"Most of 'em looked like they were headed off to some disco party," said Evan Morgenstein, an agent for 13 current Olympians. "But notMichael Phelps. He comes in wearing a blazer, looking fresh. He went right to the corporate heads, greeted them. He was there to do business."
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Phelps' potential appears limited only by his own desires. His agent estimated he could earn $100 million from endorsements, sponsorships and appearances over his lifetime. But Phelps must maintain his recent maturity, avoid pitfalls he's been prone to in the past and make the difficult transition from elite athlete to someone new. And he must do it quickly, while the memory of his tremendous Olympic success remains fresh.
Phelps' moments of glory in the pool came intermittently and in short bursts, but the 27-year-old's plan always has stretched years and years ahead. While the world may wonder what he'll do next, Phelps, his agent, Peter Carlisle, and coach, Bob Bowman, say they haven't had to ponder the question.
"With Michael, it was always a 10-year plan," said Carlisle, who began representing Phelps in 2002. "And, frankly, everything was based on performance in the pool, which it has to be. But that was going to give us the ability to do things out of the pool that we wanted to, and to set up the things Michael wanted to do after swimming. So it was 10 years to set up all the rest of his years."
Phelps will learn to golf as the next student on the Golf Channel's "The Haney Project" with Tiger Woods' former coach Hank Haney in a deal announced Saturday.
He also plans to put swimming before business, continuing to try to build the sport of swimming through his foundation, the Michael Phelps Swim School programs and partnerships with the Special Olympics and Boys and Girls Clubs of America. That has been a goal since he first met with Carlisle — when Phelps was just 16.
"We're going to continue being heavily involved in getting people in the sport of swimming and making it more visible," Bowman said. "That really starts with the foundation, and everything is related to that."
Of course, the foundation needs funding.
Phelps already has made about $40 million, according to various reports. Many of Phelps' endorsement deals — Carlisle calls them partnerships — already run through 2016, when the Summer Olympics arrive in Rio de Janeiro. Without the burden of taking part, he'll be free to make media and promotional appearances, connecting in a more direct and personal way with potential consumers.
This year, Phelps is earning between $5 million and $10 million from endorsements, according to most estimates. But tennis star Roger Federer makes an estimated $45 million from appearances and endorsements each year, according to Forbes, and track star Usain Bolt brings in $20 million. The differences reflect the relative global popularity of each sport.
"He's proven himself over time and is a huge name," said Eric Wright, a sports marketing analyst from Ann Arbor, Mich. "Does that really indicate the future? No. He's going to have to continue working if he wants to accomplish the things he has talked about."
Out of the pool
In the past, Phelps has seemed aloof and uncomfortable in some public settings. His evolution into a public figure started as he swam what he swears will the be the last competitive laps of his career, Carlisle said from London this week.
In the run-up to the London Games, there were questions about his dedication. After he finished fourth in his first final one day into the Olympics, pundits openly wondered whether he was washed up, eclipsed by rival Ryan Lochte's rising star.
Then he started winning again and, for the third Games in a row, emerged as one of the most stirring competitors in the world.
He also appeared more sentimental and reflective. That's new.
"I've been with him for so many television interviews, sitting in a room nearby, listening to him get asked the same questions," Carlisle said. "But this time, there was a real difference. I could not wait to hear what he had to say. He was really able to open up and show more than he ever has."