MILWAUKEE – Visa Inc. popped out ads almost as quickly as he swam laps. Pizza Hut is giving Michael Phelps and his teammates free pizza and pasta for a year for him beating Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in one Olympics.
The makers of a new sports drink are embarking on their first national advertising campaign, banking on his most recent swimming glories.
Phelps – the biggest Olympic athlete in years, if not ever – is everywhere this summer. And companies want to share in his fame. They’re taking out ads and pitching endorsements and giveaways.
The 23-year-old from Baltimore has proved himself in the pool, but will he sink or swim as a long-term pitchman on Madison Avenue?
“He is in the top tier of athletics, and now he’s going to get his tryout as a personality,” said John Sweeney, director of sports communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “And Tiger Woods sure passed, but Mark Spitz didn’t. And there are plenty of people who they try to develop the whole persona around and two years later it’s gone.”
Phelps has won 14 gold medals, the most of any Olympian ever. Eight of those were at the Beijing Olympics, which end Sunday. His achievements at this Olympics broke American swimmer Spitz’s record of seven golds at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Phelps already has top endorsements – from companies including Visa, Speedo, Omega, Hilton and AT&T. And he’s certainly got a big fan base – or Phans as they call themselves. On networking site Facebook, more than 795,000 people have officially declared themselves fans of Phelps. That’s a boost of more than 120,000 just on Monday.
That’s a lot of people – with a lot of buying power.
His agents at Octagon know it. Peter Carlisle, who leads the Olympic and action sports division there, told The Wall Street Journal in a story Monday he expects Phelps’ current earnings of between $3 million and $5 million a year should at least double, or more, because of his performance in Beijing.
“What is the value of eight golds in Beijing before a prime-time audience in the U.S?” Carlisle asked the paper. “I’d say $100 million over the course of his lifetime.”
Visa, which has had a long-standing relationship with Phelps, was quick to put out new ads celebrating his big feats – when he won his 10th career gold medal, which made him the winningest Olympian ever, and later, when he won his eighth gold at Beijing.
Phelps already has been one of the focal points of Visa’s “Go World” campaign, which uses rich sepia tones and slow, focused shots to tell stories of athletes and the Olympics.
As soon as he hit the two milestones, Visa aired the new ads at the next commercial break. The company also took out print ads over the weekend and on Monday.
In the television spots, actor Morgan Freeman narrates as pictures of Phelps swimming stream past:
“One gold medal is amazing. Two is … well … incredible. Three? Practically unbelievable. But eight? Eight gold medals? That’s … that’s well … well, we’re going to need some new adjectives for whatever that is. Congratulations, Michael,” Freeman said in an ad running minutes after Phelps won his eighth gold medal in Beijing.
Kevin Burke, head of Visa’s global consumer marketing, says the company is proud to have Phelps affiliated with the brand and wanted to recognize his achievements. Visa declined to say what it was paying Phelps, and it’s not clear yet where the pairing will go.
“We continue to evaluate post-Beijing activities that will allow us to reinforce our relationship with Michael,” Burke said.
New companies are coming after Phelps, too. Carlisle told the Journal he’s getting up to 50 pitches a day.
The beverage PureSport is about to launch its first national advertising campaign with Phelps as a spokesman. Pizza Hut, part of Yum Brands Inc., is giving Phelps and his teammates on the men’s and women’s U.S. swim team free pizza and pasta for a year. Though all these companies are clamoring over Phelps, it’s still not clear how persuasive a pitchman he’ll be. Other than in the pool, Americans haven’t seen too much of him – but that’s changing.
Phelps made TV appearances after winning his medals. He’ll no doubt make the talk show circuit when he gets back to the states, appear at events and do speaking engagements, said Joe Terrian, assistant dean at the College of Business at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
He will stay in the limelight at least for a year or two, Terrian said.
But the uniqueness of his feat will only carry him so far, Sweeney said. The American people will need more than his achievements if he’s going to prove a staying force in advertising. That would include having a personality that draws people in and qualities that make people care, he said.
Mark Spitz didn’t have it, he said. Spitz earned a living off his wins, but didn’t quite make it on Madison Avenue, Sweeney said.
But Mary Lou Retton? She has it. The gymnast turned a one-time gold medal in the 1984 Olympics into a career of speaking engagements, television appearances and commentaries that’s still going to this day, Sweeney said.
Phelps has earned a shot at what Sweeney calls an elite tryout.
“We’ll see in the interviews,” Sweeney said. “Is he funny? Is he warm? Is he interesting … Or is he the great athlete who is pleased to be here and he’s done?”