Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer Answers His Sports Calling With His Communications Firm

Ari Fleischer, ardent New York Yankees fan, was White House press secretary for the Bush administration from 2001 to '03.
Ari Fleischer, ardent New York Yankees fan, was White House press secretary for the Bush administration from 2001 to '03. (Courtesy of Fleischer Communications)
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By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

BEDFORD, N.Y. -- Ari Fleischer still hangs photos on his office walls from his life in Washington, when the gaggle of reporters swarmed him for White House reaction to stories that appeared on the front page of the newspaper. When Fleischer served as press secretary under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003, he kept photos of Bedford -- a quaint suburban town where he grew up and now has a new life, this one devoted to the sports page.

Fleischer is the chief executive and principal employee of Ari Fleischer Sports Communications, a firm devoted to training and consulting athletes and organizations on how to deal with the media. He has worked with the NFL, Major League Baseball, the WTA Tour, Penske Racing and the U.S. Olympic Committee, among other entities.

From the outside, the move appears as far away from politics as a former White House official could embark. Yet Fleischer, a devoted sports fan who plays in a 40-and-over baseball league, is convinced there is a connection.

"The points I make to athletes is the only two institutions in our society that have their events covered live and that have sections of the newspaper dedicated to themselves are America's premier sports leagues and the White House," Fleischer said. "The president, every speech is covered live. I used to stand on that podium twice a day. NFL head coaches, college coaches, many players -- NBA, MLB, NHL, Olympics -- intense scrutiny. Coverage for CEOs comes and goes. Coverage for senators, congressmen, comes and goes. Even some governors, it comes and goes. The two institutions are the White House and the premier sports leagues. That was the connection I saw."

The connection started toward the end of Fleischer's tenure as press secretary. He received a cold call from Sandy Montag, senior vice president of IMG sports and entertainment. A self-described C-SPAN junkie, Montag noticed Fleischer's propensity for using sports metaphors in his media briefings.

Montag's call made Fleischer reflect on a White House visit by major league baseball rookies in 2002. They came for a presentation from Fleischer on dealing with the media. Fleischer initially held trepidations about how to connect with the rookies, wondering whether a career political worker could connect to athletes half his age.

He spotted an outfielder in the group and asked what he does when the ball is hit to him. The outfielder instinctively rattled off his job in various scenarios -- knowledge accumulated through rigorous repetition.

"So why, when you get off the field and you get to the clubhouse, would you ever let a reporter with a pencil beat you in his or her own game?" Fleischer asked. "Why would you say something foolish to a reporter that you will forever regret?"

From that moment, Fleischer had the rookies' attention. He never stopped to register what had just happened -- Fleischer said work at the White House moves too fast -- but he became intrigued about the possibility after speaking with Montag. After taking some time to decompress from the pressures of his White House job, he started offering his services as a corporate consultant.

Fleischer's first client was Major League Baseball, starting the day after the March 2005 congressional steroid hearings. In 2008, Fleischer partnered with IMG to formally create a firm that specifically deals with sports -- separate from Ari Fleischer Communications, which consults corporations. The split between sports and non-sports consulting is 50-50, he said.

There are three aspects of Fleischer's job. He offers overall strategic consulting, which are long-term arrangements with organizations such as his four years with Major League Baseball or his current arrangement with the USOC. He conducts media training sessions, which are usually isolated meetings with teams or leagues. And he also works with athletes one-on-one in confidential settings, specifically in situations of crisis.

Typically, someone of Fleischer's experience draws $10,000 for an appearance to $30,000 per month for consulting, based on just how much of his expertise is needed. Montag, who is the chief operations officer, said the company has maintained steady growth since merging with IMG.

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