Phelps holds keys to his future as corporate pitchman and swimming advocate

They streamed into the Speedo-sponsored party, world-class athletes set free after four years of training and one week of competing on their sport's biggest stage. Now that their Olympics were over, swimmers from around the world would spend this night letting go.

"Most of 'em looked like they were headed off to some disco party," said Evan Morgenstein, an agent for 13 current Olympians. "But notMichael Phelps. He comes in wearing a blazer, looking fresh. He went right to the corporate heads, greeted them. He was there to do business."

Baltimore's latest champion, having broken the all-time record for Olympic medals just days earlier, already was planning his next move.

Phelps' potential appears limited only by his own desires. His agent estimated he could earn $100 million from endorsements, sponsorships and appearances over his lifetime. But Phelps must maintain his recent maturity, avoid pitfalls he's been prone to in the past and make the difficult transition from elite athlete to someone new. And he must do it quickly, while the memory of his tremendous Olympic success remains fresh.

Phelps' moments of glory in the pool came intermittently and in short bursts, but the 27-year-old's plan always has stretched years and years ahead. While the world may wonder what he'll do next, Phelps, his agent, Peter Carlisle, and coach, Bob Bowman, say they haven't had to ponder the question.

"With Michael, it was always a 10-year plan," said Carlisle, who began representing Phelps in 2002. "And, frankly, everything was based on performance in the pool, which it has to be. But that was going to give us the ability to do things out of the pool that we wanted to, and to set up the things Michael wanted to do after swimming. So it was 10 years to set up all the rest of his years."

Phelps will learn to golf as the next student on the Golf Channel's "The Haney Project" with Tiger Woods' former coach Hank Haney in a deal announced Saturday.

He also plans to put swimming before business, continuing to try to build the sport of swimming through his foundation, the Michael Phelps Swim School programs and partnerships with the Special Olympics and Boys and Girls Clubs of America. That has been a goal since he first met with Carlisle — when Phelps was just 16.

"We're going to continue being heavily involved in getting people in the sport of swimming and making it more visible," Bowman said. "That really starts with the foundation, and everything is related to that."

Of course, the foundation needs funding.

Phelps already has made about $40 million, according to various reports. Many of Phelps' endorsement deals — Carlisle calls them partnerships — already run through 2016, when the Summer Olympics arrive in Rio de Janeiro. Without the burden of taking part, he'll be free to make media and promotional appearances, connecting in a more direct and personal way with potential consumers.

This year, Phelps is earning between $5 million and $10 million from endorsements, according to most estimates. But tennis star Roger Federer makes an estimated $45 million from appearances and endorsements each year, according to Forbes, and track star Usain Bolt brings in $20 million. The differences reflect the relative global popularity of each sport.

"He's proven himself over time and is a huge name," said Eric Wright, a sports marketing analyst from Ann Arbor, Mich. "Does that really indicate the future? No. He's going to have to continue working if he wants to accomplish the things he has talked about."

Out of the pool

In the past, Phelps has seemed aloof and uncomfortable in some public settings. His evolution into a public figure started as he swam what he swears will the be the last competitive laps of his career, Carlisle said from London this week.

In the run-up to the London Games, there were questions about his dedication. After he finished fourth in his first final one day into the Olympics, pundits openly wondered whether he was washed up, eclipsed by rival Ryan Lochte's rising star.

Then he started winning again and, for the third Games in a row, emerged as one of the most stirring competitors in the world.

He also appeared more sentimental and reflective. That's new.

"I've been with him for so many television interviews, sitting in a room nearby, listening to him get asked the same questions," Carlisle said. "But this time, there was a real difference. I could not wait to hear what he had to say. He was really able to open up and show more than he ever has."

Phelps' image has been anything but static. First seen as a prodigy — he was being flown around Europe before the 2004 Athens Olympics by Visa — he was arrested for driving under the influence after returning with six gold medals. After Beijing, Sports Illustrated named him its Sportsman of the Year in 2008 and featured an article that focused on his interaction with children. Months later, a picture surfaced of him smoking from a bong.

He learned a valuable lesson from that incident, which cost him a sponsorship deal with Kellogg. Subway, Visa and other sponsors stuck with him, though, in part because of the way he handled the situation.

"Really, with Michael, we had to watch him literally mature," Morgenstein said. "He handled all of that really well, always took responsibility. But now I think you're beginning to see a payoff. He's still a young guy, but his experiences have moved him forward. There's real polish there."

Phelps' pride in Baltimore's reputation as a hardworking blue-collar city made him a natural to endorse Under Armour, the apparel company that grew out of a basement workshop into one of the city's most lucrative businesses.

"People have to understand, to have that much success and popularity at such a young age, that's not easy to deal with," said Matt Mirchin, Under Armour's senior vice president for marketing. "He's done better than most, and the maturation we've seen, that's a natural part of it."

Continuing to evolve and shed the near-robotic efficiency and remove, forged through tedious repetition that dominated the last 16 years of Phelps' life, will be the key to capitalizing on one of the greatest athletic careers of all time, Morgenstein said.

"Michael is in rare company, and his name will always resonate," he said. "But eventually, the people move on. There's always somebody next. For him, it's going to be about how well he learns to tell his story, how he takes it and makes it relevant and lasting."

Phelps won't wait long to begin the transformation. His schedule is booked for the next three months and includes both down time and business appointments, Carlisle said. He's planning a world tour that will involve promotions for many of his major sponsors (a list likely to grow but currently including Speedo, Visa, Omega, Head & Shoulders, Subway, Under Armour, Hilton, HP, Master Spas, 505 Games, PureSport and Topps).

Phelps will headline Under Armour's continued push into China with several appearances there. The company recently opened its third store in the country where Phelps won eight gold medals. He'll once again be a part of Subway's marketing push in Baltimore, wearing Ravens colors.

"He's got to be who he is," said Tony Pace, Subway's chief marketing officer. "I don't think it's about creating a new persona. We want him to be authentic."

'Dark days'

Finding out who you are after a youth spent as an elite athlete isn't easy.

Dominique Dawes, the Baltimore-area native who starred on the gold medal-winning 1996 U.S. gymnastics team called the Magnificent Seven, found it difficult transitioning into her life's second act.

"I was acting, I was speaking, I was looking into other things," Dawes said from London, where she is working as an analyst for Fox. "But it's very rare to find something that you can be really passionate about. You can like something, but if you're not good at it — and you've been used to being at the level elite athletes are at — that can be too hard."

After an absence from elite competition, she qualified for the 2000 team that finished fourth but received the bronze medal after China was disqualified for using an underage competitor.

After her second Games, she thought she was ready to build a new identity.

"As much as I was ready to leave," Dawes said, "I didn't want that chapter in my life to close. There's no real way to replace it. I went through some dark days — a lot of them — as I figured out what was next."

Now she's a sought-after motivational speaker, and makes appearances on behalf of sponsors such as Hormel. She's also the co-chair, with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, of President Barack Obama's Council on Fitness.

She has met Phelps and believes he'll fare well. He'll continue to have opportunities, she said, not only because of his accomplishments but because of his unusual size and shape — "People will always recognize him."

An athlete's ego and self-esteem shouldn't depend on the sport, Dawes said. "But it is. And it can take a while to really be able to move on from that."

Following the plan

Phelps has been vehement in asserting that his swimming days are over, saying repeatedly that he's ready to move on.

But he has said next to nothing about what he's ready to move on to. In a recent interview with Details magazine, he said he wanted kids to learn from his example that they can do anything they put their mind to. But beyond that, he's been characteristically quiet.

"We're really just trying to decompress at this point," said Bowman, one of Phelps' closest confidants.

Though he'll need to work quickly to seize the momentum coming out of the Games, Phelps has repeatedly mentioned vacation plans. During his break from training after the 2008 games, he was often spotted in Las Vegas and is an avid poker player. His Twitter feed is filled with messages from professional gamblers.

He also must find a home after selling his Fells Point condo at a loss for $1.25 million. While he has declined to say where he plans to spend most of his time, he has said he'll always keep a place in Baltimore, near family.

Aside from golf, he and Bowman also plan on looking into buying either a yearling or 2-year-old, with dreams of chasing horse racing's Triple Crown.

Phelps will announce several new deals after the Olympics, but, Carlisle said, contract stipulations prevent him from elaborating.

The options seem limitless. When Phelps playfully mentioned a desire to go cage diving with sharks, he had numerous business offers within hours, Carlisle said. He'll continue to be sought as a public speaker, and his endorsement portfolio will change, agents said.

Mark Spitz, the swimmer from the 1972 Games who previously held the record for most gold medals in one Olympics, became a popular corporate speaker and a spokesman for health and pharmaceutical companies, as the audience who once cheered him aged, said Morgenstein, Spitz's agent.

Bowman believes Phelps will become a champion of all Olympic sports, either in an official capacity or as a de facto spokesman.

Bob Dorfman of the Baker Street Advertising firm in San Francisco believes Phelps could inspire his own brand, one that would retain its cachet the way Michael Jordan's Nike line has.

"It's so difficult to tell what his shelf life will be," Dorfman said. "With the Olympics, there's always the fact that people are going to forget. But he's such a rare example. If he can stay out there in the forefront, there are a lot of opportunities."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jean Marbella contributed to this article.

chris.korman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskorman

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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