While swim legend Mark Spitz and all Olympians technically competed as amateurs through 1988, Michael Phelps turned pro at age 16, when he signed an endorsement deal with Speedo. There are only so many swim trunks to be sold, however, and his marketer will apply a cutting edge to hone Phelps' appeal.
Peter Carlisle is the director of Olympic sports for Virginia-based marketer Octagon. He built his practice around the likes of such snowboarding gold medalists as Kelly Clark and Ross Powers. Asked about endorsement opportunities for Phelps, Carlisle spoke of Generation Y, and "action sports" such as surfing and mountain biking.
"There's this huge demographic out there, and marketers are intimidated by it," Carlisle said. "Action sports and music and computer games seem to be able to do it, but many are unwilling or hesitant to market to Generation Y, which could be anyone from 8 to 26.
"There's a kid in my office who wears shoes and shorts that are endorsed by core action sports figures. The kid doesn't skateboard or surf. He plays lacrosse. These are the kids we're ultimately going to market to. Michael, hopefully, will transcend swimming. We want to market him through his traditional sport, but also to reach Generation Y in the same way extreme sports like snowboarding have."
At the Summer Nationals, Carlisle noted that Phelps wore Vans, a sneaker favored by skateboarders. Phelps now has an endorsement deal with the manufacturer. Just as boxers wear robes into a ring, swimmers sport headphones attached to portable CD players, and Carlisle will search for an electronics firm interested in having Phelps wear its brand while he's listening to head-banging music.
There are also more traditional deals for Phelps, who last week made an appearance at a coaches convention in Las Vegas, promoting an instructional video, a joint venture with USA Swimming. On the national governing body's Web site, young swimmers can read a Q&A; with Phelps or catch his tips about shaving your back before a big meet, but he should get more mainstream exposure.
Phelps' development is being monitored by major Olympic sponsors, such as Visa - companies that are in the process of identifying the athletes who could become household names in 2004.
There is one huge drawback for athletes linked to the Olympics, where it's not a case of wait 'til next year - it's wait four more years.
"Michael's [marketing] potential is amazing," Carlisle said, "but you've got to win gold in an Olympic event."
Michael Phelps of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club is the world-record holder in the 200 butterfly and 400 individual medley and is No. 2 all time in the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley. A welcome addition on several U.S. relays, he wants to join the short list of American swimmers who have won more than three gold medals in a single Olympiad:
Mark Spitz 7 1972
Matt Biondi 5 1988
John Naber 4 1976
Don Schollander 4 1964
Amy Van Dyken 4 1996
Source: USA Swimming