By Childs Walker
October 18, 2008
"We couldn't fully comprehend the impact of his performance combined with the nightly prime-time coverage," said Phelps' longtime agent, Peter Carlisle. "That's still blowing us away, the effect. He's at a point now where he can make a difference in so many ways if he has the energy to do it and the commitment to do it."
There are three planned phases to the Phelps business plan. He wrapped up the initial phase, in which he cemented his international superstardom by appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live. He is in the middle of Phase2, a national tour to introduce his new foundation and charitable efforts. Finally, he'll seek to broaden and deepen his relationships with existing sponsors such as Visa and AT&T and to sign a few more sponsorship deals with high-end companies. He announced a pact with Kellogg's, and AT&T recently debuted a new ad campaign in which Phelps loses a race to get on the Internet because he is using a non-AT&T wireless card.
Phelps will take a far more active hand in these affairs than ever before because for the next few months, he'll barely jump in a pool. "This is really his first opportunity to put this as a real priority," Carlisle said. "Now, let's do some really cool things, some big things."
Phelps has simple criteria when considering a business relationship.
"When I am looking for a new sponsor, when Peter and I are talking about something, I have to feel comfortable with it, but I also feel like it has to relate to me," he said. "I feel like it has to fit in my life. I really honestly do mean it when I say that Kellogg's has always been a part of my life. Growing up, I remember eating a bowl of cereal, a bowl of Frosted Flakes, on the way to workouts in the morning. It's always been a part of me, and it's why I feel comfortable with the relationship."
He added that he isn't trying to imitate Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods or any of the celebrity athletes who have risen during his lifetime.
"No, right now, I just think we're trying to do something that no one has ever done before," he said. "So we're just trying new things and seeing where it takes us."
Sports marketing analysts approve of Phelps' direction so far.
"Certainly, getting him on Saturday Night Live was a coup," said Bob Dorfman, who studies the marketing of Olympic athletes at San Francisco-based Baker Street Partners. "I think they've done as well as they could so far with a nice mix of corporate stuff and charitable stuff. I'd say stay the course."
Some believe Phelps will suffer the dip in attention that afflicts most Olympians between Games. His experience after the 2004 Games demonstrates that possibility. According to Marketing Evaluations Inc., the company that devises Q scores to measure celebrity appeal, Phelps' familiarity fell from 54percent in March 2005 to 49percent the next two years to 39percent this March.
But Carlisle isn't buying it. "I think what he did transcended that," the agent said. "The only question is how much."
Phelps has visited cities across the country to unveil his Dream, Plan, Reach program to kids. He has already spoken to youth groups in Orlando, Fla., New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Cleveland and Atlanta. Though his schedule will be lighter from now on, his agents said he'll continue to meet with children when opportunities arise.
Going into the Olympics, Phelps talked of changing his sport. Though it's still not entirely clear what he means, he has said he wants to use his fame to get more kids into the pool. Phelps then hopes to teach them about chasing long-term dreams by setting day-to-day goals.
Phelps is the perfect person to teach such lessons, Carlisle said, because he endured so many days of unglamorous practice to reach a grand goal years ahead of him.
"Every kid should be encouraged to dream, but they also have to learn to plan," Carlisle said. "The training, the recovery, the nutrition. It's not something Michael just understood naturally. Bob Bowman had to explain it to him."
He added that Phelps is a desirable enough commodity that he can ask his corporate partners to help with his causes. When Phelps signed a memorabilia deal with Grandstand Sports, for example, he did so in part because of the company's extensive involvement with charity auctions. Kellogg's donated $250,000 to his foundation. Speedo gave $200,000.
"Instead of just transacting a deal, he can say to companies, 'I want a broader reach, some real depth,'" Carlisle said. "'How can you help me with my causes?'"
Don't expect Phelps to leap at many of the deals being flashed at him. "There's a feeding frenzy like nothing I've ever seen before," Carlisle said. "But you can expect to see Michael take a more deliberate, conservative approach."
Athletes such as Jordan and Woods did not become marketing titans by appearing in as many commercials as possible. They forged lasting relationships with a few heavyweights that built creative campaigns around them.
Though Phelps has worked with Speedo for years and is happy with the relationship, Carlisle says to expect major sports apparel companies to come calling. Nike seemed to signal that it was out of the Phelps sweepstakes when the company announced recently that it would no longer focus on developing high-end swimwear. But when asked whether shoe companies have made plays for Phelps, Carlisle said, "I would imagine most sportswear companies have some interest in working for Michael."
Beyond traditional endorsement deals, Phelps could be a hot commodity in the ever-expanding world of reality television. Though Carlisle wouldn't discuss specific ideas, he said he keeps a Phelps-related file on his computer titled "weird offers."
He isn't sure about Phelps the television star. "He's not going to do something for the sole reason of getting publicity," Carlisle said.
The swimmer echoed that sentiment when asked about television, saying: "I have no idea. I don't know. I'm just going from town to town right now. I really haven't thought too much about anything."
Phelps was thrilled, however, to see that the interest in Olympic swimming prompted NBC to add events such as the FINA world championships to its broadcast plans. Carlisle said he could imagine those plans expanding to a series of match races.
"The personalities could really come into play," Carlisle said. "I'd love to see something like that. You've got to change the packaging somehow, to give people access they don't normally get so it feels relevant beyond the Olympics. That could bring it more in line with the way people are interested in other sports."
Carlisle said such a tour is a wish more than a tangible plan because Phelps isn't even thinking about competing for the time being.
Whenever Phelps does get back to it, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club and its home off Falls Road will be the base for his efforts. Phelps trained at the club until 2004, and Bowman has taken over as CEO. Whether Phelps will buy the Meadowbrook facility where NBAC operates - as he indicated at the Olympics that he might - remains uncertain. But he will be the chief public face of a club that began its Olympic legacy before he ever dipped in the pool.
"Any involvement he can have there, that can be a great platform for him to discuss all these things he's interested in," Carlisle said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Van Valkenburg contributed to this article.
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