By Barry Janoff
October 26, 2012: Michael Phelps was all dry and smiling through a full beard when he met the media for a pre-ING New York City Marathon event last week. Phelps was in town prior to the 26.2-mile NYC Marathon as a representative of Subway Restaurant, which is in its third year as an official NYC Marathon sponsor, and also as a supporter for his sister, Whitney, who will be running the event on Nov. 4.
Phelps, who retired from Olympic competition after the 2012 Games in London, holds a record 18 Olympic gold medals and 22 total medals in swimming. He has since learned how to become a marathon fish out of water when it comes to marketing.
Following the advice of his longtime agent, Peter Carlisle of Octagon, Phelps has never been far from the public eye even during non-Olympic periods.
Unlike Dustin Hoffman, the beleaguered anti-hero in the 1976 spy thriller, Marathon Man — who was asked the ominous question, "Is it safe?" — Phelps has discovered that it is safe to be a marketing spokesman even in non-Olympic, and now post-Olympic career, times.
Carlisle's long-time mantra has been that Phelps could earn $100 million from endorsements during his lifetime — a lofty number for Olympic-based athletes. Keep in mind, though, Tiger Woods was taking in $120 million a year in endorsements during his marketing peak.
In addition to Subway, endorsement deals include Under Armour (he was wearing UA gear at the NYC Marathon event), Visa, Speedo and Procter & Gamble. His key deals run through 2016, which means he will continue to be visible prior to and during the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in marketing campaigns and as a corporate spokesman.
Subway has been with Phelps since 2008, and publicly supported him in 2009 when others did not after a photo surfaced of Phelps using drug paraphernalia. Five years earlier, Phelps endured another public scandal when he was arrested for DUI and served 18 months probation.
"Our approach to working with Michael is pretty well defined. And our way of working with Michael, as with most athletes, is different than everybody else," said Tony Pace, global chief marketing officer for the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund. "Lots of people, when they work with athletes of Michael's calibre, will say, 'We'll work with him for 17 days every four years.' We are a brand that's all about training. So we're not just looking at when the spotlight is the highest. We're looking for when they really do the hard work."
Last year, Phelps worked with Olympic speed skating medal winner Apolo Anton Ohno, who ran the 2011 ING NYC Marathon in a respectable 3 hours, 25 minutes, 14 seconds. For the 2012 event, he is adding mental and physical support to his sister, Whitney, and his other sister, Hilary, who is scheduled to run in a 5K event prior to the Marathon.
And marketing, of course. Along with mom Debbie and his sisters, Subway has been claimed as the "official training restaurant of the Phelps Family," which will include a TV spot and signage in-store and on the race course, which covers all five boroughs of New York City. The event will air live on ESPN 2.
"[My family] helped me get through my career," Phelps said at The Sport Center at Chelsea Piers in New York. "So being able to help from the outside and see what Whitney's preparing herself for at the [New York] marathon, it's exciting."
In addition to meeting the media, he spent some time in the training pool with Whitney and ran some track with her snd Hilary, Subway spokesman Jared Fogle (who ran in the 2010 NYC Marathon) and Mary Wittenberg, president and CEO for New York Road Runners, which handles the marathon.
He also is devoting significant time to the Michael Phelps Foundation and the Michael Phelps Swim School to raise awareness for and promote the sport of swimming. And as he transitions from swimming, he is developing his golf stroke, including working with iconic golf instructor Hank Haney on The Haney Project, set for airing on NBC Sports Group's Golf Channel in February, and overseeing the annual Michael Phelps Foundation Golf Classic.
Earlier this month, he proved his golf mettle by sinking a 153-foot putt in the second round of team play during the Dunhill Links Championship at the Kingsbarn Golf Links in St. Andrews, Scotland.
"With Subway, he is also part of our marketing as we build globally. We have his face in restaurants in Mexico, Asia, the Middle East."
"He's still a young man, 27, he's a heck of a good golfer, he is a great athlete, so he will continue to compete but not in swimming," said Paul Bamundo, director of sports marketing, PR and partnerships for Subway FAF. "His foundation is important and a big part of his legacy. He is the face of the Olympic movement in the U.S., For us, he is also part of our marketing as we build globally. We have his face in restaurants in Mexico, Asia, the Middle East."
Phelps, now out of the water, continues to do many things. What won't he do? Actually run the Marathon. "Nope. Never. It's not something I see myself doing."