Marketers pick Phelps as top American Olympian for ads

Swimmer outdistances softball pitcher Finch


July 29, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

A panel of experts confirmed what American television viewers have surmised for weeks, that Michael Phelps is the most marketable U.S. Summer Olympian.

The Sports Business Daily, a trade newspaper, polled 60 marketers, sponsorship consultants and media. The 19-year-old swimmer from Rodgers Forge received 37 first-place votes.

Softball pitcher Jennie Finch, voted the "world's sexiest athlete" in an online poll last year, got 12 first-place votes. Wrestler Rulon Gardner got four, and the only others to receive more than one were swimmers Natalie Coughlin and Amanda Beard and pole-vaulter Stacy Dragila.

Gymnast Carly Patterson tied Gardner for the fourth spot in the scoring system that gave five points for a first-place ballot and one for fifth-place. Gaithersburg gymnast Courtney Kupets, regarded as the U.S. leader in the sport, did not finish among the top 10 vote-getters.

Marion Jones, the primary focus of hype for the 2000 Olympics, finished No. 8. The BALCO doping scandal has tainted Jones and the sport of track and field, widening the window of opportunity that Phelps opened a year ago this week at the 2003 world championships, when he became the first swimmer to establish five world records in one meet.

"His winning looks, body and personality will inspire a broad demographic, and he won't drown in drug allegations," advertising executive Bob Dorfman told The Sports Business Daily.

Phelps is the cover story in this week's Sports Illustrated. He and Jones share the cover of David Wallechinsky's authoritative guide to the Summer Olympics. On June 16, Visa began airing a 30-second commercial in which the special effects have Phelps swimming from the Mediterranean to the Statue of Liberty. The spot has received frequent play on NBC, which will feature Phelps in its Olympic coverage.

Speedo was the first of Phelps' seven corporate sponsors. Last October, his agent, Peter Carlisle, the director of Olympic Sports for Octagon, negotiated a $1 million bonus with Speedo should Phelps match the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz in 1972. Phelps will become the first American to attempt five individual events, and is expected to compete in all three relays. The early betting line on his quest is for him to win five gold medals, and three silvers.

The Athens Olympics begin in 15 days, and Phelps wants to compete every day of swimming, from Aug. 14-21. Security concerns could override his expressed interest in participating in the closing ceremonies.

Carlisle is proceeding with plans for a post-Olympic tour of North America by Phelps that would conclude at the world short-course championships in Indianapolis Oct. 7-11. Carlisle declined to discuss specifics, but the tour could include a stop in Baltimore and mix personal appearances with match races, possibly against fellow Octagon clients Lenny Krayzelburg and Ian Crocker.

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