SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2005/Forty Under 40

Peter Carlisle



Amid the frenetic summer of 2004, in which swimmer Michael Phelps would qualify for and then dominate the Athens Olympic Games, there was a guy in the Phelps entourage accessorized with a backpack over his shoulder, wraparound shades and shorts, and often wearing a mild smirk rather than a nervous scowl.

Peter Carlisle
• Age: 36
• Title: Director, Olympics and action sports
• Company: Octagon
• Education: B.A., Bates College, 1991; J.D., University of Maine School of Law, 1994
• Family: Wife, Justine; sons Aidan, 3, and Kenneth, 1
• Career: Practiced business law with a traditional law firm, 1994-1997; independent sports agent, 1997-2001; moved to Octagon in 2001 by acquisition
• Last vacation: Miami
• Last book read: "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!" by Mo Willems
• Last movie seen: "Sideways"
• Greatest disappointment: In 2004, Balco
• Fantasy job: Anonymous travel critic responsible for distinguishing between four- and five-star golf and tennis resorts
• Executive most admired: Visa's Michael Lynch. Even at the highest level of sports, you can rely on a handshake.
• Business advice: Value your team, don't sell out for short-term results, put personal integrity first and make your kids proud of the way you do your work.
Was he an obscure member of the American swim team? A Zen master, dietitian or physical trainer? Try none of the above. It was in fact Octagon’s Peter Carlisle, Phelps’ lead agent and the firm’s director of Olympics and action sports.

Although at 36 Carlisle insists he has “aged considerably” since his first time as a Forty Under 40 honoree, in 2002, the effect so far seems mostly to the upside. Sometimes a little older means a little bolder. The former corporate lawyer believed in the late 1990s that a burgeoning generation of radical U.S. winter athletes, namely snowboarders, was on the verge of fame — and the income to go with it.

That theory was reality by 2002, when Octagon athletes Kelly Clark and Ross Powers won gold. And Carlisle was well past any doubts heading into 2003 that his then-18-year-old swimming client, Phelps, was destined for historic heights.

“Coming off a history-making performance by Phelps [five world records] at the 2003 Barcelona World Championships, Peter had the foresight to propose a contract extension through 2009,” said marketing vice president Craig Brommers of swimwear maker Speedo.

The most famous element of that deal was the well-documented $1 million bonus for seven golds. It generated buzz — a “bonus” for six other sponsors that include Omega watches and Visa (through 2008) — and linked Phelps to an undisputed Olympic legend, Mark Spitz. But there was risk. Would Phelps reel from financial and media pressure with expectations so high?

“We knew there might be some backlash,” Carlisle said. “[But] it was one of the things Michael did that made people view swimming differently.”

Carlisle said he never believed his client was under pressure to earn the million bucks. He had negotiated a basket of endorsement deals, some into six figures annually, with commitments in place beyond ’04.

“He had no monetary pressure on him,” Carlisle said of Phelps, who ultimately won six gold and a record eight medals overall. “Don’t think he wasn’t incentivized to win five [gold], four, three, two or one. He had no financial pressure.”

Phelps appeared on 13 magazine covers and was featured in six nationally televised ad campaigns, and “we did all of that without materially affecting his training,” said Carlisle, who’d been warned that even one poor practice session would hurt Phelps’ chances at the Games.

Carlisle’s approach represents “the epitome of modern representation for an elite athlete,” said Phil de Picciotto, Octagon’s president of athletes and personalities. “Peter is very well-equipped to handle the panoply of services required today. He is very competent and highly collaborative.”

Steve Woodward is a writer in Illinois.

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