Despite jitters, sponsors of Phelps & Co. reap rewards

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Three weeks ago, they were nervous and wary. Marketers, troubled by construction delays and terrorism chatter and a general lack of pre-Olympic buzz surrounding the 2004 Summer Games, were wondering if their substantial investments would bring a return. Today they begin returning from Athens with broad smiles and the potential for fatter wallets.

Buoyed by ratings success on General Electric Co.'s NBC (see story below) and an Olympics that, as of Aug. 27, came off with few flaws, companies are reaping the benefits of sponsorships with both the Games and individual athletes.

McDonald's talks

"There's not an Olympic sponsor, given the economics involved, that didn't have concerns about these Games," said Howard Jacobs, president of Stamford, Conn.-based Millsport. The Omnicom Group agency works with several Olympic sponsors, including Visa International. "I think everybody, as a whole, has to feel pretty good right now."

None more so, perhaps, than those who affiliated themselves with swimmer Michael Phelps. Though he failed to capture the $1 million bonus dangled by Speedo if he broke Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals, he nonetheless drew attention to the swimwear manufacturer and to Visa and AT&T Wireless, three of his more prominent endorsements.

Craig Brommers, VP-marketing for Speedo North America, estimated Phelps' success was worth "$50 million in global PR" to the company. Speedo, Visa and AT&T Wireless are all expected to be involved in sponsoring a post-Olympic tour pitting Phelps against several other swimmers in match races across the country.

Mr. Phelps and his handlers have spoken with McDonald's about a potential endorsement contract. The fast-food marketer and Mr. Phelps' agents could not be reached for comment, but executives close to the deal said it was fair to characterize the preliminary talks as "both sides showing interest in the opportunity."

Fellow athletes with strong marketing potential include Carly Patterson, the first American gymnast to win the coveted all-around title since Mary Lou Retton in 1984; Amanda Beard, a gold-medallist for USA swimming; and American sprinter Justin Gatlin, who won the 100-meter dash and the right to call himself the fastest human in the world.

American gymnast Paul Hamm was not singled out as a potential endorser. Although Mr. Hamm won the all-around title, his gold medal was tainted by a scoring error.

Other marketers who won gold, according to Mr. Jacobs, include longtime Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola Co. and The Home Depot, which has a unique arrangement with Olympic athletes by offering them positions as associates with schedules flexible enough to continue training.

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