The Next Mark Spitz? Marketers drawn to Phelps phenom

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The biggest sports-marketing story of the summer is 18 years old, lives at home with his mother and plays so many video games that he has both a PlayStation and an Xbox in his bedroom.

A typical teenager, except that Michael Phelps has marketers diving head first to leverage multi-million dollar sponsorships around him and the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

Mr. Phelps, already a world record-holder in three swimming events, has a chance to break American Mark Spitz's 1972 Olympic record of seven gold medals. He has qualified to swim in 11 events, both individual and relay, at July's U.S. Olympic Trials.

In fact, swimsuit maker Speedo USA, already a Phelps sponsor, is offering a $1 million bonus if he ties or breaks Mr. Spitz's record in Athens this August or in Beijing in the 2012 Games.

"The Speedo brand has been in the Olympic business for 72 years, and we've never seen this much intense interest in a swimmer this early," said Craig Brommers, VP-marketing for Speedo. "The $1 million bonus has been a terrific [public relations] angle for us and it almost brings reality television to the Olympics. People are going to be watching and asking, `How many medals can this kid win?' "

Speedo is an obvious sponsor and the company this year will spend more than five times the $500,000 it spent in media buys last year. Mr. Phelps has appeared in print ads for the marketer, outdoor executions and is the centerpiece of a 30-second commercial airing in New York's Times Square. All were done in-house.

vans, visa, argent

But such diverse companies as Vans, the sneaker and apparel maker, Visa USA and Argent Mortgage Company are also heavily invested in the young swimmer, who is represented by Octagon, Interpublic Group of Cos.' sports marketing arm.

"Michael Phelps has some fantastic marketing momentum going into the Games," said David Carter, president of The Sports Business Group, Los Angeles. "He is, potentially, an American institution like Mark Spitz became, who can send a message not only to [his generation] but to the older crowd as well."

Which is why Visa and Argent have no problem using an 18-year-old to push credit cards and mortgages. Mr. Phelps last week was in the Bahamas filming a commercial for Argent that will air closer to the Olympics. DGWB, Irvine, Calif., is Argent's creative agency of record.

Argent, also based in Irvine, has been making a big splash on the sports marketing scene of late, investing $30 million in golf and Olympic-related sponsorships. The company uses Chicago-based sports marketing firm Revolution to handle those sponsorships.

`purity in sports'

"We were looking for a brand leadership association, and we wanted an association with a spokesperson who could embody the spirit of the message," said Revolution president John Rowady. "Michael represents the best in sports, the purity in sports, and he can cast a communication message."

Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, also plans Olympic-related spots for Visa and Mr. Phelps. Visa has long been an Olympic sponsor and attached itself to Mr. Phelps more than two years ago as part of its Gold Medal Athlete program, which identifies potential breakout athletes and offers financial support."He is in our advertising material, promotional material, point-of-sale and communication materials," said Michael Lynch, Visa's VP-event marketing. "We'll utilize him in our card marketing program to bring the sponsorship to life."

Speedo's Mr. Brommers, who laid out the $1 million bonus, said he has no problem with Mr. Phelps serving as an endorser for so many marketers. "He has that crossover appeal," he said. "We're the top-selling [swimwear] brand in the U.S. and we want to use him to expose our brand to a younger audience, to the 12-18-year-old demographic. But while he has God-given talent, he also works very hard. The American public finds that concept very appealing. You show up, you work hard, you achieve your dream."

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