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Volume 20 No. 41


I was witness to the corporate and political evolution of the post-modern Olympics. From the primitive Winter Games of 1984, which were scantily staged in a crumbling Communist nation, to the hyper-sponsored Beijing Olympics, gaudily presented in the world’s richest Communist nation, I was there.

When the ’84 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, there was too much snow, too little electric power, hundreds of ticky-tacky local Yugoslav “sponsors,” and nary a hint that, years later, the figure skating and hockey venue would become a morgue for victims of a brutal, ethnic war.

Next came Los Angeles. In the bidding, the only cities that wanted those 1984 Summer Games — after a cycle of Olympic terrorism and boycotts — were Tehran, Iran, and Los Angeles. Somehow, Los Angeles won the burden, and a fellow named Peter Ueberroth changed the face of Olympic and sports marketing forever. He gave birth to exclusive product categories for sponsors, a true Games changer. He played potential sponsors off against each other. He laid the groundwork for the International Olympic Committee’s now flourishing billion-plus-dollar TOP marketing infrastructure.

Now, come this past weekend, for the first time in three decades, I wasn’t sitting in the best free seats in the house, watching another opening ceremony in person behind a laptop, breathlessly detailing for readers the outfits of the team from Uzbekistan. A cast of thousands, children’s high-pitched voices, trumpets, doves and a parade of native-garbed athletes — with the Americans always underdressed — were expected. Or, as one
The revival in Los Angeles (left) paved the way for 2008’s historic Games in Beijing.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES (2)
sportswriter pal dubbed the 1988 Seoul opening, “Hare Krishnas from hell.” That’s how it often looks and sounds — and it seems to never end. Been there, done that.

Still, I miss the excitement and the diversity — of tall basketball players and short wrestlers, of philosophical fencers and post-pubescent gymnasts with nothing to say, of Kenyans and Kazakhstanis. I miss being in the middle of the top news story in the world for 17 days.

I was there when the shaken IOC told us that Carl Lewis was right and Ben Johnson had cheated. I was there when the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain — still never topped for fun, food and drama — hinted at the excesses of an impending Olympic commercialism. (Never before had I seen life-sized and multicolored M&Ms walking around a European city, and I hope never again.)

Headlines from the SBJ/SBD Olympics website

The site, which is accessible at, is free and will run through Aug. 13. Here is a sampling of last week’s news from the site:

NBC to surpass $1 billion in advertising sales
IOC generates a record $5 billion during last quadrennium
‘Thank you, Mom’ spot pushes P&G videos to 53 million views
24 Hour Fitness renews official sponsorship with USOC
Sit-downs with NASCAR’s Brian France, Citi’s Ed Skyler and Omega’s Stephen Urquhart

I was there in 1996, for Atlanta’s Olympics, which stained the Games. It turned an elegant, worldwide sports property into what seemed like an Alabama-Auburn football game on steroids. Shady street vendors with knockoff apparel abounded. Ambush marketing was the norm. The bombing in Olympic Park didn’t help, either.

I was there as forgettable Albertville, France, fizzled and as Salt Lake City — in the aftermath of Sept. 11 — calmed a nation’s nerves behind rows of cyclone fences. I was romanced by Sydney and Athens, Greece, as those cities threw great parties and great Games.

Traditional sports journalists and talk-radio kooks love to trash the Olympics. The five rings are a curse to them for many reasons: Olympic leadership and culture is full of itself, the way polo players at country clubs are (I agree); and the Games are filled with seemingly silly, trashy sports that disrupt the baseball pennant races and interrupt their fantasy football drafts (I don’t care). Other pundits will point to the politics: Once filled with good-old-fashioned, good-guy-bad-guy hatred and fear because of the tensions of the Cold War, the Games are now simply nationalistic or touted as some sort of touchy-feely war-without-weapons. And, of course, far from an homage to humanism, the Games are deeply dipped in dollars, the naysayers continue.

Let’s stipulate: The Olympics are sappy and corporate, tree-hugging and political, nail-biting and joyous, and that’s why I loved them all these years. The Olympics reflect and reinforce the diverse values and rainbow complexions that keep our planet spinning. The Summer Olympics are the great sports crossroads. The world actually does gather, mostly in peace, to play all sorts of games, and how can that be bad?

When you’re there on the ground, these events are like pingpong (sorry, table tennis): balls zipping from one arena to another stadium, dozens of disparate events linked only by five rings. When you’re on site, there seems to be no center to the event, no core to the corpus.

Television, particularly prime-time television, changes that. Flash back to Calgary, 1988, and the first days of the first truly big-city Winter Olympics. Midwest newspaper deadlines had been met, and so, it was relatively early in Alberta when I sat down with my colleague, Bill Glauber of The Baltimore Sun, to watch TV in the Media Village. There on the screen sat the legendary Jim McKay, the voice and face of the Games.

McKay and ABC aggregated the competition news of the day.

As McKay spoke, at once Bill and I turned to each other — after three or four days of working constantly covering a variety of competitions here and there — and we said, “Hey, the Olympics must have started!” TV does that for its audience. It takes all the moving parts and creates a watchable whole, a unified message of victory and defeat, or anxiety and elation.

So, I’m curious to see how this year’s Web-based, everything-live coverage will affect the habits of viewers, especially young viewers, who don’t need a living room at an assigned time to watch anything these days. Can the Web frame the themes of these London Games? Or will they devolve online to a bundle of those pingpong balls zipping to and fro with nary a context?

I’m curious, too, to see the politics unfold. As always with the Summer Games, this is a U.S. presidential election year. Ronald Reagan leveraged his “California Olympics” to wrap himself in red, white and blue, solidifying his 1984 landslide. GOP candidate Mitt Romney is sure to remind us how well he did in running the Salt Lake City Games. President Barack Obama won’t miss any chances to be photographed with fresh-faced American athletes. I’m curious, too, about what world crisis will raise its head around London’s Olympic venues? One always does, and every four years I cross my fingers.

After witnessing 15 renditions of Olympics up close and personal, I will watch this London version with the curiosity of a first-time TV viewer. I will do so thankful that my first Summer Games were not in Tehran, and grateful that my last were in Beijing. The 2008 Games were a historic punctuation mark to my Summer Olympics experiences. That’s when the world tuned in with real anticipation. It’s where sponsors saw a real return on their investment in a growing economy. It’s where a nation of a billion-plus people proudly rallied as one. It’s when it felt that sports truly and profoundly mattered.

Jay Weiner covered most of his Olympic Games for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In 2008, he reported from Beijing for SportsBusiness Journal. He is now the speechwriter for University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler.

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

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.

Planning for Michael Phelps' life outside the pool began long ago.
The plan is designed to potentially fulfill Carlisle’s belief that the swimmer could make more than $100 million in his lifetime.

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.

“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.

Phelps has his eyes on making a difference as a philanthropist. “His legacy doesn’t have to be the eight gold medals,” his agent says.
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.

“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 after the 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.

Carlisle said he will look internationally for

Agent Peter Carlisle of Octagon is already working on renewals with current Phelps sponsors Omega (top) and Visa.
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.”