This post is part of our feature on Money Winners of 2008. See all 20.
It wasn't like Michael Phelps hadn't done well for himself by the time he got into the swimming pool at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He was pulling in between $4 and $5 million a year after winning six gold medals in the 2004 Athens Olympics. And was already a sports marketer's wet dream, so to speak.
But then he went and broke Marc Spitz's 36-year record by winning eight gold medals, and the real race was on: to break out as the first $100 million Olympian.
Or at least that's what his managers and agent were saying. Measuring the precise wealth of sports stars is something of an art. Most of their great wealth comes from corporate endorsement deals, which are often heralded more as approximations than exact hard figures.
After his huge Olympic win, 23-year-old Phelps became the celebrity of the moment. And to be sure, as a result, he did some boffo business, earning lucrative endorsement deals with Visa, PowerBar, Omega, AT&T Wireless, and, of course, Speedo, which made the high-tech LZR suit Phelps took the gold in.
Speedo had earlier promised him $1 million if he won seven gold medals. After he won eight, Phelps felt fat enough to start a charity, the Michael Phelps Foundation, and seed it with that $1 million. (Speedo added $200,000.)
All told, Phelp's net worth is estimated to be around $40 to $50 million. (His first deal with Speedo, inked in 2001, stipulated that the company would pay for his college education "in case his swimming career didn't work out.")
Not bad for a funny-looking kid from Baltimore. But that's a long way from $100 million. And in the pantheon of wealthy athletes, Phelps doesn't come close to such Great Gods as Tiger Woods (looking to become the first billionaire sports figure soon), Michael Jordan (who last year had to cough up $168 million in a divorce settlement) or the athlete/celebrity money earners such as David Beckham and Lance Armstrong.
Critics are already saying he's got a lot of upstream swimming to do. Several history-making events have occurred since he won those gold medals (the financial meltdown, Obama's election) that have caused the public to move on. And then there's the fact that, unlike Tiger Woods or a ballplayer like CC Sabathia, an Olympic swimmer doesn't have another chance to show his stuff until the next Olympics. Marketers say he'll have to work hard to keep his name in the spotlight ... and earnings.
But he's not out of the race yet. His just-released book (for which he received a $1.6 million advance), No Limits: The Will to Succeed, promises to be a holiday best-seller. And Phelps recently signed on to be a spokesperson for Subway, the fast-food sandwich chain.
So although he's not there yet, 2008 was definitely a golden year for Michael Phelps, in more ways than eight. He's been quoted as saying, "I'm not in it for the money. If I were, I'd be in a different sport." Maybe he can try his hand at basketball.