Michael Phelps proved he is the Olympic gold standard.
Now he's chasing a different kind of gold -- from corporations. And the question out there is whether Phelps can prove he's worth as much (if not more) out of the pool as he is in it.
Entering the Beijing Games, Phelps was reportedly earning an estimated $5 million annually from corporate endorsements, with deals from companies like AT&T, Visa, PowerBar, Omega and Speedo. Now that he's won eight gold medals, breaking Mark Spitz's 36-year-old record of seven in one Olympic Games, many in the sports marketing industry believe Phelps' corporate income could set new records.
Some wondered what Phelps might have been thinking when he turned pro at the tender age of 15 -- who on Earth would endorse a teenage swimmer? -- but no one seems to be questioning that decision now.
"Michael Phelps is going to have no problem from here on out," said Scott Sanford, managing director at the Dallas-based Davie-Brown talent group. "He will have star power."
According to Sanford, whose company tries to quantify an athlete's or celebrity's endorsement potential, Phelps' worth has skyrocketed. The company won't have updated figures for a couple of days, but those numbers, clearly, are expected to jump.
Typically, swimmers, even those at the top, are a commodity only every four years, when the Olympics are at the forefront of America's attention. Phelps, whose ultimate goal was to change the sport of swimming, might have changed that conventional wisdom -- at least for his own brand.
"He has transcended himself into a position that is going to sustain him for a long time," Sanford said. "He has separated himself from just being a swimmer."
Phelps, whose heroics in Beijing have landed him on the front pages of newspapers around the globe, has been likened to numerous athletic superstars. NBC's Bob Costas has mentioned Phelps in the same breath as Tiger Woods, Joe Montana and Michael Jordan, select company to be sure.
Of course, people are also mentioning his name along with that of Spitz. Evan Morgenstein, Spitz's agent, said he and Spitz are open to the possibility of joint appearances or endorsement deals, but so far, nothing has come up. Spitz has been able to stand the test of time. He's a sought-after speaker and endorses companies like Medco, a health benefits corporation, even though his best days in the pool were back in 1972.
"Marketing potential is such a tough question," Morgenstein wrote in an e-mail from Beijing. "It's defined by whether he is thought of by performance or stature/story. If America believes his struggle to achieve eight golds has a broader good than just victories, he will earn millions of dollars forever."
The business decisions Phelps makes over the next two years -- if not the next two weeks -- will be critical. Appearances and endorsement possibilities will be flying from every direction, and he and his longtime agent, Peter Carlisle of Octagon, will have to be careful about their decisions.
Carlisle told The Wall Street Journal on Monday that he expects Phelps' current annual earnings to at least double.
"What is the value of eight golds in Beijing before a prime-time audience in the U.S?" Carlisle told the newspaper. "I'd say $100 million over the course of his lifetime."
Speedo has already paid him a $1 million bonus for breaking Spitz's record. Just as records can be broken in the pool, so can contracts on land. According to The Wall Street Journal on Monday, Phelps' worth to Nike could be $40 million.
Speedo has long been considered the swimming company, and its LZR Racer suits were worn by the dominant swimmers in the Games. Twenty-four world records were broken by swimmers sporting Speedos in Beijing.
Phelps also will be the spokesman for the beverage PureSport, which is about to launch its first national ad campaign with the swimmer. Phelps and the rest of the men's and women's U.S. swim teams are receiving free pizza and pasta for a year from Pizza Hut. Another one of his sponsors, Kellogg Co., is also looking into possible deals. Plus, he's hearing from potential consumers online -- reportedly 795,000 people have signed up as fans of Phelps on Facebook.
The magic of Olympic staying power is tricky. What can seem so important today might not down the road. Mary Lou Retton captured gold in 1984 and remains a household name. Carly Patterson also struck gold in women's gymnastics four years ago, but she hasn't made the same impact. Who knows how long-term America's memories of newly crowned gymnastics champion Nastia Liukin will be?
Some companies were savvy enough to figure out Phelps would be a worthwhile investment years ago. Visa and PowerBar, for instance, have backed him since 2002. PowerBar launched a TV ad campaign featuring Phelps back in March. Visa created two special-edition national TV ads to celebrate Phelps' achievements in Beijing.
"Michael is leaving Beijing as a global sports icon," said Michael Lynch, head of Visa's global sponsorship management. "We look forward to new opportunities post-Beijing that will reinforce our relationship with him on a global stage."
Phelps plans to move back to his hometown in Baltimore following these Games in Beijing. He has lived and trained at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for four years, following the 2004 Games in Athens, where he collected six golds and two bronze. Baltimore is home and Phelps seems more than ready to return, but it is also a somewhat provincial city.
Cal Ripken Jr., for one, can attest to that. But Ripken and his handlers have made certain that he has made himself a fixture in the community.
Ripken has signed megadeals with major companies such as Chevrolet, but his contracts include components that allow him to work with the Maryland Chevy dealers, for instance. And when it comes to major media events, such as when Ripken became baseball's iron man or when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, his handlers made sure he did interviews with the big guns, such as ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning," as well as with Baltimore sports talk radio hosts.
"Some of the big companies like Octagon are very global and they have to be careful with that," said John Maroon, who runs a public relations firm in Baltimore and has worked with Ripken in various capacities for the past 13 years. "They have to be careful with that or it's going to reflect on Michael. His brand and his worth can just keep going and going. Baltimore is a town that really embraces its own if its own embraces it."
As for Baltimore companies that might be a good fit for Phelps, Maroon said, "The problem is, you're going to need a company with a pretty big budget." There are a handful in Baltimore, but so far, Phelps' corporate endorsers have been national companies.
Phelps will be spending much of the rest of his downtime in Beijing meeting with Olympic sponsors and mulling over future deals.
After that, maybe he can rest.
At least for a little while.
At the moment, being the king of the pool is the talk of the Olympics, but by the end of the month, most Americans will be talking about the NFL again. Swimming won't be back on the radar for four more years, perhaps with an occasional bump during the World Championships.
"Right now, it seems like the biggest thing in the world and we'll be talking about this for years and years," Maroon said. "I like Michael and I wish him the best, but the truth is that people move on.
"He needs to strike while the iron is hot."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.