Peter Carlisle stands in front of a gallery of his clients in his office at the MHG Ice Centre in Saco. He said when he started his own agency in 1997, he considered the growing popularity of action sports, such as snowboarding, and saw opportunity. “He was a visionary,” says his brother, Jeff Carlisle.
By Mike Lowe
SACO - Peter Carlisle doesn't need a calendar to tell him how close the Sochi Winter Olympics are.
As the managing director of the Olympics and Action Sports division for Octagon -- one of the world's most prestigious sports agencies -- Carlisle has been working toward the Feb. 7, 2014, opening ceremonies in Sochi, a Russian city on the Black Sea coast, for months. His job is to market his clients, many of whom will be medal favorites, to global corporate sponsors.
"I look at it this way," he said. "There are 10 major stories going into the games and 10 major stories coming out of the games. Sometimes they're not the same."
For the last year or so, he has been selling those stories.
"Anywhere from a year to nine months out, the pace quickens significantly," Carlisle said. "There are still some things to do, some photo shoots, some ad shoots, but we're more than halfway done in terms of solidifying the athletes' corporate sponsorships for Sochi."
That the 45-year-old Carlisle, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth and now raises a family in South Portland, does this from a corner office located at the MHG Ice Centre here, that he represents some of the most powerful Olympic athletes of all time, might surprise some people.
But he is one of the most accomplished sports agents in the world. His clients include swimmer Michael Phelps, snowboarders Seth Wescott, Ross Powers and Kelly Clark, speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, and gymnast Aly Raisman. All are legends in their sport and Olympic gold medal winners.
In representing them, he has marketed them internationally and locally, putting their faces and words in ads and commercials in every medium: on a Wheaties cereal box, in Subway commercials, in "Got Milk?" ads.
Earlier this year Carlisle was named one of the 15 Most Influential Sports Agents in the world by Sports Illustrated. He ranked 14th, the only person on the list associated purely with Olympic and action sports stars. He dismissed the significance of the honor.
"Well, as my children have told me, I was second-to-last," he said, with a smile.
COMPETITIVE? 'OH YEAH'
In what he does, Peter Carlisle is second to no one.
He began his career as a sports agent without any clients, leaving a Portland law firm because he had a vision that people would care about snowboarders and skiers and swimmers. He started a one-man agency in 1997 on Fore Street in Portland and soon began signing clients who would become the top names in their sports.
Then he sold his business to Octagon, which was recently named the second-most valuable sports agency in the world.
"Not surprised in the least," said Jeff Carlisle, Peter's older brother and a managing director of Vigilant Capital Management in Portland. "Peter is brilliant and creative and has a terrific moral compass. He is ideally suited for the business that he's in."
Those who know Carlisle and have watched him negotiate sponsorships for his clients use the same words to describe him: laid-back, smart, intuitive, creative, hard-working, competitive.
Make that very competitive.
"Oh yeah," said Powers, who was Carlisle's first big-name client after winning a bronze medal at the Nagano Olympics in 1998. "Whenever we get together, the weekend becomes a bit of a competition. We keep a points system on everything."
And Carlisle seldom loses, whether it's at golf or board games such as Ticket to Ride. "It's kind of funny," said Wescott, "to have your agent beating up on all these Olympic athletes."
Carlisle feeds off the competition. When he first started his agency, he had to outwork what few action sports agents were out there. Now he's going against the bigger firms that now realize there's money to be made in Olympic athletes. While his past experience gives Carlisle an edge, he knows he still has to work hard to sign new clients.
"You're going to come up against people who are smarter than you, wealthier than you, have more resources, have some other edge," said Carlisle, sitting on a couch in his office, dressed in jeans and an Oxford shirt. "But I've always had that confidence that I could outwork anybody. Part of that is outworking them, part of that is hating to lose."
'HE CAN FIGURE THINGS OUT'
Even though sports had always been a big part of Carlisle's life -- he played soccer, ice hockey and tennis in high school (Cape Elizabeth for three years, then Northfield Mount Hermon in Massachusetts) and tennis at Bates College in Lewiston -- it wasn't until his senior year at Bates that his life took some direction.
Some of his professors suggested he go to law school. He had shown an analytical mind and the ability to think creatively. Law, they told him, would help him in whatever field he chose.
So, after earning an English degree from Bates, he went to the University of Maine School of Law. When he graduated from there he took a position at Preti Flaherty, a law firm in Portland. While he liked the work, he wanted his own clients. Watching a Portland Pirates hockey game one night at the Cumberland County Civic Center, he hatched the idea of becoming a sports agent.
He looked down on the ice at former Pirate Jason Christie, a small, popular forward. He thought he could do something to promote players like that, maybe not for millions of marketing dollars, but certainly on a lower level.
"It was creative; it was entrepreneurial," he said. "That got me thinking."
So he left Preti Flaherty and began Carlisle Sports Management in 1997.
"Peter was a very good lawyer," said Harold Pachios, a senior partner at Preti Flaherty. "He's smart and he can figure things out. A good lawyer is a problem solver. And when you're dealing with problems, to be successful, you have to look at the whole picture and decide what's the most efficient and effective way to resolve the problem. Peter was very good at that.
"But he had his heart set on being a sports agent. And when he left, I remember thinking to myself, 'How does a guy just decide he wants to be a sports agent when he has no clients and he's not well known among professional athletes?' "
MASTERING THE MARKET
Carlisle became successful because he didn't target athletes in mainstream sports. He looked at the growing popularity of action sports, such as snowboarding, and saw opportunity.
"He was a visionary," said his brother Jeff. "He saw something in snowboarding that no one else at the time saw and he went after it."
His first client was Ryan Mullen, an alpine snowboarder who is now an FBI agent. Carlisle's goal was simple: market Mullen and earn him enough money so that he didn't have to take a second job. That's still his goal for most of his clients, who rely on marketing and sponsorship dollars for much of their income.
"What drew me to this was this great need," Carlisle said. "Most of these world-class athletes that everyone thinks are funded and able to make money ... not only are they totally underfunded, but they have to compete at a disadvantage to athletes on other national teams because they have to work second jobs.
"My objective was to raise enough sponsorship money to enable them to focus, without distraction, on their sport."
Unlike high-profile agents such as Scott Boras, Arn Tellum or Tom Condon -- who negotiate multimillion-dollar contracts for their clients with professional teams -- Carlisle's job is to negotiate marketing and sponsorship strategies for his clients. While he negotiates industry deals for his clients -- skiers, for example, will have sponsors for their poles, goggles, skis and helmets -- he tries to move beyond the sport and create a demand for his athletes.
"For us, it's all marketing, it's all sponsorship, it's all PR," Carlisle said.
Wescott's partnership with Visa is a perfect example. Carlisle had negotiated a deal with Visa to sponsor Phelps before the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. During the opening ceremonies, he was invited to sit next to the Visa executive who handled Olympic athletes. Speaking about the success of Phelps' ad campaign, Carlisle said, "I've got your next big thing."
He was talking about snowboardcross, making its Olympic debut in 2006, and its appeal to a younger generation. "I just told him that I had the guy who would be perfect for them," said Carlisle, and soon afterward Wescott had Visa as his major sponsor.
From very early on, Carlisle displayed the ability to master the market.
"He's very intuitive," said Drew Johnson, the director of communications for Octagon's Olympic and Action Sports division. "His creativity and ability to see things unfold before they transpire is really remarkable."
Carlisle said selling his clients often depends on the sport they compete in. Some need to be sold, others don't. The sponsors are looking for compelling stories.
Entering Sochi, for example, Carlisle talked about halfpipe snowboarder Kelly Clark, ski jumper Lindsey Van and nordic skier Kikkan Randall.
Clark, who won the first U.S. snowboarding gold medal in Olympic history in 2002 and then a bronze in 2010, is well-known. But he still has to sell her to corporate sponsors. "We have to educate them as to what her significance is," he said. "She is arguably the most dominant female athlete in her sport that you will find."
Women's ski jumping is making its Olympic debut, so Carlisle figures NBC might feature it more. And Van, who won the sport's first gold medal in the 2009 World Championships, should be in the spotlight. And then there's Randall, who competes in a sport that gets little or no coverage. Carlisle believes she could win a gold medal for the United States in a sport dominated by European nations.
"It's something that could be celebrated among a certain demographic," Carlisle said. "And the mainstream media might take an interest."
'HE'S ONE OF MY BEST FRIENDS'
Carlisle's breakthrough came when he signed Powers, who was returning with the U.S. Team from the Nagano Olympics in 1998. Powers had won a bronze medal in the halfpipe and was considered a prodigy. Carlisle met him in Las Vegas at a sports trade show. IMG, one of the biggest agencies in the world, was courting Powers.
The two were introduced by Mullen. "I liked him," said Powers. "He was the closest one to me, which helped, but I just really liked him and signed with him. From there, it's turned more into a friendship than a client-agent relationship. He's one of my best friends."
Carlisle helped secure Powers some sponsorships. Powers in turn introduced Carlisle to other snowboarders, such as Wescott, who signed with Carlisle in 1998.
In Carlisle, Wescott saw someone he trusted to secure him financial stability as well as someone he could bond with. "He's much more than a business associate with me," Wescott said. "He's been a mentor to me throughout life. I know it's like that with Ross, too."
Through Carlisle's guidance, Powers established the Ross Powers Foundation, which provided funding for athletes in financial need in Vermont. A couple of years later, Wescott, Phelps and others joined the foundation, which was renamed the Level Field Fund and provides financial aid to athletes in a variety of sports.
"By bringing in more athletes, we are able to help more athletes in return," Powers said.
And, said Wescott, that's what is most important.
"It's a way Peter is able to teach Ross, Michael and myself life lessons," Wescott said. "At the end of the day, it isn't about winning gold medals. It's about giving back and helping the next generation. Peter is shepherding us all down a good path in life."
And providing financial security at the same time. Wescott has endorsed companies with a national scope (Visa, Sprint and Procter & Gamble), yet has also lent his name to Maine-based companies such as L.L. Bean and Norway Savings Bank.
Carlisle's stable grew to include other sports. He signed Ian Crocker of Portland, one of the best swimmers in the world at the time.
Carlisle's star was rising, and other people took notice.
He was named one of the Best Lawyers in America (Sports Law) six years in a row. He is one of only two agents to win the Sports Business Journal "Forty-under-40" award three times. He was named to the Sporting News Power 100.
Last fall, he was selected to participate in the Executive-In-Residence program at the Mark McCormack Department of Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The program was designed to honor executives who are innovative and cites his "global marketing of Olympic athletes" as an example.
Carlisle, said Lisa Masteralexis, the sports management department head, "built an industry around (his clients). The entrepreneurial relationship, and his innovation, is what we honored."
For four days Carlisle met with UMass students and listened to their questions.
"I don't think they expected how open he was," Masteralexis said. "He wasn't on his phone, he listened to them, he gave them advice and tried to mentor them as best he could. It was very refreshing for our students."
Carlisle is unlike many other agents in many aspects. While agents actively recruit clients in mainstream sports, Carlisle tends to be a little more selective. Of perhaps 100 new potential clients each year, Octagon signs maybe three in his division.
Also, Carlisle does not receive a commission from his clients. Agents typically receive a 15 percent to 20 percent commission in the Olympic/action sports industry, which in this case is received by the company. While big-name agents such as Tellum and Boras receive multimillion-dollar commissions from their top clients, Carlisle receives an undisclosed salary from Octagon, which was ranked second in a recent Forbes poll among sports agencies with "$2 billion in managed contracts and $80.8 million in commissions."
Carlisle also doesn't seek publicity and, in fact, generously shares his success. His division is recognized as an industry leader, he said, because of the team that's assembled there. In addition to his personal clients, his division also represents Olympic gold medal winners such as swimmer Natalie Coughlin and snowboarder Hannah Teter as well as surfer Alana Blanchard and skateboarder Mitchie Brusco -- two of the most dynamic and successful athletes in their sports.
"Every athlete we represent is represented by all of us," he said.
THE PHELPS CONNECTION
In 2001, Octagon, a leading sports agency based in Reston, Va., bought Carlisle Sports Management.
That gave Carlisle more resources and opened more markets for him. And it introduced him to Michael Phelps.
When Phelps decided to turn pro in 2001, he and his cadre of lawyers met and interviewed prospective agents. At the time, Carlisle was busy with his winter athletes in the Salt Lake City Olympics. When contacted by Phelps' representatives, Carlisle told them he couldn't just drop his winter clients to fly across the country to meet them. They would have to meet later. Carlisle thought he had no chance.
"They had talked to other agencies," he said. "And once that happens, an athlete wants to make a decision, to get on with it."
Instead, Phelps waited and the two eventually met in a lawyer's office.
Early on, as others spoke about Phelps' earning potential, Carlisle looked at Phelps and asked him a simple question -- and clinched the deal.
"I had the opportunity to sit with a number of different agents, to see what they had to say, to read their body language," Phelps said in a phone interview. "The thing that separated Peter from all of them is the first thing he said to me -- 'What can I do for you?' I didn't need to hear anyone else or see anyone else after that.
"It made me feel relaxed. And it took me a little by surprise too because no one else had took the time to ask it. He has since worked with me to achieve my goals: to help swimming and take it to the next level."
The two put together a 10-year plan to elevate swimming. Winning a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing gave Phelps a platform like no other athlete has ever had. And Carlisle has managed his career, providing him marketing opportunities to promote the sport.
Along the way, Phelps said, Carlisle "became more than just an agent to me. He's a friend, a part of the family. He's been there for me through a lot of hard times, picking me up and guiding me."
The hardest time came after the Beijing Games, when a British newspaper published a photo of Phelps smoking a marijuana pipe.
Carlisle counseled Phelps to stand up, don't lie and admit he made a mistake. He told him to call his sponsors and apologize, then to address the media.
In the end, only Kellogg's dropped Phelps. Others, including Visa, Subway, Speedo, Omega, Under Armor, AT&T and Procter & Gamble, retained their business relationships. In fact, that was one of the reasons Sports Illustrated included Carlisle on its list of top agents, noting, "Others listened to Carlisle and stood by Phelps." Phelps now earns about $7 million a year in endorsements.
"My life hasn't been perfect," Phelps said. "I've made a lot of mistakes. But he's been there with me, he's stayed with me. He's picked me up off the ground."
ON STAYING IN MAINE
When Octagon bought Carlisle Sports Management, Carlisle insisted his operation remain in Maine.
He had other suitors, none of whom were willing to agree to that. And Octagon walked away from the negotiations once over that point, only to return six months later.
The company wanted what Carlisle had -- not just his clients, but his experience in Olympic sports -- but he wasn't going to budge. "It's home," he said. "I'm not going anywhere."
He did leave the charm of the Old Port for Saco and the MHG Ice Centre, home to the Portland Junior Pirates and a whole lot more. The Orthopedic Sports Center offers physical therapy and performance centers. The Parisi Speed School is there. The Michael Phelps Skill Center, a new addition for swimming training, is located there.
"For elite athletes, this is totally in line with what we do," Carlisle said.
Carlisle also travels less these days. His children -- 12-year-old Aiden, Kenny, 9, and Meron, 5 -- are getting older and he wants to spend time with them and his wife, Justine. He doesn't see the need to be at every competition on every weekend and his clients respect that.
He keeps active by playing tennis and ice hockey. When he's at his home base, he skates at least twice a week, early morning, in a non-checking hour of fun. He recently got back into hockey when he introduced Aiden to the sport and helps coach his son's team.
"Once I got back on the ice, I realized how much I missed it," he said.
Pachios, at Preti Flaherty, called Carlisle a success story on many levels.
"He's brought a lot of people up here to work who want to be in the sports agency business," Pachios said. "So besides everything else, Peter is good for the local economy and a good example of how a Maine person can start a small business in Maine and then grow it so it becomes a significant Maine business."
There are people who think he's based in Portland, Ore. There are prospective clients, he said, that he knows he won't get as soon as he says he's based in Maine.
He's willing to risk losing a client or two to stay where his heart is.
"People expect him to be in New York or L.A.," said Octagon's Johnson. "But he's a Mainer through and through. That's at the core of who he is."
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:
Peter Carlisle talks about his career as a sports agent in his office at the MHG Ice Centre in Saco earlier this summer. He said when he started his own agency in 1997, he considered the growing popularity of action sports, such as snowboarding, and saw opportunity. “He was a visionary,” says his brother, Jeff Carlisle.