Going The Distance: Plan in place to ensure Michael Phelps’ legacy

Swimming icon Michael Phelps plans to retire after the London Games.
GETTY IMAGES
Call it Michael Phelps 2.0.

Long before Phelps won his eighth gold medal in Beijing, his agent, Peter Carlisle, was developing a post-career plan for the swimmer. The time to put it to use will come later this week when Phelps pulls himself out of the pool after competing at an Olympics for the last time.

The plan is designed to potentially fulfill Carlisle’s belief that the swimmer could make more than $100 million in his lifetime and further his aim of increasing interest in competitive swimming worldwide.

To do so, Carlisle believes Phelps will need to continue signing endorsements, promoting his foundation, traveling to international markets and developing new lines of business like the Michael Phelps Skills Center, a remote training system being piloted in Maine.

Octagon's Peter Carlisle has a goal of Phelps earning $100 million in his lifetime.
SHANA WITTENWYLER
“The goal is still there,” Carlisle, head of Octagon’s Olympic and action sports division, said of the career earnings target he set in 2008. “Just do the math over time. He’s young. He’s not going anywhere. People aren’t going to forget who he is. It’s burned in their memories.”

Transitioning an athlete into retirement comes with a host of challenges, and an Olympic athlete can face even more. Phelps, a four-time Olympian, has the upside of being recognizable worldwide based on his Olympic success, but the downside of being an athlete from a sport that doesn’t get much publicity outside of every four years.

As part of that transition, agents have to help an athlete manage the realization that they’re not competing anymore, which can be emotionally challenging as they adjust to a less regimented life that no longer requires training. The key to protecting their business during that time, according to Steve Miller, who worked with Andre Agassi during his retirement from tennis, is making sure that everything the athlete does ties back to his sport’s accomplishments and what he’s doing today, such as philanthropic causes and personal objectives.

“You have to say, ‘How am I going to protect who I was? How do I protect who I am? And how do I move forward?’” Miller said. “It’s no different than saying, ‘Mondays I’m going to do 100 [meter sprints]. Tuesdays I’m going to do 200 [meter sprints].’ You’re going to meet with people who are interested in some of your goals and interests. If I’m interested in the environment, I will meet with people with similar goals. It’s an economic game plan coupled with a psychological game plan that allows the athlete to function in a different world.”

Phelps, 27, is in a unique position as an Olympian. He’s poised to become the Olympics’ most decorated athlete, and in 2008 he broke Mark Spitz’s record for most gold medals at a single Olympics. The fact that he did that in Beijing, one of the world’s fastest-growing markets and host to one of the most memorable Olympics in recent history, makes Carlisle optimistic that the swimmer will have companies interested in him for years to come.

But it won’t be easy.

While Olympians such as Spitz, Bruce Jenner and Greg Louganis have found success by focusing on endorsements in the health and wellness category or making appearances, others, like Carl Lewis, who won four gold medals in the 1984 Games and nine gold medals overall, have struggled to land blue-chip endorsements.

Agent Peter Carlisle of Octagon is already working on renewals with current Phelps sponsors Omega and Visa.
“Michael’s big challenge is to remain relevant in his 30s and 40s — 10 to 20 years post his great competition, ” said Evan Morgenstein, founder of PMG Sports and the agent of Spitz, Jenner and Louganis. “His agent, Peter Carlisle, understands this and will help Michael transition. The primary categories for someone like Michael post-swimming will be swimwear accessories, products like powders and bars for weekend warriors, online gaming companies such as PokerStars and electronics because Michael has always been very tech savvy.”

Carlisle has already begun working on renewals with Phelps’ current roster of sponsors: Visa, Omega, Under Armour, Hilton, Master Spas, Procter & Gamble, Subway, Speedo, Pure Sport and HP. Phelps reportedly earns more than $5 million a year from those deals.

Carlisle said several renewals and one new deal, which is scheduled be announced afterthe London Games, are completed, but he declined to disclose specifics. Omega President Stephen Urquhart last week said that the company planned to re-sign Phelps.

In terms of new deals, Phelps still doesn’t have a traditional beverage endorsement, and that’s the one category Carlisle wants to fill after London 2012.

“That’s a category that most iconic athletes is the first one they do,” Carlisle said. “In his case, it’s not been for a number of different reasons. Now as he eases his way out of the competition side and focuses internationally, it makes sense.”

While cash will certainly play a role in the decision-making process, Carlisle said that duration of a deal and activation plans will be given more weight. A sponsor that’s willing to use Phelps in marketing materials over an extended period and in international markets will help keep Phelps in the public eye longer, helping him avoid the fate of the forgotten Olympian and keep the sport of swimming in the global spotlight.

Carlisle said he will look internationally for deals, as well. He was able to land Phelps a deal with a Chinese company that manufactured MP3 players in 2005, and Mazda signed him to promote one of its cars in China after the Beijing Games.

“Between now and 2016, Brazil is top of mind,” Carlisle said.

Phelps also will stay in the public eye through his philanthropic efforts. He formed the Michael Phelps Foundation in 2008 with $391,000 and has raised more than $1 million since then. It has given $200,000 to the Boys & Girls Club and developed a learn-to-swim program for its national clubs. It also has provided funding to Ross Powers’ Level Field Fund charity, which offers financial assistance to aspiring Olympians.

Carlisle said most endorsements include a commitment to support the foundation financially or with marketing.

“He’s made a huge difference for these kids,” Carlisle said. “His legacy doesn’t have to be the eight gold medals. If he is existing day-to-day in a meaningful way in that [philanthropic] market, his name runs deeper.”

Carlisle wants to complement those traditional components of the retired-athlete portfolio with new business opportunities. He’s worked in Portland, Maine, where he’s based, to develop a pilot program called the Michael Phelps Skills Center, and if it works, Carlisle has ambitions of taking it to other markets.

In Maine, he’s installed four swim spas built by Phelps’ sponsor Master Spas that can be used by local competitive swimmers. Footage of those swimmers can be taped or watched live and reviewed by Bob Bowman, Phelps’ coach, and his staff.

If it works, Carlisle will look to take it to other markets by franchising it.

“It could be there is no market for this type of thing, but we think there is,” Carlisle said. “Can you take the expenses that occur in running the program, and are there enough revenues there to justify running the program? That’s why you pilot it because you don’t know.”

He also is launching an app that features Bowman breaking down Phelps’ stroke after the London Games. It’s a new wrinkle on DVDs that have already been released. Both efforts are being driven by the knowledge that USA Swimming has nearly 30,000 members and many come from affluent families who might be willing to pay to see one of the world’s most recognizable coaches dissect its most famous swimmer, Carlisle said.

 “To me, it potentially will change how kids train to swim and what’s available to them if it works,” he said. “We don’t know what the demand will be, but we’re going to see.”

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