Swimming for the gold

Sun Staff

HIGH SCHOOLS to the north of Baltimore have produced a Golden Triangle of athletes in the past 17 months - Juan Dixon of Calvert Hall, Carmelo Anthony of Towson Catholic and Michael Phelps of Towson.

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.

That's not to say that Phelps has made no money for his efforts. Long gone are the amateur rules that kept Olympic athletes from getting paid. The 18-year-old received $25,000 in prize money for each of his three victories in Barcelona. And he has a contract with swimsuit maker Speedo that could be worth $1 million over three years.

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.

'Coming-out party'

Phelps is the anti-Anna, all substance and no style. He is coming off what one swim expert called the best non-Olympic season ever, yet he isn't the best-known swimmer in the world.

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.

Athlete and sport profit

But Phelps' performances are being counted on to do more than raise his income level. Isaac and officials at USA Swimming, the sport's national governing body, are hoping interest in Phelps will broaden the appeal of the sport.

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.

Because Third World nations typically do little to support female athletes, the ratio of males to females at the world championships was 2 to 1. That ratio is reversed in the United States, in part because college athletic programs fund more swim scholarships for women than men, saying that's needed to meet Title IX obligations. Swimming officials hope that Phelps will boost the appeal of their sport among athletic boys.

Mia Hamm of the pool?

Phelps certainly seems up for that task. On his first visit to Octagon's offices in McLean, Va., he said that his No. 1 goal wasn't wealth or world titles, but elevating the profile of swimming. Carlisle offered soccer player Mia Hamm, another client of Octagon, as a corollary.

"If we want Michael to influence and attract a whole new generation of swimmers, as Mia Hamm did with soccer," said Carlisle, who has never before represented a swimmer, "then we have to somehow involve companies and categories which previously never considered working with the sport. It takes creativity, and commitment. We're talking long-term deals."

Spitz never swam after the 1972 Olympics as the amateur code of the day labeled him a professional after he was paid to pose by a German magazine. The man who came closest to his feat - Matt Biondi, who won five gold medals in swimming in 1988 - works in obscurity. He taught high school math in Hawaii last year.

Octagon and Speedo shared the expense of hiring a public relations firm to tutor Phelps on public-speaking skills. He has matured from a hyperactive child into a focused young man who was most engaging in Barcelona after his only loss of the year.

His handlers don't want to do too much polishing, because part of Phelps' appeal is that of a typical American teen-ager, albeit one whose bedroom is more like a showroom in an electronics store. As Phelps said after one of his world records, financial rewards are nice because "I get to buy stuff."

Still, despite his eight world records this year, Phelps' base salary won't approach that of a .215-hitting second baseman because Major League Baseball's minimum annual salary is $300,000.

Octagon decided it was best to build locally before it goes globally. Phelps is a partner with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harford County. He will appear today at a local fund-raiser for autism.

'NBC's poster boy'

It's a big jump to being "NBC's poster boy next summer," the role that swim analyst Rowdy Gaines has predicted for Phelps.

The network has paid the International Olympic Committee billions of dollars to be the American broadcaster of the games through 2012. That might seem a bad investment, given the doping and bribery scandals that mark every Olympiad, but the games and their athletes still have an allure.

"The Olympics are good business and much more than a sporting event," NBC sports chairman Dick Ebersol told the Chicago Tribune in June. "They are the only great family viewing experience left on American TV, the only thing that puts Mom, Pop and kids in front of the TV at the same time."

Add NBC to the list of those leaning on the broad shoulders of this Towson teen-ager. CBS had Gunsmoke's Matt Dillon. Fox has The Simpsons' Homer, NBC is hoping that its 2004 Olympic miniseries will have an equally memorable leading man - Michael Phelps.

Sun staff researchers Antonieta Villalobos and Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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