SBD/Issue 52/Sports Industrialists

THE DAILY Goes One-on-One With Octagon’s Phil De Picciotto

Octagon President Of Athletes &
Personalities Phil de Picciotto
As Octagon President of Athletes & Personalities, PHIL DE PICCIOTTO has over 25 years’ experience in sports and entertainment marketing, overseeing the careers of such sports luminaries as JOHN ELWAY, MIA HAMM, ANNA KOURNIKOVA and DAVID ROBINSON. His management expertise has been recognized by The Sporting News, which listed him among the “Top 100 Most Powerful People in Sports,” and Advertising Age, which named him one of the world’s leading marketing professionals. De Picciotto spoke recently with SportsBusiness Journal New York bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh.

Favorite vacation spot: Southern Africa.
Favorite piece of music: Pachelbel’s Canon.
Favorite author: CARL SAGAN.
Favorite book: “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Favorite quote: From JEFF BEZOS of “You have to be both stubborn and flexible, more or less simultaneously. Of course, the hard part is figuring out when to be which.”
Favorite sporting event: March Madness and the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry.
Favorite movie: “Field of Dreams.”
Last books read: “Fishing on the Edge,” by MIKE IACONELLI, and “Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences,” by JOHN ALLEN PAULOS.
Best career decision: Recognizing that one can only do good business on a sustained basis with good people.
Biggest challenge: Sustaining the careers of top athletes. The pressures and the level of commitment required now by a top athlete to stay at the top of the game are intense, and careers, in most cases, are shortening. Yet the value of an athlete’s brand typically increases as an athlete competes at a high level for a longer period of time. So, longevity of athletes is good for everyone: for the fans, the teams and certainly for the athletes.

Q: How did you get started in sports business?

De Picciotto: I did an internship at the law firm of Dell, Craighill, Fentress & Benton in the summer of 1979 as an unpaid associate. That led to other projects, and I ended up remaining in the industry since then.

Q: How does it work with a new Octagon client? Do you make the initial approach, does the athlete solicit you, or is it a combination?

De Picciotto: Every situation is different. Very often we have been introduced to an athlete when he or she is very young, or we will know someone who is already associated with the athlete: a coach, a parent or someone else in his or her business circles. On occasion, we ask for a meeting; on generally the same number of occasions, we are approached by the athlete or by someone in the circle of the athlete.

Q: What do you look for in a client?

De Picciotto: Our philosophy is long term. We take a holistic approach to the marketplace. An athlete who wants to be involved and who is willing to work with us on a true partnership basis will allow us to produce the best results.

Q: Do you try to match a personality with a specific brand or company?

De Picciotto: As each athlete is an individual -- and that has to be remembered first and foremost -- we tailor a branding approach individually for each athlete we represent.

Q: On creating relationships between the media and the players, you said, “The problem is, specifically, the limitation of access. When you limit access, when you tell the media that they can’t do something ... you’re creating exactly the problem that you don’t want to have.” How do you strike a balance, especially now, with so many more media outlets, individuals and organizations, seeking access?

De Picciotto: There is an intersection in the needs of the legitimate media and the needs and responsibilities of today’s athlete. The differences are usually emphasized over the commonalities. In every sport and with every athlete situation, having the right media involved can only be a benefit. The biggest issue is in separating the really professional journalists who should have exceptional access from the one-off sensational type of writers who really cloud the overall mentality of the athletes and prevent them from forging relationships with legitimate writers.

Q: It must be getting harder, with so many freelancers and bloggers, to manage that.

De Picciotto: There was a time, both because of the approach taken by the media and because there were simply fewer media outlets and writers, that the media could be controlled. That situation goes well beyond sports. If you look, for example, at how a BABE RUTH or how a FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT was portrayed by the media, there were substantial aspects of their lives and situations which went largely or even completely unreported. With the proliferation of numbers, with everyone looking for content, there seems always to be someone who will write virtually anything. And if there isn’t anything to write, it will very often be fabricated.

Q: You also said, “It is important for us to educate our clients as far as responsibility to the press.” How do you deal with irresponsible behavior, on both sides?

De Picciotto: A dialogue tends to bring people closer together. So, very often we will act as the glue, as the intermediary, to talk through -- and hopefully eliminate -- misunderstandings and to bring people to a common ground. In fact, a central role of anyone acting in a representative capacity is to do just that: to find ways as an intermediary to bring seemingly disparate parties together toward a common goal.

Q: Does the media coverage affect the perception of sports and today’s athletes?

De Picciotto: Absolutely. The media is the filter through which most athletes are seen by the public. The on-field exploits are viewable, of course, directly, without any intermediary. But in this day and age, with people being so busy and living more in a world of sound bytes than in long engagements, very often people’s only contact, even with what goes on on the field, is through an edited version after the fact.

De Picciotto Believes Fans Reach
Out To Charismatic Athletes

Q: You have said that athletes are not allowed to show their personalities on the field. Do the leagues, or do the rules of a sport, legislate against self-expression?

De Picciotto: The relationship between an athlete and his or her fans can become very personal and is certainly very individualistic. An athlete, and the sport itself, becomes more interesting the more different the characters are. That’s the basis for creating fan passions, rivalries and allegiances. So, when leagues and teams and governing bodies want to promote an awareness through their top players, but at the same time regulate closely their behavior on the field, there’s a bit of a disconnect. And to really make the fan connections, maybe the market should be allowed to decide more than it is now [allowed] in a highly regulated behavioral environment.

Q: RICK REILLY said that when he talked to his teenage sons about some athletes’ individual “expressions,” they told him, “Dad, lighten up. It’s funny.”

De Picciotto: That’s a perfect example of the market being self-regulated. We are all concerned about the effect of sports and other forms of entertainment on children. Children certainly should not be exposed to behavior that is extremely anti-social, that involves violence or other extreme lack of common sense. However, the sparring back and forth, the trash talking and such things, have, for better or worse, become such a way of life on the playgrounds and on the playing fields, that kids who have experienced it themselves can put it in the right place when they see it through the broadcast of professional sports as well.

Q: Do professional athletes with multimillion-dollar salaries need incentive clauses?

De Picciotto: The word “incentive” may be a little bit misplaced. It’s not that athletes will perform better with the knowledge that they will be paid more. At the time of performance, a top athlete is concentrating only on the performance itself and not on any of the ancillary consequences. But incentive clauses in contracts do tend to minimize risk and reward specific performance. When those incentive clauses don’t exist, the parties to an agreement are trying to predetermine value. And the flexibility in compensation based on performance tends to come closer to a system of compensation for actual performance rather than predicted performance.

Q: What in sports would you not miss if it were eliminated?

De Picciotto: The proliferation in the number of games and the overlap in seasons run the risk for all professional sports of oversaturation. Counterbalanced against that is the fact that audiences are becoming more and more niche, and fans now have the opportunity to follow whatever sport they like throughout a very large portion of the year. So, I would not miss seasons being a bit shortened, where there are more consequential games. Less is more.

Q: That would give the stage to the championship events. There would be less competition for attention.

De Picciotto: It would. As professional sports has matured as an industry, it has become more dependent on money and finance than ever before. The playing field is not really equal, even among teams in a given league. Some sports handle those wealth disparities better than others. But the romanticized notion of everyone being able to compete on an equal footing is nowhere near as applicable as it used to be.

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