|Kelly Wolf ’82, shown here in her Octagon office, will be speaking at a luncheon in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 14 that highlights Dickinson alumnae in leadership positions. While being in a male-dominated industry is largely a nonissue for her, she runs into the occasional obstacle. Photo by Lisa Helfert.
The 15th floor of a corporate building in McLean, Va., home of the modern, circular offices of Octagon sports agency, buzzes with urgency. Telephones and that pesky “You’ve got mail” alert are never silent. In the center of that vortex is Kelly Wolf ’82, juggling everything from challenging athletes and their parents to damaged, decrepit or disappeared equipment, from booking flights, hotels and dinner reservations to maneuvering million-dollar clothing deals.
With its dramatic floor-to-ceiling glass photography installations and hundreds of framed Sports Illustrated covers depicting the agency’s star clients (including Olympian Michael Phelps), the Octagon office is a powerful setting where BlackBerry-brandishing agents make bold moves behind the scenes. As director of client-management services for the tennis division, Wolf focuses on eight professional racket-wielders, but as a senior member of the team, she’s managing much more.
“This is a 24/7, 365-day business,” Wolf states. “It’s not a slogan we promote, but it’s a fact.”
Wolf almost didn’t apply for the position at Octagon in 1986. But with no other job prospects, she answered the ad in The Washington Post for an “administrative assistant, sports marketing,” and 23 years later, she’s worked her way to the top.
With a degree in international studies and history and no prior tennis-playing experience, it took years of learning from her mistakes, training interns and junior staff members, traveling the world 15 weeks a year, attending matches and tournaments at all levels and following athletes from signing to retirement for Wolf to become the authority she is today.
“If I’d been given a choice, I would have chosen football,” Wolf says, “but the open position was for tennis, so I just went with it. Now it’s second nature.”
As her eyes flicker every so often toward the blinking, buzzing cherry-red BlackBerry on the table, it’s clear that remaining in constant contact has become second nature as well.
“When I started at Octagon, there were no computers, no voice mail, no fax machines,” she says. “There was a receptionist who would hand me a stack of phone messages on paper. The age of immediate communication has really changed sports and how sports are watched and reported. There’s voice mail, cell phone, BlackBerry, Skype and now bloody tweeting!
“I admit, it does make life easier,” she adds. “When I’m gone all day at a tournament and can’t keep tabs, I’ll come back to 125 to 200 e-mails.”
Wolf deals daily with every imaginable crisis in the world of professional tennis. Take July 27, for example. One client, Robby Ginepri, won the previous day’s Indianapolis Tennis Championships, so Wolf “had to get him on a plane to L.A. right away. Today I’m dealing with all of the people who want to congratulate him or sponsor him.”
One of her more difficult clients is having problems with his tennis rackets, and Wolf is tasked not only with replacing them but with answering his constant, pestering e-mails on the subject.
Wolf also was planning for the U.S. Open, which included trying to get retired player Todd Martin a gig as an ESPN broadcaster during the tournament. Another retired client resurfacing is Michael Chang, who was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame last year and will be playing in a senior tournament. Wolf is juggling his numerous interview requests.
“A colleague in Europe is about to head into a meeting with Lacoste clothing about renewing endorsements and pitching new players,” Wolf says with clear annoyance, scanning her inbox for the latest, “and he e-mails us two hours beforehand to see if we need anything. Of course we do! We need clothing and shoe deals for Devin—this is what we do!”
Devin Britton, the latest addition to Wolf’s roster, is considered the next great American male tennis player. He is the youngest player ever to win an NCAA singles championship, and he signed with Octagon during Wimbledon.
“He’s a terrific player and a great kid,” she says. “I got to know his mom really well when we started chatting in London.”
According to Wolf, the personal touch is one of the main differences between Octagon and its two biggest competitors, IMG and Best.
“The way we approach things across the board is a total reflection of who we are—the Octagon family,” she says. “It’s a trite phrase and I hate to say it, but it does ring true. What keeps me going are the players and their families. We do the best job humanly possible for them and develop real emotional attachments.”
Wolf is fully committed to her clients, deftly stepping into multiple roles.
“I’m a drill sergeant, advisor, friend, mom,” she says. “I really need a degree in psychology, because it’s all about giving the right advice at the right time and knowing how to push the right buttons to get them what they need.”
For more about Octagon, visit www.octagonna.com.