Michael Phelps, Businessman: The World’s Greatest Olympian Writes His Second Act

His future as a husband, father, endorser and entrepreneur

Michael Phelps had a better 2016 than you.

He got married. He had his first child. He starred in the year’s best ad—an elegiac masterpiece by Droga5 for Under Armour. And at 31, the planet’s greatest-ever swimmer went to his fifth and final Olympics, in Rio, seeking redemption—four years after a lackluster (for him) London 2012, and two years after a fraying personal life ended in a DUI arrest (his second) and rehab.

Redemption, he found.

Phelps grinded out a storybook ending to his swimming career in Brazil, winning five gold medals and a silver, putting his tally at a staggering 28 Olympic medals, and 23 golds. Just as important, he went out at an emotional and physical peak. He was in the best shape of his life and excited to be in the pool—a stark contrast to the motivational problems that haunted him before and after his first retirement, post-London.

“It’s been a crazy year, an honestly ridiculous year, one of the greatest years of my life,” Phelps tells me one late November afternoon in Manhattan. (He calls Paradise Valley, Ariz., home these days, and is visiting NYC for USA Swimming’s Golden Goggle Awards.) “I don’t know when everything will settle down, but it’s been awesome. Coming back, going through some ups and downs away from the pool, and being able to finish my career on my terms—that’s all I wanted.”

You couldn’t have scripted it much better.

Except now, it’s all preamble. How the most decorated Olympian in history writes the rest of his life—the business career he envisions for himself, in the mold of a Jordan or a Jeter; his charity work; his family life; his efforts to grow the sport of swimming; his endorsement deals; and his own burgeoning MP brand—is entirely up to him.

It’s not at all clear he can be as dominant out of the pool as he was in it. But he has the time, and the freedom, to pursue anything he likes. And there are signs, some of which weren’t evident even two years ago, that he might have what it takes to enjoy a very interesting second act indeed.

His Olympic exploits give Phelps unique, multifaceted value as an endorser.
Photo: Robert Ascroft

‘A Global Icon’
It will start, of course, with commercial endorsements, which have always provided the lion’s share of Phelps’ income. (He has made some $75 million off brand deals in his career, according to Money Nation, while his swimming exploits netted him less than $2 million.)

His unique value as an endorser is twofold: His accomplishments are unmatched, in any sport, and were achieved on a global stage. That combination of excellence and reach is tempting to any number of advertisers, particularly U.S. brands expanding overseas.

“To the extent anyone can be a global icon, Michael is. He’s recognizable and relevant in just about every market we want to be working in,” says his Maine-based agent, Peter Carlisle, managing director of Olympics and action sports at Octagon, who signed Phelps in 2002 when he was just 16 and has become one of his closest friends.

“Even if you find an athlete that is compelling in China, what’s the likelihood they’re equally compelling in Russia, in Brazil, in India? Michael is very popular in India. Just last week I got an offer from Pakistan. There just aren’t many athletes who move the needle in so many different markets.”

Many Olympians have a short shelf life. Exposure on one or two nights every four years often isn’t enough to sustain value, unless you’re a superstar. But Phelps has excelled at so many Olympics, and on so many nights at each one, that his value has become a constant—and could remain so, even with his lower visibility in retirement.