What Michael Phelps can learn from Cal Ripken's example

John Maroon is uniquely positioned to offer an opinion on the superstar athlete turned businessman. His firm, Maroon PR, represents Cal Ripken Jr. He’s worked with the former Orioles star on and off since 1995, in the process ushering perhaps the most endearing sports character of the last two decades through a transformation from relentless ball player to business owner, baseball advocate, television personality and book author.

But even Maroon, who like any Baltimorean has watched Michael Phelps grow from awkward kid to one of the most accomplished athletes of all time, wonders what the future holds for the Charm City’s swimming virtuoso.

“Mike, in so many ways, is the exception,” Maroon said last week. “He’s an Olympian who has raised his sport and become something bigger. But the truth remains: right now, he has to capitalize on it and then decide what’s next.”

We took a look at what Phelps might do with his future in Sunday’s paper. One of his first projects will involve him chasing a passion that had to be shunted to the side during the medal chase: golf. He’ll be the next star featured on “The Haney Project,” in which Tiger Woods’ former swing coach will try to improve Phelps’ game.

Like most of Phelps’ future projects, that one was in the works for a while. When I spoke to Peter Carlisle, Phelps’ long-time agent, that was essentially his message: the future won’t deviate much from the past. Phelps has a foundation and swim schools and partnerships with the Boys and Girls Clubs and Special Olympics. He owns the facility in Baltimore where he learned to swim and later trained.  He’ll continue working to grow the sport he loves through all those venues, probably in a more hands-on way. He has more time.

Ripken was similar. His passion for teaching young players the “Ripken way” existed long before he retired, instilled by his father, Cal Sr., and first put into motion by his brother, Billy. His business interests were also fermenting before he stepped off the field; the day after he retired, he went to buy a minor league team. For Ripken, there were two difficult lessons to learn as he reshaped his career:

First, he couldn’t do it all himself. “There’s only one of him, and, much as he tried, he couldn’t do it all,” Maroon said. “He became more of a leader, a teacher for others who would spread the Ripken way.”

And, second, Ripken had to find ways to stay out in the public. He wasn’t immediately drawn to television work, but eventually learned to feel more comfortable with it because, in part, it could help his business efforts, Maroon said.

As I pointed out in the story, Phelps clearly appeared more comfortable – and forthcoming – during recent television appearances.

All the people I spoke to agreed that Phelps is in a unique spot not only because of his success – 22 medals, the most ever in Olympic competition – but also his longevity – this was his fourth Olympics and the third in which he was one of the biggest winners. But now, even more so than in the past, celebrity can be fleeting. Several of the experts I spoke to brought up the difference in media environment: when they grew up, there were only a couple of television stations and you read only the newspaper available in your city. Now, there are literally thousands of sources of information to choose from, both via traditional media outlets and through social media (where Phelps is well-position with more than 1.2 million Twitter followers and nearly 6.3 million “likes” on his Facebook page.)

One of the most interesting questions about Phelps – it played out repeatedly in conversations I had with experts last week – is how long he’ll stay relevant as an athletic pitchman. Will kids in six years be compelled by his name to buy Speedo or Under Armour gear?  Maroon told a good story on that: “Kids, they get brainwashed. Cal will be out and a kid will come up and say, ‘You’re my favorite player!’ The kid walks away, and Cal says, ‘There’s no way that kid ever saw me play.’ But the dad or whoever has talked to the kid about Cal, and that can last a while.”

Phelps has said that, despite selling his Fells Point condo, he’ll always keep a place in Baltimore. He’s different than Ripken because none of his major athletic triumphs happened here – and of course swimming’s popularity pales in comparison to baseball’s – but the city has certainly embraced him in a similar fashion and he’s used his affinity for the Ravens and Orioles as a way to become even more relevant in the market (wearing a Ray Lewis jersey while endorsing Subway, for instance.) His deal with Under Armour will also make him a presence here; the company’s head of marketing, Matt Mirchin, sees a synergy between the two.

“We’re proud of our roots, just like he is,” he said. “We’re proud to be a Baltimore company, he’s proud to be a Baltimore guy.”

Phelps has a tremendous amount of value internationally, though, and has been used on Subway ads in more than 100 countries, from the Middle East to Mexico. Ripken has worked to grow his appeal overseas with trips to Japan.

Carlisle was criticized after the Beijing games for predicting his client would make $100 million over the course of his life. Some accused him of inflating the number to make Phelps look more valuable than he is. Which actually falls under the purview of an agent's job description, really.

But Carlisle was pretty candid when I spoke to him last week from London, where he was enjoying the final days of the Olympics. He made it very clear that Phelps’ earning power depends on Phelps staying engaged. That number, $100 million, is what Phelps is worth; it’s what, with maximum effort, he could earn. He's only 27 right now.

Yet Carlisle said repeatedly that he wouldn’t fault Phelps for, at some point, opting to pull back from the breakneck work pace that got him where he is. Or to recede from the glare of the public eye to whatever extent he can.

"I think that'd be understandable," he said. "But for now I know he's focused on so many things."

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