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Michael Phelps Garners Marketing Opportunities Following Rio Games

Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2016

By Cassandra Jaramillo

Millions of Americans watched as Michael Phelps solidified his legacy as the most decorated Olympic athlete in history after finishing the Rio Games with six more medals.

Now, after that strong performance and a few years of efforts to repair his image, the retired swimmer is again in position to capitalize on his celebrity.

Exhibit A is Mr. Phelps’ new sponsorship deal with Intel, which was struck after the Games. The Olympian will star in two new TV ads, which begin airing next week, for the chip maker alongside “Big Bang Theory” star Jim Parsons.

One spot tries to capitalize on Mr. Phelps’ famous Olympic death stare, which became a viral sensation during the Summer Games. The ad​ features a recreation of the scene that took place ​prior to the 200-meter butterfly semifinal, when Mr. Phelps sat with his hood drawn over his head and grimaced as his South African nemesis Chad le Clos​ warmed up nearby.

In the commercial, Mr. Phelps looks angry as he uses his laptop. “Why the Phelps face? Old computer slowing you down?,” asks Mr. Parsons,who tries to offer his advice.

Mr. Phelps acknowledges that a new computer would be faster. “Yet, here you are with a new world record for the slowest computer,” Mr. Parsons quips.

The 31-year-old Olympian has garnered interest from other marketers following Rio, said a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Phelps has already signed an endorsement deal with a global consumer electronics company and is in talks with several beverage companies about various opportunities, the person added. Prior to the Olympics, Mr. Phelps had deals with Under Armour and Omega, the Swiss watchmaker.

It’s a story of redemption for a swimmer who previously lost endorsements following his drunk driving scandal in 2014.

Mr. Phelps said in an interview he felt an intrinsic need to change after London. He became focused on training and taking care of his body. He now raves about spending time with his baby son, Boomer, and fiancée Nicole Johnson.

“I am happy when I look in the mirror. I like who I see,” Mr. Phelps said. “It was a struggle to get through the things I went through, but at the end of the day I’m forever thankful for where I am today with my life.”

Despite doubts surrounding his ability to outperform his London and Beijing records, Mr. Phelps finished strong in his fifth Olympic Games with five gold medals and one silver, bringing him to a total medal count of 28.

Steve Fund, chief marketing officer at Intel, said the company approached Mr. Phelps after Rio. Mr. Fund said he felt working with Mr. Phelps was timely and relevant to its campaign. Intel declined to disclose how much it is paying Mr. Phelps.

“The Intel brand is around power, performance and speed and sports is a very simple analogy to bring to life those attributes,” Mr. Fund said.

Mr. Fund would not comment specifically on Mr. Phelps’ past missteps but said the company did its “homework” and felt “very comfortable partnering with Michael.”

According to data from the Marketing Arm, a unit of Omnicom Group that ranks perceptions of athletes based on online polls, Mr. Phelps jumped more than 1000 spots in his endorsement attractiveness ranking following Rio.

Before Rio, Mr. Phelps ranked 1,914 out of 4,000 celebrities, and he moved up to 99th place after the games.

Matt Fleming, director of celebrity acquisition at the Marketing Arm, said the Olympics’ four-year cycle makes it challenging for athletes to stay relevant, but that’s unlikely to happen to Phelps.

“He further established himself as one of the greatest Olympians,” Mr. Fleming said. “How consumers view him now will give brands more confidence.”

Bryce Townsend, head of business solutions at ESP Properties, a WPP company that advises sports and entertainment organizations, said Mr. Phelps can connect with youth and family audiences.

“Swimming is how he became famous. He was a champion. He had resiliency, and those are attributes you can apply to any facet of life,” Mr. Townsend said.