- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

Two months before he hits the pool in Athens, Baltimore swimmer Michael Phelps is already one of the most lucrative endorsers ever among Olympic athletes.

Phelps, 18, boasts a fast-growing portfolio of sponsors including Speedo, AT&T; Wireless, PowerBar, Upper Deck and Visa, totaling nearly $2million a year. Speedo will pay Phelps, current world record holder at three distances, another $1million should he match Mark Spitz’s feat of seven swimming golds in the 1972 Summer Olympics. And Phelps’ agent, Peter Carlisle, promises the current endorsement haul is “only the tip of the iceberg.”

Speculative marketing gone amok? Perhaps. While most agree Phelps is a one-in-a-million athlete, both in terms of his exceptional ability in the pool and his grounded demeanor, Phelps’ pre-Olympics interest from Corporate America is hardly an isolated affair.

On a smaller scale, dozens of other Olympic hopefuls, ranging from gymnast Carly Patterson to decathlete Tom Pappas, have lined up endorsement deals months, and in some cases years, before the opening ceremonies Aug.13 in Athens.

While most of these athletes are walking feel-good testimonials of success in the face of adversity, no gold medals have been awarded yet in Athens. The useful shelf life of marketing around an Olympian traditionally is measured in weeks, rather than months or years. And nearly every member of the U.S. Olympic team, Phelps included, likely could walk down any city street unnoticed.

“A lot of sponsors signing these athletes are also Olympic sponsors, and this is an excellent way to leverage that investment at a rather reasonable price,” said Jeff Chown, managing director of the Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based sports marketing consultancy. “And the tenor of these athletes is often very different from professionals. They’re very willing to work at these deals.”

Pre-Olympic endorsements are not entirely new. Reebok’s relentless “Dan and Dave” campaign in 1992, showcasing for months the expected battle between rival decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson, represents one of the largest marketing catastrophes in recent sports history. O’Brien failed to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, and an injured Johnson finished a disappointing third in Barcelona.

But in the last 12 years, corporations have grown far more daring in their choices for athlete endorsers, making “Dan and Dave”-type risks a regular occurrence. Gold medals, team championships or major individual honors are simply no longer pre-requisites for six-, seven- and eight-figure endorsement contracts. And more recently, LeBron James, Anna Kournikova, Yao Ming, Carmelo Anthony and others have been in peak corporate demand long before peak athletic performance ever arrived.

The same concept now applies to Olympians who toil in sports without year-round national exposure to fan the flames of visibility. PowerBar, one of Phelps’ leading endorsers, provides athletic equipment and energy bars to more than 200 Olympic athletes, many of whom will never rise to the level of national paid pitchmen.

Underlying all this are two fundamental corporate needs: reaching an ever fickle and increasingly savvy youth audience and lining up the next big star before the competition does.

“Everybody is now desperately trying to reach Generation Y, and guys like [Phelps] are Generation Y,” Carlisle said. “Everybody is after that star who’s young, bright, hip and personable, and Michael arrives completely pre-packaged for that.”

Natalie Ferguson, PowerBar assistant sports marketing manager, said prospective Olympians also provide an efficient way to create local, grass-roots marketing.

“Not everything is on a mega, national level,” Ferguson said. “This is a way to really get into smaller towns, get local exposure in ways that otherwise would be more difficult.”

Also fueling the heightening pre-Olympic hype is NBC, which yesterday announced a mammoth 1,210 hours of planned TV coverage from Athens across six affiliated networks. The sum, described as “mind-boggling” by NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, nearly triples the coverage level of four years ago in Sydney and is more than seven times the level from 1996 in Atlanta.

Many more hours, predictably, means exponentially more chances for lesser-known Olympians to be on display to the world.

“Athens will be the first Games in which U.S. television includes some coverage of every Olympic sport,” Ebersol said.

Phelps’ camp, meanwhile, feels strong about its position, even if he fails to qualify or medal in several events. The phenom has at least one more Olympics ahead of him following Athens.

“There are risks in this game. It comes with the territory,” Carlisle said. “But if [Phelps] doesn’t get seven golds, in no way am I concerned this will impact him negatively. We’re setting up for the long haul.”

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