director at the time was challenging because here I was viewed almost as Fred’s guy being brought in. My director at the time, who’s my direct boss, was showing me affording her the right level of respect, not if I’m getting emailed by other executives of the company, putting her in the copy line, or getting her the heads up. Some of it is ignorance or not realizing the cadence and, quite frankly, politics that exist in any corporate structure.
What’s interesting too is anytime you get a player-coach in sales, the hat you have to wear in sales is not the hat you wear in leadership because the obstacles are in the way, you got to get it done, you’re operating with speed, close the distance between lines. You have to navigate or negotiate the internal mechanisms of the cave drawings that you don’t know about that are in the dark and then what’s in front of you and how people act in front of you. It is not an easy way. It’s hard. You do that, and on top of that, you’re in a very live environment because there are a lot of leaders there. There’s a lot of things going on there at the Nets. What do you learn about yourself there? What’s the mirror moment for you?
The biggest one was I was introduced to one of my biggest mentors in the industry, Brett. For those who know Brett in the industry, Brett moves at a way different speed than anyone I’d ever been around. We’re talking warp speed. We’re talking race cars in the red at all times. I remember initially getting that audience with him and learning how to navigate managing up, but the importance is taking advantage of the opportunities and solutions-based thinking. I’ll never forget that huge mirror moment or a-ha for me. Fast forward a couple of years into my journey, at this point, I was a director overseeing the service department and being tapped to potentially be involved in the Brooklyn project, which is starting to come into focus a little bit. We have come off of 12 and 70 seasons and we’re thinking about renewals.
Is it about 2009?
2009 to 2010. It’s a Friday night. Brett burns the candle at both ends and it’s a full boardroom. There are people from marketing, sponsorship, and ticket sales, all leadership. Brett’s the only one in the room coming up with ideas from value adds on renewals to literally, “Let’s have Jerry West come to a game. Let’s have the Jonas Brothers perform in the atrium.” It is all things that, when you’re thinking to yourself, you’re like, “I don’t know. The Jonas Brothers are the most popular band in the world. They’re selling out stadiums. I don’t know if they’re going to do a private concert.”
Everything I was doing, I was being negative and I was shooting down ideas of the CEO. First of all, you have to learn how to unpack if you’re going to be a dissenting voice, but more important than that, provide solutions-based thinking. I remember Brett stopped the meeting and he gave it to me like no one’s ever given it to me before.
Lance, he lit me up. There were people who literally left the boardroom as he was going at me. I remember people were texting me afterward, “Are you okay?” Some people thought I was going to get fired. At 11:30 that night, Brett called me and said in a very calm tone, “You know how much I care about this business, how much I care about you, and you’ve got so much potential. I need to know that, number one, you’re all in.”
“Number two, if you’re ever in front of me and you disagree, you have the autonomy to do that. You better come up with your solutions. Don’t ever be in a situation where you’re shooting things down and you’ve got an empty holster.” It’s lived with me. It’s as impactful of a moment. It meant so much that he called me that night as well. It was the type of moment where I failed and took it as a valuable learning experience and a great lesson.
Don’t ever be in a situation where you shoot things down while having an empty holster.
There are a couple of things there. I don’t know a ton about Brett. I know him a little bit, but I do know there’s a lot of intent to what he does and I’m sure those heart and flower moments mean something when they come from him. That’s sincerity. There’s a lesson there. The second lesson is knowing how to play politics. Who’s in the room? That’s the next thing. The third thing that’s interesting about people that most of us don’t know is some people think out loud. You got to make sure you understand.
What it sounded like was he was trying to green light think, and that’s a business process that a lot of people weren’t even taught because you don’t red light think when you green light think so you don’t do judicial thinking when you’re green lighting. There are so many things that unpack there. At the end of the day, it comes down to sensory acuity, being acutely sensitive to your surroundings and what’s trying to be accomplished to make a decision. One of the things I’ve always loved about you, and that’s why I said mirror moment, is there are ten things to unpack right there. It’s lived with you for years.
It’s in my mind forever. I tell any person and any of my teammates to this day or anyone under my purview about that when they’re not providing solutions-based thinking. It was such a wildly impactful moment for me and made me significantly better in how I think about the business and even how I lead.
You’re now on both throes. It sounds like you’re starting to get to that point where you start being marked as one of the people who’s going to lead a big portion of the business. This is where we start talking. This is a start to meet. Brooklyn is now going to make the move. There’s a stadium going to be built, and then you get dubbed as one of the guys, if not the guy. Talk about that next transition for you.
I’m so appreciative as I look back now at direct managers and Fred and Brian who allowed me to author the ticketing business plan and so many amazing things come about.
Author or own?
I’d say author and co-owned because there were going to be several editors along the way. Certainly, both of them had a lot of experience, institutional knowledge, and understanding of the market. This thing from scratch, what is it going to look like? Brett had me partnered up with someone in the marketing department who was, at the time, owned by a woman by the name of Laura Castronovo. She now goes by the moniker of Laura Lefton.
We were working on this project. She was coming to it from a marketing lens and I was putting it together as a business plan for ticket sales strategy, knowing at the time lens that every team in the market was getting a new stadium or arena. Madison Square Garden was going through the restoration. You had both football teams getting new stadiums, both baseball teams, and we were going to be last to market.
We’re coming out of the recession too. It was great timing.
We needed to secure what would be similar to a PSL, a Personal Seat License, without doing a PSL. By the way, this was going to be a Frank Geary building and then it changed to more of an Ellerbe Beckett building that was going to model and take some of its cues from the Indiana Pacers Fieldhouse. At the time, it was Conseco Fieldhouse.
As I was putting this together with Laura at the time, the goalposts kept changing. One of the most rewarding things of my career was being able to make those adjustments and being able to lean on people like Brett, Fred, and Brian at the time for their insights and understanding of the true value of collaboration. From there, we created this all-access platform. As we opened the Barclay Center, we projected at the time 70% sellout to 90% sellout. We exceeded all of our projections and expectations at the time. The learnings, stops, and starts along the way were invaluable to have that experience and learn in real time.
I don’t know this, but I’m curious because there are those moments. Is this the point in your career that you start to get a seat at the table?
I have that mirror moment as you reflect and to still, fast forward, call it a year later, and be at the table with our general manager at the time and our CFO. Being the most junior person at that table was a remarkable thing and so beneficial and so many learnings along the way.
Some of my guests, I have some history with. Not every one of them. You and I do. We even had an infamous training on St. Patty’s Day on a Saturday. That was a serious commitment from everybody. I would call it extreme ownership from you, me, and all the salespeople. As a matter of fact, I was on the phone with Manny at Crypto.com, our old staples, and AEG and we’re talking about it. We’ll always have that Saturday morning at the end of the day.
I’m sure we’re going to talk about being culture-driven and what a culture guy I am. I’m such a culture guy. Saturday, a brand new team that I put together, only working with me for a month saying, “By the way, we’re going to work this Saturday.” It’s the biggest Saturday in Hoboken where a lot of them lived.
We’re on St. Patty’s Day. No doubt, but it was a serious commitment. You’re either compliant or committed and that’s it. I like that seat at the table because it felt that way. It felt like you were in the know. You knew what the objectives were. There were relationships going with the legends there and then there was that whole thing with Freddy and then Brett and you. I love that. Not many people can say they launched a stadium or an arena. You look at pro sports, not many. You launched that. I remember your career takes a turn then. With the next couple of years or year, you turn. You go somewhere else. Talk about that. That’s interesting.
It winds up being I’ve become less of a journeyman or a governor with four-year stints at these places. I spent six years, and the building opened. Being promoted to Vice President overseeing all premium seating, I decided that I was going to leave the team side and go out and start my own company with a former client of mine, Cole Rubin.
You’re how old at this point?
At that point, I’m 35.
For everybody that’s reading, if you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t usually go from a senior-level person. You’re usually very disgruntled and I know you weren’t disgruntled. You decide. You go from a job with a decent ladder with a net to a ladder and no net. That’s the move I look at when anybody makes that calculate risk or gamble.
It comes back to that. Lance, let me layer this on. It was spending all those years opening Barclay Center and crafting a sales plan. September 28th, 2012 when the building opened, my wife’s water broke. I’m not even there the night the building opens. I had a newborn and I’m going to leave. You’re right. I was wildly happy in Brooklyn. Did I want to own more things? Did I love the people that were there? Was there a chance to grow?
It would’ve been growing in place more than growing up the ladder, but I loved working with Brett. All the people there were terrific. They were in growth and expansion mode. At the time I’m leaving, two things happen. One, they make the infamous trade for Kevin Garnett and they determine that the Islanders are going to play there. There was a lot of opportunity. Here’s the a-ha moment, and we can transition into Dynasty Sports & Entertainment. The year that Barclay Center opened, I remember being at those NBA sales and marketing meetings.
There’s something about those meetings for me. I met Fred six years earlier, and then Commissioner Silver was talking about ticketing and the secondary market, one of the most brilliant minds in sports. I remember a lot of the things he was saying I disagreed with. I felt like the ticketing industry was ready for positive disruption.
What do I mean by positive disruption? This is where I have a fascination with Amazon and open distribution. Ticketing seemed like this gated off, hard to access, a lot of friction points, not to mention something as taboo as the secondary market and brokers being that person on the street that sometimes it’s selling you a real ticket, sometimes it’s selling you fake piece of paper. When I told the people in Brooklyn that I was going to leave, they were like, “What team are you going to?”
I said, “No, I’m going to start my own firm.” I called it a brokerage firm. Cole was like, “Don’t use the word broker.” Everyone was, “You’re leaving to be a ticket broker? Are you nuts?” As you’re saying earlier, are you taking that gamble? My wife at the time was at the NFL, the league office. I remember I kept asking her opinion because it was staying with Brooklyn.
I also had gotten another offer that was a lucrative offer in the market at Madison Square Garden. The third option was, do I do this new venture with Cole Rubin? I drove my wife crazy with this decision. Lance, you know me. I was very decisive and went back and forth. Brett was amazing during that time. Laura’s advice to me was, “You need to bet on yourself and trust your instincts.”
She said, “You need to stop asking me my opinion. You have my blessing to do any 1 of the 3. Close your eyes. Fast forward a month. Fast forward six months. Fast forward two years from now. Which of the three is going to make you the happiest?” Lance, to this day, when people come to me and say they want to potentially leave or explore another opportunity, I have stolen Laura’s advice. I’ve made it my own. I’ve branded it Lefton’s advice. It was a decision that opened up a whole other part of the industry in business for me.
You go back to the original mentor and Laura, they meet in the middle, and say, “Bet on yourself,” because that’s what your guy at Temple told you. It’s interesting that the greatest investment you’ll ever make is in you. I love that. You’re at your new organization for how long?
I wind up being at Dynasty for almost five years.
2017, two years before the pandemic and then you wheel back again. I’m going to say this in a very nice way. You clear house a little bit at Brooklyn, right at Barclay. You come back as now you’re kind of the guy. If not kind of the guy but the guy.
There’s a guy by the name of Mike Zavodsky who calls me up and says he was about to be named Chief Revenue Officer. He said, “I don’t know anything about ticketing. I view you as an expert in this field. I’d love for you to be my partner and come back to Brooklyn. Come home. This is your chance. Business had sagged a little bit because of team performance and a variety of reasons.”
My initial reaction was, “Mike, I live five minutes from my office. Yes, I travel a decent amount for my job with Dynasty. I set my own hours. Cole had become not just a business partner but a dear and trusted friend. You’re crazy. I’ll help you find someone.” Mike is a hell of a seller and extremely persuasive. Brett had reached out to me as well.
What I appreciated was how transparent he was at the time about ownership and potentially there being a sale with the team and it could be accelerated but felt like this was a great opportunity. They can’t lose opportunity. What ultimately switched it for me was this, and it’s funny because I asked Laura again, “What do you think I should do? Here’s where my head is at.”
She goes, “It doesn’t matter what I think you should do. I know you’re already in Brooklyn.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” She goes, “You would not have even brought this up to me. It’s almost like a coach that goes into broadcasting. It’s in your DNA. You love being around large groups of people. You love leading, managing, coaching, and growing talent. This is checking every box.”
It was the type of thing where I thought about it and Mike was politely and patiently persistent. Basically, once I showed my hand, and you mentioned this earlier, the emotions were on my sleeve and I’m a pretty easy read. Once he knew that I had an interest, it was game over for him. He knew he was going to get me. You can negotiate, but at the end of the day, he knew that this touched on so many important things to me. I went back in January of 2018.
You’re back to center again and you’re there another 3 or 4 years, right up to the pandemic-ish.
Right through the pandemic and overseeing all ticketing hospitality. It was the first piece that I got of tasting analytics on the team side. It was ticket analytics for the organization.
From there, there was no other stop between there and Detroit.
There wasn’t. It’s an important thing to acknowledge, I got fired from Brooklyn. You’re in this industry long enough, you’re going to get fired from jobs. New ownership and leadership came in. Coming right out of the pandemic, a lot of organizations did that audit. What was tough wasn’t me getting let go. If you’re high enough up in an organization, you got to realize that people want to surround themselves with their own people.
There were eighteen of my colleagues who were also let go. In that time, a year earlier, Mike Zavodsky was named Chief Business Officer of the Detroit Pistons. Mike called me and asked me if I’d be interested in going to Detroit. As usual, my first answer to Mike was no way. After I get let go at Brooklyn, Mike calls me again and checks in on me as a friend. “Would you potentially have an interest in coming to Detroit?” What’s unique about this is the opportunity was amazing. It was being able to work for Mike, but being introduced to Arn Tellem, who’s our Vice Chairman and a legend in this industry. I wanted to try to make the opportunity work. However, with three kids and Laura being firmly established as a Vice President at the NFL, we’re not looking to relocate.
The real conversation became, “Could I commute and take the job?” Pre-pandemic, that probably sounds outrageous and crazy, but I now have been with the Pistons for a year and a half. Monday through Thursday, I fly in on Mondays, leave on Thursday nights, and work remotely on Fridays and did that 42 times.
As we land back in Detroit, I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this, but it’s interesting. You took it upon yourself two times in your career to do some Junior Achievement and Dynasty. The other times in your career, you have gone back to the same spot that you started in twice. You did it with Detroit and you did it with Brooklyn, two different stints there.
There was only a little detour at the Commanders, which then were the Washington Redskins. Not one time, and I do a lot of these interviews, have I heard you talk about chasing a career. It was always this bet and a potential opportunity with no guarantee because each time you get to Detroit first, you got to wean your way up. You meet somebody.
The other thing that’s interesting is Dan’s not taking advice from a ton of people. He has a few people he’s mentioned in his life, 3 or 4 mentors. My dad used to say all five people you’re tight with, and I’m sure you take incomings from a lot, but you got some core folks there that you brought up. There’s this consistent trend. Each place you left, they brought you back. However you left it must’ve been pretty good. Not a lot of people get asked to come back a second time. Your reputation is good, especially in Detroit because there was distance between you were there the first time, but your reputation is usually your reputation at the end of the day.
Relationship business, Detroit is almost a completely different organization. Even Brooklyn coming back five years later looked completely different. You’re right. I have a lot of people that I feel affectionately about in this industry. It was a tight inner circle. You’ll be shocked to know that it’s usually a relationship and years of knowing the person. The only asterisk I put on that is David Levy, the legendary Turner Broadcasting CEO. He was CEO at BSE Global for 55 days. David is probably somebody in this industry I trust and respect as much as anybody.
He gave me a ton of advice and was an amazing human being, even as I was leaving Brooklyn. He never went more than 8 or 9 days without reaching out, whether via text or a phone call and consistently giving me advice and saying, “Don’t even talk. Great. Here’s the way you should be thinking about things and here’s the questions you need to ask yourself.” I’m fortunate in that instance to have him and Brett, both of them firmly in my corner but also providing amazing advice coupled with Laura, my wife, but also somebody who understands the ins and outs of this industry as well as anybody I’ve ever been around.
I think a couple of things as we bring this bird down for a landing. I love the journey. What I learned most about you is a lot of introspection that comes from you and a lot of understanding yourself. I talk about those mirror moments because I usually find somebody successful in sales or leadership has exceptional personal leadership because that’s where it all stems from. If you can’t lead you, you can’t do anything else.
At the end of the day, you can’t sell a concept because you’re not believable yourself. You definitely are, Dan. That’s why I love the interview because it was a deep thought and a deep progression that way. I know you have kids, but let’s say you have a niece or nephew come to you. We act differently sometimes. There is a little intensity with our kids. If you had to say to a niece and nephew that were 7 or 8 years old and they said, “Uncle Dan, what’s success mean?” what do you say to the 7, 8, or 9-year-old?
Your mirror talk is why people need to pick up your book because of ethos, pathos, and logos. I digress. I had one plug-in there.
I appreciate the plug. We’re here to sell books.
For me, success has so many different forms. It’s intertwined sometimes with happiness. For me, I’m fortunate. I’ve been in sales roles where there’s the proverbial scoreboard and you know whether you’ve won or lost in hitting numbers. As I’ve advanced in my career, success is legacy building. That’s what you’re able to do with the people that you’re fortunate enough to manage and lead.
Success is legacy building. It is all about what you can do with the people you are fortunate enough to manage and lead.
Also, being able to provide insights, counsel, and real teaching because people are complex, either diverse or unique. For me, part of that legacy, I’ve referenced the NBA meetings probably four different times. Hopefully, the league will appreciate it. One thing that’s been glaring throughout my career is the diversity of it and understanding having a wife who’s worked in the industry for over two decades and being intentional. It’s part of why I admire you so much in terms of the amount of female leaders you have in your organization.
Success for me now has taken on the tenor of being intentional and making sure that people who maybe weren’t afforded a lot of the opportunity. I’ve been fortunate with people giving me, calling me, and relationships that I forge, and, hopefully, some of the success is the reason, but being very intentional about providing a pathway for underrepresented people in revenue-generating roles. Still, in sports and entertainment, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do with the rest of the world.
Sometimes, people think sports entertainment is a real big industry, but it’s a very ancestral industry. Everybody knows everybody, and sometimes it looks like that too. It is being intentional. I talked to Kristin Bernert on the show and we talked a lot about that. I would concur. Second question, what’s your business song? What’s that song? You got Pearl Jam behind you. Did you go into a big deal? You’re going into an intense conversation. What’s that song in the back of your head? What are you playing in your iPhone headset?
Anyone watching for an extended period of time will say, “What does this background mean?” We can address the Pearl Jam thing. There’s a deep love of Pearl Jam. No matter what type of day I’m having, Pearl Jam is the soundtrack of my life. I even wanted to name one of my kids’ middle names to be Vedder, but my wife said, “No way. That’s where I’m drawing the line.” You can never go wrong with any Pearl Jam song. For me, it’s Rearview Mirror. It’s the ultimate. It’s the gamut of emotions that run in and it’s suitable for any moment.
Last question, you can’t say any of my books, but if you gift a book or if you do gift books, what book do you usually gift to somebody?
Your books are terrific and I won’t cheat, but in real life, I would take more of the Phil Jackson approach based on the person probably gifted, but if I had to be broader, I would say it would be Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.
I actually have his biography of Benjamin Franklin right up here.
It’s incredible. Jobs is a wildly fascinating human. A lot of what not to do in leadership. You can easily say he’s the Thomas Edison of our day. It’s like he was the king of think different, innovate or die. Apple and Blackberry used to be a real thing. If you remember in 2007, the market cap, right before the release of the iPhone, Blackberry was worth $60 billion. Apple was worth $75 billion. Their valuations now, Blackberry’s $4 billion, and Apple is $2.5 trillion. To me, that book is so raw and it talks about the psychology. I highly recommend it. It’s the type of thing where, to me, it’s the ultimate gift that you can give somebody.
I love Isaacson as an author, so I’m going to get that book. love this interview. This is awesome. I can’t wait to get this out into the world. Dan, thanks for being a good friend. Thanks for being on my show. I am looking forward to talking to you soon.
Likewise. Be well, Lance.
About Dan Lefton
As Chief Revenue Officer, Dan Lefton provides oversight for all revenue, including partnership sales & activation, ticket sales & service, and business intelligence for the Detroit Pistons. In his 24-year career, Lefton has become an industry-leading ticket and hospitality sales expert, as well as being known for his strong leadership in growing and developing talent while building best-in-class culture.
Lefton has overseen record revenue growth and sustainability throughout his career and has established himself as a go-to leader and mentor throughout the sports and entertainment industry. Since returning to the Detroit Pistons in June 2021, Lefton has overseen historic revenue growth in both ticket sales and corporate partnerships.
Lefton was the visionary behind the Bet Rivers Backcourt Club, on-court suites, which allowed the team to create and sell two entitlements in addition to creating a one-of-a-kind premium experience. In addition to the revenue success, he has been instrumental in building out the business intelligence team for the organization. The BI team has also played a crucial role in providing data and analytic oversight of sales, marketing, finance, programming, and human resources.
Lefton previously worked at BSE Global (Brooklyn Nets) as Senior Vice President of Sales, where he oversaw record revenue and played a key role in the Nets’ move to Barclays Center. Lefton was the the architect behind the extremely successful “All-Access” program that led to record attendance and allowed the organization to exceed all ticket and suite projections.
Lefton also co-founded Dynasty Sports & Entertainment (DSE) in 2013, which provided a pricing, distribution and inventory management platform in the sports and entertainment space. Lefton successfully transformed DSE into the industry-leading secondary market partner and open distributor to various teams, venues, and ticket exchanges. Lefton has also previously worked for Palace Sports and Entertainment (Detroit Pistons) from 2003-2007 and began a distinguished career at Temple University in the Athletic Department.