Phelps, other Games stars striking while iron is hot

`Swim with Stars' tour starts in Florida in push to keep names in lights

Olympics

September 01, 2004|By Tim Povtak | Tim Povtak,ORLANDO SENTINEL

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The 2004 Summer Olympics are over, but Michael Phelps has just begun.

The post-Olympic marketing push to keep the Baltimore swimmer from disappearing into the fall football frenzy began yesterday with "Disney's Swim with the Stars," a 12-city promotional water tour across America.

With a record-tying eight Olympic medals - including six gold - Phelps left Athens on Sunday night and flew directly to Orlando, Fla., knowing his time in the spotlight - and his ability to capitalize - might not last very long.

Fame can fade quickly.

"This is something that has taken me totally by surprise," Phelps said yesterday morning in his typically disarming manner. "I had no idea I would be in this position today. This is every kid's dream."

Phelps was joined by Olympic teammates and fellow gold medalists Lenny Krayzelburg and Ian Crocker, who led a special swimming clinic for youngsters at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon water park.

In the afternoon, they served as grand marshals at a parade in their honor at the Magic Kingdom. They will do a clinic tomorrow at the YMCA Aquatic Center in Orlando, then leave for Atlanta, the second stop on the tour.

By the first week in October, they also will have stopped in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Seattle, San Francisco and Anaheim, Calif., where the tour will end at Disneyland. At each stop, they will swim and talk with aspiring athletes.

It's the first time Disney has promoted a tour like this with Olympians, believing the attraction and likability of Phelps will keep swimming from fading in popularity as quickly as most Olympic sports do.

"We think these guys are the exception, that they'll have real staying power to carry the message at a grass roots level," said Michael Mendenhall, executive vice president of global marketing at Disney. "These guys will last."

Even before he won his first Olympic medal, Phelps had laid the groundwork for a strong marketing campaign. He was an 11-time world-record holder, a five-time world champion, coming to the Games already endorsing Speedo, Visa, AT&T Wireless, Omega and Power Bar.

His list of endorsement deals are expected to multiply, making him the richest swimmer in history. But his down-home, nice-guy persona is no mask.

Although there were other American athletes who grew in popularity with Olympic gold medals, no one approached the skyrocketing stardom of Phelps. A top five, most-marketable list, according to a variety of experts, would include Carly Patterson (gymnastics), Rulon Gardner (wrestling), Jennie Finch (softball) Mia Hamm (soccer) and possibly Justin Gatlin (track and field).

"Most of the Olympians, though, are in the same boat. Their sport just seems to disappear until four years from now," said Bob Dorfman, executive vice-president of Pickett Advertising in San Francisco. "That's tough to sell. Phelps probably is the only one who can transcend his sport, simply because his story is so amazing, and the way he carried himself through it all."

Phelps went into the Olympics chasing Mark Spitz, trying to match the seven gold medals he won in swimming at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. He didn't catch Spitz, but he caught the attention of corporate and living-room America.

It didn't hurt that Speedo offered him a $1 million reward if he matched Spitz. It doesn't hurt that the offer still stands, giving him a reason to try again in four years when the Olympics will be held in Bejing, China.

"Most athletes after the Games are marketable for two months, then don't re-emerge until six months before the next Games," said Peter Carlisle, director of Olympics Sports at Octagon, the marketing company used by Phelps.

"The window of opportunity for these athletes is usually very, very small. Michael has a chance to change that."

Corporations already are lining up to join with Phelps and others in anticipation of the 2008 Olympic Games in China, a burgeoning market that many American businesses are still waiting to explore.

"Those will be the most significant Games ever from a marketing standpoint," Carlisle said. "For international companies, when else are they going to have access to such an untapped market?"

It's reason enough for Phelps and many of the other stars of 2004 to try again in four years.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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