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.
The growth has been viral. Fleischer spoke to NFL coaches at their annual meeting in April 2008. That helped spawn meetings with seven NFL teams before the 2008 season.
The NFL mandates that all 32 teams conduct media training sessions each season. Representatives from three NFL teams said the key to bringing in an outsider is finding someone who can keep the interest of the players.
Introducing his players to Fleischer for their media training session, New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton brought a bow-and-arrow set, indicating that the players are all targets. He said Fleischer was once the target every day -- an example that resonated with the players.
Fleischer said that even if players did not know of him specifically, they knew his role. Questions ranged from the serious, such as conflict in Afghanistan, to the surreal, such as whether aliens exist in Area 51. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers personally sought advice from Fleischer. Saints running back Reggie Bush asked Fleischer his opinion of President Obama.
"I'm a Bush guy!" Fleischer told the running back.
Fleischer's most notable NFL consulting came with the Packers, who signed Fleischer in May 2008 to meet with the team three months later. The franchise commanded national attention when quarterback Brett Favre vacillated about his possible return. The Packers retained Fleischer throughout August to help navigate the scrutiny, although a team official emphasized Fleischer was not specifically brought on because of Favre, as some reports indicated.
"If you're on the receiving end of a crisis -- whether it's an anthrax attack, September 11th, whatever the case may be at the White House -- you feel besieged, you feel under tremendous time pressure, and you think through, 'How can I explain this and get my point across given all this pressure?' " Fleischer said. "If you're the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre is announcing he's getting on the plane and coming back to Green Bay, you feel besieged, you feel under pressure, you feel like your whole world is about to come down on you. Even though the substance may be different, the things you go through are the same."
Fleischer is currently advising the USOC as it searches for a new chief communications officer. He is helping with the search -- although not conducting the search -- and implementing strategy during a period that includes preparing for the 2010 and 2012 Olympics, Chicago's bid for the 2016 Games and the controversial launch of a new television network.
Fleischer said his friends from politics look at his new job longingly. When athletes visited the White House, their eyes widened -- the one chance for the gawked to be the gawkers.
"In politics, sports is fascinating," Fleischer said. "In sports, some levels of politics can be fascinating."
Being in the White House -- and Washington -- left Fleischer living an insular existence. Sports became a welcome distraction from the issues of the day. It had been that way since Fleischer arrived in Washington in January 1983 to start his political career, two weeks before the Redskins beat the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl. Fleischer, a Dolphins fan, could not drive up Pennsylvania Avenue the night the Redskins won because of the fans celebrating in the street -- forever cementing his disdain.
He has remained an ardent supporter of the Dolphins and New York Yankees, even checking into the hotel for his honeymoon under the name of former Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams for security reasons. Leaving Washington kept Fleischer from raising his children Redskins fans.
Fleischer now relishes the opportunity to open the newspaper to the sports section before reading the front page. He looks out the windows of his Bedford office and thinks about the tranquillity of working minutes from his childhood home, where he can wear a golf shirt and khakis and the gaggle of reporters are relegated to a photo on the wall and not cramped within his office.
"I love politics, I loved my job, but it's a burnout job," Fleischer said. "But to replace the passion is sports. And it really is fun to wake up and say, 'Here's the biggest issue in sports, can I help?' "