By Barry Janoff
December 12, 2012: Michael Phelps will forever be associated with the Olympics and may for a long time — some say forever — hold the Olympic Games record of 18 gold medals and 22 total medals. Now retired from competition, Phelps has other worlds to conquer, including golf and perhaps even swimming with great white sharks.
Phelps has used his skills in the water to bring worldwide attention to the sport and to create for himself a global brand, with marketing deals that include Subway, Under Armour, Visa, Procter & Gamble and Speedo. Many of his alliances run through 2016, which means that even if he stays true to his post 2012-Olympic Games retirement decision, he will be a marketing and PR spokesman leading up to and then during the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Phelps has a support team of coaches, family and friends who have guided him from novice swimmer to world-class athlete. But in the playing field of sports business and sports marketing, Phelps' main man is Peter Carlisle, who has been with Phelps for more than ten years. Carlisle's long-time mantra — once met with derision but now accepted as gospel — is that Phelps could earn $100 million from endorsements during his lifetime.
Carlisle is managing director of the Olympic and Action Sports Division for global agency Octagon. In addition to Phelps, Carlisle has represented such athletes as Aly Raisman, Apolo Anton Ohno, Ross Powers, Hannah Teter, Kelly Clark and Seth Wescott. But his impact has gone well beyond representing athletes.
His support of action sports began at a time when they were considered to have little opportunity to grow beyond a niche category. Carlisle was a catalyst in driving the likes of snowboarding, skateboarding and BMX — and the athletes who participate in them — to domestic and global prominence among media, fans and marketers.
Before championing Phelps, Carlisle worked as a lawyer, but in 1997 he left private practice to found Carlisle Sports Management, a boutique agency representing winter sport athletes. CSM was acquired by Octagon in 2001.
In November, Carlisle was named Executive-in-Residence at the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at the Isenberg School of Management, University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The institution is named for the late McCormack, an attorney and businessman who founded IMG and is credited as being the godfather of sports marketing and sports business.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Carlisle about Phelps, the challenges and rewards of marketing athletes, the future of the Olympic movement in the U.S. and the business of sports.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Given what has happen in recent years to such high-profile athletes as Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and even Michael Phelps (a DUI in 2004, a drug paraphernalia photo in 2008), is the public more skeptical than ever when it comes to trusting athletes in marketing?
Peter Carlisle: Yes. But at the same time, while there is more cynicism, given how technology has changed, and that athletes have their own platforms for social media, their messages are not just coming through a package or some polished 30-second TV spot. The athletes are communicating directly with consumers and fans. It depends on how it is being communicated. But social media offers so many different possibilities for athletes to communicate directly with the general public and to the market. In that way, their messages are more credible, more believable. There is more cynicism, but there is more opportunity to communicate authentically with the audience.
NYSJ: Is there a way to compare sports marketing and sponsorship opportunities and deals surrounding the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and 2012 in London?
PC: That's a good, straightforward question that I should be able to respond to with a straightforward answer. But the situations certainly were different. And the opportunities going into and then coming out of each of the Olympic Games was different. I don't think you could ever duplicate the buzz going into and after Beijing. It was such a unique situation. Such a distinct moment. The energy and pace that it created would be difficult to replicate. Having said that, it is as busy, if not busier, now then it was [in 2008]. Marketers and people appreciated the London Olympics in a different way. It is always a busy time for activation in the fall when you come off the Olympics. Then it tends to dissipate somewhat.
NYSJ: What do you see happening between now and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio as far as marketing buzz?
PC: Marketers are already making plans, but I would say it's too early to talk about the overall long-term platforms and their possible impact. But because there will be new ways for marketers to activate and communicate, and new platforms for athletes to become involved, it should be exciting and interesting.
NYSJ: Michael Phelps said he has retired from competitive swimming, which could mean less time in the public eye. How will you maintain his visibility with the public if he no longer is aligned with the Olympics?
PC: He certainly has established his presence as an athlete and as someone who will remain known to the public for a long time. He has a lot of projects going on. He enjoys golf and among his opportunities he is working with golf instructor Hank Haney on The Haney Project (scheduled to air on NBC Sports Group's Golf Channel in February). He is overseeing the Michael Phelps Foundation, the Michael Phelps Swim School, he is still very active and passionate about swimming. But there are so many platforms for him. After his last race in London, people were asking him what he would do next, and he tweeted something about going [swimming] with great white sharks. [Laughs.] And within ten minutes after that, he was still at the press conference, I was getting e-mails from tour groups and other companies that wanted to connect him with shark-diving.
NYSJ: Do you see his marketing value diminishing?
PC: Not at all. Subway is using him in global efforts. He will be very active as the  Summer Games approach. There is a whole new avenue of opportunities for him that we are exploring. And we will look at his current partnerships to see how we can build on or evolve those platforms, especially now that he has time to do other things.
"He tweeted about going swimming with great white sharks, and within ten minutes I got e-mails from companies that wanted to connect him with cage-diving."
NYSJ: The U.S. Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee have resolved some major issues that prevented the U.S. from getting and even bidding on future Olympic Games. Do you see the U.S. bidding on the 2024 Summer Olympics and/or the 2026 Winter Games, which would be the next available opportunity for both?
PC: A lot of progress has been made over the last year or so, so the odds have certainly increased. You still have to consider a lot of variables, but I do see [the USOC] moving in that direction and getting political and public support and financing to do so. I certainly would like to see the Winter Games in Portland, Maine (he is a native of Cape Elizabeth). [Laughs.]
NYSJ: What are your observations regarding the USOC as far as marketing and sponsorship deals and platforms now and moving forward?
PC: My perspective on that comes from a very biased place. I view their marketing activities and platforms as to how they relate to the athletes. The USOC could have a terrific Olympics and sponsorship revenue and bring on new sponsors. But I look to see how those programs and sponsorships shape up for the whole U.S. team, for the athletes in the different sports. Everything is moving so quickly: social media, the online stuff. They have done a pretty good job of trying to incorporate all of those changes into programs they have with sponsors. But it moves so quickly that I wonder whether some of those programs are sustainable. We just have to wait and see. In terms of their courting sponsors and managing those sponsorship programs, it seems as if London was a successful Games for them.
NYSJ: It appears as if most if not all of the USOC partners are signed through 2020 at this point, so it that a good sign regarding long-term commitment and involvement from marketers?
PC: [Laughs.] It's good. It is evidence of the value of the platforms, the value of the Games, the value of the property in the U.S. You want marketers and the public to view the Olympics as a compelling and valuable platform. But from there, my job is to enhance the value for the athletes who participate in that whole formula. A big reason for that level of interest in the Games is the stories that the athletes provide. I look at it from a limited perspective in that way. But, certainly, you hope for good ratings, you hope for strong sponsorship response. At the end of the day you need companies to be invested in the movement and in the Games and in the USOC in order for them to care about in the athletes, which, ultimately, is what I'm looking after.
NYSJ: How did it feel to be invited to be a Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management Executive-in-Residence and speak to the students and faculty there?
PC: It was a great honor. My area of of expertise in sports business is more marketing oriented, especially how I started with emerging sports. That's how I view a lot of what Mark McCormack did. I was looking at the different properties and different business models that he created, his whole creative process in what was a fairly young industry. When I got into the business, I remember listening to his books on tape — there wasn't much out there about the industry — I knew right away that he was a very creative force in the industry and that he knew what was coming and what it would grow into. So being able to be part of the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management, and seeing the archives and being part of the entire experience, was phenomenal.
NYSJ: What are the issues in sports marketing and sports business that people talk to you about?
PC: For me, because of my focus, there is a lot of discussion about marketing the Olympics, about ambush marketing, about action sports. When I speak to students, as I did at the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management, there are questions about getting into the business and what the future looks like. There are unbelievable opportunities, but it certainly is a highly competitive space. The advantages today, compared to when I got into the business, is that technology gives people so much more access to information and opportunities.
NYSJ: Do you see many of the things you've done, such as building up the credibility and marketing visibility of action sports and, with Michael Phelps, supporting the growth of swimming as paralleling McCormack's career?
PC: Well, I appreciate the comparison. I would like to think that some of the same creative thought processes are there. But when you look at what he did over his career, the width and breadth of what he built and what he was involved with, there is nothing to compare with that. But I would like to believe that what he accomplished, and what he built, really inspired areas of my life. And that, in turn, the work I am involved with, and speaking to young people who want to get involved, is inspiring others.
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