Thursday, August 26, 2010

PR Crisis: Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman exchange expletives - Reputations and careers at stake!

There is no doubt that Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer ever. That is talent is so rich and runs so deep that he has demonstrated all throughout 2010 that he can show up to a meet barely prepared and still win the majority of races he competes.

It will probably take a generation of swimmers; (30-years or so), before we see a swimmer that can match his accomplishments and this declaration may be an understatement.

For over a year now Michael Phelps has acknowledged that he has been poorly prepared when showing up to "off-meets." These are not my words, but the words of both Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman.

Here is a brief chronicle of the past 8-months:

It was a state championship in a short course yard pool for age-groupers; the Maryland State Swim Championships at the U.S. Naval Academy. Michael Phelps was graciously attending to both inspire the kids and to get some benchmarks to measure his conditioning. One of those benchmarks was the 400 IM.

From Associated Press:

"I'm not happy, not at all," said Phelps, [...] He last swam competitively seven weeks ago.

"I wasn't as focused as I should have been. I let things control me that I should have been able to control. This is my job, my profession. I should handle things differently..."


"I can say today, at this moment, after this event, 3:39 is nowhere close to what I can or should do." [The state record was 3:35.98.]

Later in the meet he went on to break his own short course record in the 200-free.

In middle March, Phelps, swam at the The UltraSwim meet in Charlotte. He won the 200m IM, the 100m-butterfly, and the 200m-free. He scratched in the 50m-free after placing ninth in the prelims and placed second to Nicholas Thoman in the 100m-back.

His response to his performance as printed at the Telegraph in the UK:

"... "This weekend gives me motivation, more than anything. The weekend was not great, not terrible.

"I can't really be disappointed. There's some conditioning I need to fix, but hopefully by the end of the year I'll be where I want to be."..."

In May at the Open EDF, more mixed results:

His time in the 200-meter medley was a 1 minute, 58.95 seconds on Sunday, but he struggled throughout his freestyle races telling AP that he has to train harder, he needs to train harder.

“I’m not worried,” Phelps said. “Am I upset? Yes. Very. When I’m upset, I think it’s the best time for me to try and use that as a motivation.”

“Hopefully, it’s a wake up call. If it’s not, then I have to change a lot,” he said. “I blame myself. You’ve got to be responsible for your own action.”

According to, Bob Bowman, Phelps still continued to loaf and failed to show up for workouts. Bowman and Phelps even traded expletives regarding his workout attendance. When asked by ESPN what has been going on with his "day job", it was suggested that the Open EDF, the 2010 USA Swimming Nationals, and the Pan-Pacific Championships were summarily events held during an off year. He credited his lack of workout participation for giving him time to relax, to take up golf, and discover or define who he is as an adult.

Consequently, the Bowman/Phelps drama is seemingly like the separation one observes between a "father and his son" once the kid reaches adulthood. However, their relationship, as noted by ESPN, is a business relationship rather than a father/son relationship.

Form ESPN:

"I used every trick I had," Bowman said. "At first, I tried to be really patient, which is not a strong suit. I acted like it didn't bother me even though it killed me. Then I said, 'Screw that,' and got all over him and he missed like two straight weeks."


Bowman said he confronted Phelps about his commitment a few times, describing their conversations like this: "He wouldn't show up and I'd say, 'Where the f--- are you?' And he'd be equally urbane and intellectual, and then would miss two more weeks."

Michael Phelps is not just a professional swimmer, he is even more than a business, he is a resource that generates millions-of-dollars for the likes of Speedo, USA Swimming, his charities, his agents, his lawyers, and the TV networks that cover him.

Even now Speedo is embracing Ryan Lochte more than they are Michael Phelps because Ryan Lochte cares about his brand, his workout schedule and performances. Consequently, he blatantly executes well. Phelps on the other hand berates his very own work ethic which in effect diminishes the ability of those that either lost to him or defeated him.

Example: If Michael Phelps suddenly gave an impromptu press conference at some swim meet stating emphatically with lots of emotion that Ryan Lochte will never beat him in the 400 IM. That he will never allow anyone to beat him in any event he swam, economic engines at NBC Sports would be planning to have a television crew at any meet he swam and the sports pages all across the country would AP alert set up cover his races.

Even USA Swimming would be throwing more swim meets and licensing the television rights so as to use the profits to both grow the sport and their personal pocketbooks. Offers for both athletes to come and swim here or there would come early and often but Phelps is not saying those sort of things.

Instead, his excuses are about how unprepared he is or; if you read between the lines, how he would really rather be doing something else.

Finally, since Michael Phelps is a brand, his brand is changing from the greatest swimmer of all time to a swimmer who can't wait till retirement. That to me is a PR crisis and his sponsors can't be happy.


Anonymous said...

Everything he said (and you quoted) was true. How can you blame someone for telling the true?

Tony Austin said...

My criticisms are about how he is conducting himself as a brand, not a human being. If he is burned out, he should quit.

I am not blaming him for telling the truth, I am "blaming" him for bad PR practices and consequently cheapening both his brand and reputation.

Anon, Imagine this: Imagine you are the President of Speedo marketing and PR. It was you that decided to secure a Michael Phelps contract for a 7-figure-dollar-amount through 2012. Come Monday morning after Pan Pacs, you look at the sports page, or the SCAQ blog and you suddenly see articles about Phelps and Bowman cussing each other out, Phelps complaining about being out of shape and not up to his potential, and then guys like me writing that Phelps keeps looking at his Omega watch to see if he gets to retire yet. How would feel as a marketing director?

How would you feel if Paul Biedermann, Milord Cavic, and Cesar Cielo beat Phelps in the 100-fly, the 200-free, and the 100-free wearing their Arena suits. That would be 2009 World Championships all over again and Arena would be on top.

If Phelps is burned out, he should either quit or see a psychologist so as to find new motivation.

People's incomes, jobs and business plans are relying on him. If I was the Speedo Marketing Director, I would seek meetings with his management immediately for reassurance as to how serious he is at this point.

Trev said...

Agreed. He needs to work more closely with his publicists.

And get the burnout handled, or move on.

Anonymous said...

I like his honesty. So much is fake these days.

A coach change sounds good since Bowman's techniques appear to be too much for Phelps at this point but I can't see Phelps doing that. :/

Psychologists are way overrated - how often do you see them 'fixing' someone?
And you wouldn't tell someone with Olympic medal chances to 'quit'. Please. That's insulting. Just because he's not doing the 8-golds feat thing.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree. How can winning 5 Pan Pacs titles and posting world best times lead to cheapening one's image, it's beyond my imagination. You can't expect anyone to be 100% ready every year, especially in an off year like 2010 and if someone isn't 100% ready and says so, it's called being honest. Why would he quit? Even with 40% of his abilities, he's better than fact, better than anyone except Lochte. Speedo people should ask themselves why they let their swimming icon, their most recognizable star sign with Under Armour, I think that's a much bigger PR crisis than anything Phelps says in post race interviews.

Tony Austin said...

I suspect you are viewing my post as a personal attack on Michael Phelps. It is not. It is a business critique and all the quotes I put up there are real.

What is cheapening Michael Phelps image is both his rhetoric and Coach Bowman's comments.

Mo doubt Phelps is sill the best but he look and sounds like he hates his job and that is a red flag for sponsors.

TedBaker said...

Talk is cheap, Tony In this sport, at the elite level, time is everything.

In an off year, after 15+ years of crushing work-load, Phelps' times are world best in the 100 'fly, 200 'fly and 100 free. (That one blows me away. That was unbelievable and shows just how superbly talented this young man is.) He's top 5 in the 200 'free and second - in the world - in the 200 IM.

To me - and to others like me that used to compete at the elite level - he hasn't diminished his brand this year; not at all. In fact, going those swims in an off year, under the media microscope he's under, he's enhanced it.

And as to burnout, you take years off to avoid burnout. If he needs this year so that he can get ready for 2011 and 2012, then I support him.

Tony Austin said...

Awesome, Ted. but we disagree :-)

TedBaker said...

Tony, his sponsors don't pay for results at Pan Pacs. They don't pay for what he says after the Charlotte Ultra-swim or after Nationals. Nobody cares about those meets except us insiders.

Omega, UnderArmour and the rest pay for results at the Olympics, when the whole world watches. I'm betting all his deals with his sponsors - beyond Speedo - are loaded with performance bonus, specific to how well he does at the Olympics and, maybe, Worlds.

Tony Austin said...

I will grant you that the Olympics is what Omega and Under Armor care about but since I happen to be "marketing insider" ;-) believe me, Jason Lance, the Vice President for Speedo marketing cares.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that his sponsors would prefer that MP's PR be better at this point, but is he (or they) facing a crisis? No. The rhetoric in this post is overblown.

The previous commentators are correct: performance matters more than anything. As long as Phelps continues to win he is still exceptionally valuable and his sponsors don't really have much to complain about. He doesn't even need to win everything or even the majority of his races--once an athlete reaches "greatest of all time status" his position is cemented in the media and with the businesses that support him. This is why Tiger Woods STILL has sponsors despite a media scandal a million times worse than anything MP has faced--he is golf therefore Nike will support him through everything except a criminal conviction. This why Roger Federer, despite dropping to number 3 in the world and losing in two consecutive slam quarterfinals for the first time in 7/8 years is still incredibly valuable to his numerous sponsors. Once you're the greatest, you don't need to do as much. Phelps' name is still synonymous with swimming-he draws more media attention and more spectators than any other athlete in the sport. A few negative quotes in the media don't really change much about his relative value to his sponsors. Like Tiger, he is his sport. Speedo may be using Lochte more in their campaigns (which is smart-pre-positioning him for post-2012 when he'll still be around and MP won't), but MP is still infinitely more valuable than he is.

Tony Austin said...

I think it is a crisis since Phelps' ability to attract new sponsors would certainly have Marketing VPs considering his motivations moving forward; especially if he isn't practicing much in 2011-2012.

USA Today thinks so too... I will make a new post of the article.

If I was a marketing VP I would put my money on a winter Olympian such as Shaun White, who competes in two sports, snowboarding and skateboarding and has year-long exposure in both the Winter and Summer X-Games. Then he too has the Winter Olympics

If I was marketing a suit, I would pay a fortune for Nathan Adrian, Chloe Sutton, Cullen Jones and I would also sponsor Jason Lezak and have him show up at Masters meets to set Wrs.

Anonymous said...

Quotes about motivations mean nothing. If Phelps doesn't attract new sponsors between now and 2012, it will be because of his bong scandal, because they think he's overexposed and his brand diluted by too many other sponsors, or because he underperforms at the 2011 Shanghai Games, not because of his quotes in the past year.

Jason Lezak is articulate and a great role model. And 2 years after Beijing, despite still being recognized as a sports hero, he does not have a sponsor. He's a prime example that if you don't consistently perform on an individual level or show potential for such, you will not get deal. I won't be surprised if Lochte inks a new deal or two in the next year, but other sponsors may hold out until they see how people perform at the '11 WCs. You can be the most motivated, interesting, quote-worthy, entertaining, diligent, and focused athlete in the world & still get nothing. Because performance trumps everything.

Anonymous said...

Tony, obviously there's a reason why you're NOT a marketing VP. Just to remind you one thing: your entry about Phelps had 52 comments and at least 10 people who commented. Your entry about Lochte and his shoes had 1 comment. You must have realized by now (as Speedo, Omega, Visa, Under Armor etc already have) who sells.

Tony Austin said...

Anon, If your comment were a "batter" in a "baseball game", I would say you hit a triple.

Tony Austin said...

I am not a Marketing VP because I have a soul.