It was one of the first questions fans startedasking after Michael Phelps achieved theimprobable feat of winning eight gold medalsin one Olympics: What will he be worth?Companies are already lining up to handPhelps millions of dollars to associate himselfwith their products. He could soon bethe face of a revamped and expanded swimmingheadquarters in North Baltimore.Some have even suggested that Hollywoodsnap him up to star as an aquatic superhero.Phelps has secured his status as the star ofthese Olympics, but he has gone beyondthat, said Bob Dorfman, who studies themarketing potential of Olympians for BakerStreet Partners of San Francisco."I can't see any other story surpassing his,"Dorfman said. "People just can't believewhat he's been doing. There is a superhumanaspect to it. From that standpoint, he'shard to top."Some marketing experts wonder if Phelpswill remain hot during the long downtimebetween Olympics but for now, they say hehas doubled his earning potential to at least$10 million a year and could become one ofthe richest Olympic endorsers in history.Companies such as Visa, Speedo,Omega, Hilton and AT&T agreeand have signed deals with the all-timeleading gold medal winner.Visa had a new commercial, narratedby actor Morgan Freeman,ready to roll as soon as Phelps wonhis last race. AT&T's commercials,featuring a young woman as anobsessed "Phelps Phan," havebeen ubiquitous throughout thegames.Kellogg's will put Phelps' mug onCorn Flakes and Frosted Flakes, accordingto Access Hollywood. Theswimmer's longtime agent, PeterCarlisle, told The Wall Street Journalthat Phelps' Beijing performancewill double his endorsementincome and be worth an extra$100 million over his lifetime.Phelps could certainly pull ineight figures over the next year,said Ryan Schinman, founder ofNew York City-based Platinum RyeEntertainment, which matches celebrityendorsers with Fortune 500companies."Right now, the guy's got theworld on a string," he said. "He's inthat upper realm, not in terms ofincome but in terms of profile,with Tiger Woods and LeBronJames and Lance Armstrong."Phelps would be wise not tojump at every deal that comes hisway, he said. Instead, the swimmershould expand and lengthenhis existing deals with high-endcompanies such as Visa, AT&T andSpeedo. Those companies must inturn come up with campaignsthat burn Phelps into customers'minds for a long time to come.He should capitalize now, Schinmansaid, because given the lowprofile of swimming, Phelps' featscould be out of the spotlight comefootball season.One person who doesn't seemvery interested in marketing questionsis Phelps."If Bob [Bowman] and I were in itfor the money, I think we'd be in adifferent sport," he said in Beijing."I'm having fun at what I do, and Ido it because I love it."Even if money is secondary toPhelps, he has said he wants tochange his sport. He hasn't clarifiedwhat that means, but if hewere to fuel a swimming boom, hewouldn't be the first athlete towield such power.America went chess crazy in themid-1970s after Bobby Fischer becameworld champion. A tennisboom followed the late-1970s exploitsof Jimmy Connors, ChrisEvert and John McEnroe. Even ifsuch crazes didn't last, they madethose competitors rich.Marketers are taken with Phelps'regular-guy persona. In post-raceinterviews, he sounded confidentand driven, yet a little taken abackby his achievements. People canimagine talking to him on the sidewalk,but place this aw-shuckscharacter in the right context, andhe's capable of otherworldly feats. Nike used a similar formula tolaunch Michael Jordan to mega-stardomin the 1980s. He was asoft-spoken young man from asmall city in North Carolina, butstick him in a pair of sneakers,show him a hoop and he could fly.Phelps entered the Beijinggames as one of the brightest starsin the Olympic firmament. Evenwithout eight golds, he was projectedto earn $5 million in endorsementsthis year and millionsa year for the foreseeable future.But Phelps was not one of themost famous athletes in theworld, said Steven Levitt, whosecompany, Marketing EvaluationsInc., devises Q scores to measurecelebrity appeal.Only 39 percent of those polledin March were familiar withPhelps and, of those, 22 percentconsidered him a favorite performer,Levitt said. Tiger Woods,for example, was familiar to 89percent of those polled andviewed favorably by 48 percent ofthat group. Levitt expects Phelps'numbers to rise dramatically innext spring's study.By surpassing Mark Spitz, Phelpstranscended sport in a way thatfew athletes ever do.His story headlined nationalnews broadcasts for a week. Celebritynews publications and programssuch as US Weekly, InsideEdition and TMZ.com have takenan interest in his personal life.One posting on the movie-geekWeb site Ain't It Cool News saidPhelps should look into playingMarvel Comics' superhero Sub-Mariner. "He is a man from Atlantis,"gushed the site's creator,Harry Knowles.On another Internet frontier,more than 1 million people havesigned up to be fans at Facebook."He is much bigger than hissport," said Dorfman, who couldsee Dancing With the Stars comingafter Phelps or MTV building anew reality program around him."It could be Michael Phelpsteaching other celebrities to swimlike Olympians or I don't knowwhat," Dorfman said. "But he's atthe level where I could see peopleimagining stuff like that aroundhim."Schinman agreed and saidPhelps could try to use such platformsto boost participation inswimming. He said he could alsoimagine Phelps swimming in lucrativeexhibitions around theworld."Even people who don't normallycare about swimming willwant to watch him," he said.Phelps could sustain his impacton swimming by buying and expandingthe North BaltimoreAquatic Club's facility off FallsRoad, said Howe Burch, executivevice president of Baltimore's TBCAdvertising. Burch envisionssomething similar to Nick Bollettieri'sfamed tennis academy inFlorida."From that perspective, thewhole profile of swimming will bemuch higher than it has been," hesaid.Phelps' road to marketing nirvanais not clear of obstacles.Great as he is, his sport rarely engagesthe American public betweenOlympics. He'll never competeon television week afterweek, as Jordan did and Woodsdoes.Swimming has also never offereda wide launching pad for apparelsales. Kids could walkaround in Jordan's Nikes. Well-paidadults can put on Woods' golfshirts and swing his clubs on theweekend. But it's hard to imagineregular folks throwing on Phelps'skin-tight LZR Racer suit to swimlaps at the neighborhood pool.In these respects, Phelps facessimilar challenges to past Olympicgiants such as Mary Lou Rettonand Carl Lewis."His biggest downfall is that he'sexcelling in a sport that's not onthe tip of everybody's tongue,"Schinman said.According to Levitt's studies,Phelps' familiarity fell from 54 percentin March 2005 to 49 percentthe next two years to 39 percentthis March."His achievement is greater thanit was in '04, dramatically greater
but we're still in the initialeuphoria phase," Levitt said."That's what gets the marketingpeople on board. The problem isonce he gets past the talk showsand the SI cover, what's he going todo to maintain his connection tothe public? That is an open question."Retton was an endorsement darlingcoming out of the 1984 games.But with her competitive careeressentially over and no sports apparelto hawk to a wide audience,her superstardom could not endureas Jordan's did. She's still arecognizable name who can earngood money from speaking engagements,but you don't see herin commercials.That's not exactly bad news forPhelps, who will be able to stowmillions now and earn a sizeableincome from his athletics fame fordecades to come, marketers said."I think in the worst case, he'sable to make a very nice incomefrom speaking engagements 20 to25 years down the line," Dorfmansaid."But the nature of his sport willalways be a challenge."email@example.comSun reporters Hanah Cho and RickMaese contributed to this article.
PHELPS' SPONSORSPhelps' sponsors, according to his agents at Octagon, which declinedto specify the value of the deals:Speedo USA: maker of swimsuits, a licensed brand of the WarnacoGroup Inc.Visa Inc.: credit card companyOmega: luxury watchmaker, a unit of Swatch Group AGHilton Hotels Corp.: hotel chainPowerBar: nutrition bar from Swiss chocolate maker Nestle SA.AT&T Inc.: communications providerKellogg Co.: maker of Frosted Flakes, Cheez-Its and Eggo wafflesRosetta Stone Ltd.: language-learning software makerPureSport: sports performance beverage, made by HumanPerformance LabsSwimRoom.com: Internet site for swimmersSource: Associated Press