Michael Phelps' agent shares strategies

At the Olympics, it was rare to see Michael Phelps anywhere but the pool or a sponsored appearance. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Among the hundreds of schools that have sports management or marketing programs, the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at the Isenberg School of Management in Amherst, Mass., is one that truly stands out.

Not only does the department hold all of IMG founder Mark McCormack's communications and documents, which it is still archiving, but it also has a fantastic oral history endeavor and an executive-in-residence program that has sports business leaders stay on campus for days.

This week, Michael Phelps' agent, Peter Carlisle of Octagon, came to the campus and, among his other responsibilities, gave a keynote speech that was streamed online. If you want to be in the sports agent business, I highly recommend you watch this:

I've interviewed Carlisle many times before and have covered the business of Phelps for his entire career, but there were some things that piqued my interest. I called Carlisle and asked him a few questions.

I was struck by your 10-year plan and how mapped out everything was.

Well, we hoped it would work, but everything really came together in ways we couldn't have anticipated. There were also things that didn't fall into place.

When you started with Phelps, you tell the story of giving his family video cameras to shoot raw video. I know there were two films about Michael. How much have you used of what was shot?

Such a small percentage. I'd say we have over 1,000 hours of footage that has been digitized. It's not well catalogued, but it will be.

A lot of agents say that signing with blue-chip brands can help an athlete. You suggest it really helped Michael. How?

Olympic athletes don't have a platform outside of the Games. If you can get a company to invest in an athlete and create buzz, that's very important.

My favorite part of the speech, though, was when you talked about restricting Michael's access to the media during the games. I remember in Beijing, if I wanted Michael, I had to come to a Visa function. I think a lot of students were probably caught off guard by the idea of leaving the Beijing Games and fleeing to Portugal just to get away.

And that's partly the idea. If you just go with the flow and there's no method to the madness, you're just providing access with little benefit. But in that case, the sponsors did get Michael to come to their events, and that further justified their investment in him. If you resist the temptation to do everything during the Games, you can sustain greater relevance over a longer period of time when the Games are done.

And to extend that relevance when Michael became big enough, you insisted that his major sponsors sign four-year deals to take him from one Olympics to the next?

We insisted on it being four years or the deal was a no-go. So they thought about it, and once they committed they were all into figuring out how to make use of Michael during the downtime, which was to Michael's advantage.

You also said that you refused to allow Michael to be photographed with Mark Spitz ahead of the Beijing Games, even though Speedo was offering $1 million for him to reach Mark's record golds of seven. Why?

First of all, I wanted Michael to have his own brand, and we certainly generated awareness through the bonus. But my concern at the time was we weren't looking for that or nothing. We didn't want to be defined by that. So I had to resist the urge to put Michael and Mark together, and there were a lot of people calling. It was difficult.

You also said that, for Michael, the goals weren't the medals, because if they were, you believe he wouldn't have been as successful.

Michael was driven by something other than the superficial definition of success, which is what those medals are. He was always chasing a greater excellence. It's why the medals themselves he keeps in a sock drawer. It's not about them.

You were at UMass at their program for four days. What is your take on the future of the industry?

Our industry is so young. If you go back to McCormack, it's only like 50 years old. And it's incredible to look at these students and the education and the training that they are getting. It's such an advantage over what I had, which was one sports law book.

The agent industry doesn't have the greatest reputation. Do you still think, in the future, the cream, the best kids here, will rise to the top?

At least more so than in the past. When there's less competition, timing and luck have a greater effect.


After speaking to Carlisle, I asked Lisa Masteralexis, who heads up the McCormack Department of Sport Management, about what Carlisle's contribution might have done for the perception the students had about agents.

"By having Peter as our executive in residence, he was able to share something tangible with the students," Masteralexis said. "I did think he helped change the perspective they had of a sports agent. It's not all about being in your face; it's not all about money, which is sometimes the only thing you hear from the media's representation of agents."