All three have found gold, but they measure it in different ways. Dixon made a guaranteed $1 million in his rookie season playing basketball with the Washington Wizards in the National Basketball Association; Anthony will earn $2.7 million in his rookie year with the NBA's Denver Nuggets; Phelps just took away three gold medals from the world swimming championships in Barcelona, Spain.
The value of the performance-based contract will depend on what Phelps does at next year's Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. To make it to seven figures, Phelps will have to come close to the performance of swimmer Mark Spitz in the 1972 Olympics and win seven gold medals.
But if he does that, Phelps will be able to earn much more than the relative chump change usually available to a big-time American swimmer. The winner of today's PGA golf championship will earn $1.1 million for four days of work. Golf clubs and basketball sneakers represent a substantial portion of the $49 billion spent annually on sporting goods. Speedo trunks don't, but Phelps has singular accomplishments and a gargantuan goal that should keep him in the public eye.
"People don't bike through the Pyrenees, yet Lance Armstrong has become an American corporate hero, making anywhere from $3 million to $6 million a year in a sport that occurs once a year in a foreign country," said Rick Horrow, a visiting expert on sports law at the Harvard Law School. "Corporations recognize that athletes do move products. In an era of Kobe Bryant and Ray Lewis, corporate America yearns for a fresh, clean face from an uncluttered sport."
"There should be less marketing opportunity for athletes who aren't in the big four or five sports, but on the other hand, there are unprecedented opportunities for athletes who transcend a sport, to break out of the pack and emerge as an ideal corporate spokesperson," Horrow said.
A few minutes after Horrow spoke Wednesday, Phelps and his agent, Peter Carlisle, were hailing a cab in Manhattan after two days of deal-making and an appearance on NBC, the network televising the 2004 Olympics.
Carlisle has complete confidence in Phelps. "Any other partnerships we would have created before Barcelona would have been asinine," Carlisle said.
He is the director of Olympic and action sports for Octagon, a sports marketing firm. Its clients include basketball star David Robinson, Ravens coach Brian Billick and Anna Kournikova, a Russian tennis player whose looks have made her rich and famous though she has never won a professional tournament.
That honor goes to Ian Thorpe, a photogenic 20-year- old from Australia who has attended movie premieres with Tom Cruise and fashion shows with Giorgio Armani. Phelps hangs out at a greasy spoon on Greenmount Avenue. Thorpe once moved his training base to Monaco. Phelps still lives in Rodgers Forge with his mother.
"We've known about Michael for a long time, but Barcelona served as his international coming-out party," said Stu Isaac, the Speedo executive whose offer of an endorsement contract in 2001 led Phelps to go professional and renounce his collegiate eligibility. "He has been able to break out of a normal high school existence. The story will continue to be, here's an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary talent."
A stirring of interest in Phelps exists beyond the swimming world. He will be among the handful of athletes featured by VISA in its marketing connected with the Athens games. With no other comparable American stars on the horizon, other deals should come.
Swimming and its stopwatch partner, track and field, are typically allowed out of the American entertainment closet once every four years, and then only for two weeks each - at the U.S. trials, where the Olympic team is selected, and then at the games.
It's the second-most popular recreational activity in America, after exercise walking, but swimming doesn't even make the nation's top 20 spectator sports, a list that includes bowling and equestrian.