Phelps, USA Swimming look for long-term relationship to grow sport

Michael Phelps retired from swimming after winning his 22nd Olympic medal Saturday night.
After Mark Spitz retired from swimming in the 1970s with a record seven gold medals at the Munich Games, he did little promotional work with USA Swimming.

The organization is working to be sure that’s not the case with Michael Phelps, who retired Saturday night after winning his 22nd Olympic medal.

USA Swimming executives have spent almost a year talking to Phelps and his agent, Octagon’s Peter Carlisle, about keeping him involved with the organization in a formal capacity. They hope it will allow them to continue growing the sport over time.

“We want a playbook for the future,” said USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus. “Michael’s all for that. Peter’s all for that.

“I think Michael and USA Swimming will have a great relationship going forward … that will stand in stark contrast to the relationship USA Swimming had and Mark Spitz had a generation ago.”

Speaking the day after his final competitive swim, Phelps said he’s still committed to growing the sport of swimming. That’s been his career-long goal and a major reason that he signed certain deals like the $1 million bonus Speedo paid when he won eight gold medals and broke Spitz’s record in 2008.

 “My competitive part of my career is over,” Phelps said while speaking at a Visa press conference Sunday. “It doesn’t mean I’m done with the sport. … I’m still going to go with my goal of trying to change the sport and take it to a new level. It hasn’t reached the peak that I want it to reach.”

Phelps, 27, has been a huge benefit to USA Swimming. He won 22 of the 89 medals the organization has collected during the last three Olympics, and that contributed to major increases in awareness for swimming. The sport’s ratings now surpass track and field on NBC during the Olympics, and USA Swimming has seen its membership swell from 232,000 in 2004 to 291,000 today.

“He’s been great for the sport,” Wielgus said.

There are challenges to keeping Phelps involved. The swimmer has launched his own non-profit, the Michael Phelps Foundation, which is focused on teaching kids to swim. That mission is similar to the mission of the USA Swimming Foundation, which means they could potentially compete for donations.

Then there are the basic demands on Phelps’ time, and the need to protect his image and make sure he’s being fairly compensated when it’s used. Phelps currently has sponsor obligations from a long list of companies — Visa, Omega, Under Armour, Hilton, Master Spas, Procter & Gamble, Subway, Speedo, Pure Sport and HP — and he reportedly earns more than $5 million a year on those deals (see related story).

Wielgus and Carlisle have talked about that and hope to work through it after the Games.

“We’re there in concept,” Wielgus said. “It’s a matter of working the details out.”

USA Swimming's SwimToday campaign

USA Swimming is looking to build on the 11 percent increase in membership it saw after the 2008 Games.

The organization is in the middle of a major marketing campaign called SwimToday, which is designed to encourage parents, kids and young people to swim.

It did a deal with Living Social, a digital coupon service, that offers discounted rates at local swim clubs. More than 1,200 people have bought the coupons in the last five days. The campaign will run through the fall.

USA Swimming also has seen a major increase in searches for its website. Searches have increased three-fold since the Olympic Trials.

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