Octagon's Carlisle on Marketing Michael Phelps and Other Olympians
Michael Phelps will forever be associated with the Olympics
and may for a long time -- some say forever -- hold the record with 18 gold medals
and 22 total. 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-London Games retirement plan, he will be a marketing and
PR spokesman leading up to and then during the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de
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 worked 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
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 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 the godfather of sports marketing and sports business.
Carlisle recently spoke about Phelps, the challenges
and rewards of marketing athletes, the future of the Olympics movement in the
U.S. and the business of sports.
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?
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.
Is there a way to compare sports marketing and
sponsorship opportunities and deals surrounding the 2008 Summer Olympics in
Beijing and 2012 in London?
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 Olympics 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
What do you see happening between now and the 2016
Summer Games in Rio as far as marketing buzz?
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
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?
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 Golf Channel in February]. He is overseeing the
Michael Phelps Foundation, the Michael Phelps Swim School and 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.
Do you see his marketing value diminishing?
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.
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 Olympics. 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?
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. [Carlisle is a native of Cape Elizabeth, a town very near
What are your observations regarding the USOC as far
as marketing and sponsorship deals and platforms now and moving forward?
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.
It appears as if most if not all of the USOC partners
are signed through 2020 at this point, so is that a good sign regarding
long-term commitment and involvement from marketers?
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.
What are the issues in sports marketing and sports
business that people talk to you about?
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
(This Q&A was reprinted with permission from