Shaq vs. Michael Phelps

On Sunday, NBA big man Shaquille O’Neal faced off with Baltimore’s Olympian Michael Phelps in a swim-off for ABC’s new reality show, “Shaq Vs.”

Phelps, an eight-time gold medalist at the 2008 Summer Olympics, and Shaq, a perennial All Star with a playful personality, squared off before a crowd of about 600 at the Loyola College of Maryland.

“Shaq Vs.” debuted last Tuesday, but didn’t make much of a ratings splash among the big four networks; it barely edged out Fox’s “More to Love” (4 million viewers) with a total 4.3 million viewers. That’s less than half of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” (11.6 million) and CBS’s “Big Brother” (8.1 million).

Last week’s episode featured Shaq battling it out with Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger. I imagine they’re hoping for more of a ratings spike with Phelps, whose reputation (good or bad) is more widely known outside of the sports world.

ABC previously partnered with O’Neal on the 2007 summer reality series “Shaq’s Big Challenge,” in which he coached overweight kids on how to develop a healthier lifestyle. After disappointing ratings, however, the show didn’t return for a second season.

I’m not sure if the problem is Shaq or the crowded field of competitors. “America’s Got Talent” and “Big Brother” are some pretty stiff competition to go up against. I expect Phelps’ appearance in this week’s episode should give the show a ratings boost — if not, Shaq could have another dud on his hands.

Bank of America and U.S. Olympic Committee cut ties

Is this as bad as I think it sounds?

The Bank of America, after 16 years of sponsoring the U.S. Olympic team, announced today it is ending its support of the USOC. The bank cited a poor return on investment as its primary reason for cutting the cord, according to the Sports Business Journal.

BofA spokesman Joe Goode called the move “an extremely difficult and emotional decision” according to the SBJ.

“It’s not about the economy, it’s not about reducing marketing, it’s not about TARP support,” he added. “But rather, it’s about the insufficient business results we were able to generate.”

Wow. Let’s take a look-see: according to Nielsen, last year’s Summer Games (Remember them? With the thrill of Michael Phelps going for eight golds and the Chinese woman’s gymnastic team age scandal? That’s good TV!) averaged nearly 27.7 million viewers over 17 days. This year’s Super Bowl hit about 98.7 million viewers in one night.

Of course, when you multiply it out, the 17-day viewership of the Olympics last year totaled 469.2 million, but who knows how many of those daily watchers are repeat viewers?

It appears that even with last year’s opening ceremony in Beijing being television’s first 1 billion-member audience, the Olympics are losing their luster. Who’s fault is this? Is the USOC overpricing its product? Or should we blame the Internet? (After all, it always seems to be a good scapegoat for questions like, “Why can’t newspapers make money?” or “Why aren’t people watching TV anymore?”)

Or is this a dumb move by BofA?

Kellogg’s breaks ranks, deal with Phelps

When I spoke to sports marketers earlier this week, they said Michael Phelps needed to put his face out there in response to last weekend’s bong photo and not hide behind a statement. Wednesday, he spoke to the press for the first time since the photo’s publication and Thursday afternoon he appeared before WBAL’s television cameras.

But now, another setback. Apparently Kellogg Co. doesn’t want anything to do with that face, as it announced Thursday night it would let its contract with the Olympian expire at the end of this month.

Phelp’s management team issued a statement in response:

“Michael accepts these decisions and understands their point of view,” the statement issued by Octagon said. “He feels bad he let anyone down. He’s also encouraged by the thousands of comments he’s received from his fans and the support from his many sponsors. He intends to work hard to regain everyone’s trust.”

Many people (fans or otherwise) have said Phelps is a 23-year-old who used poor judgment — it’s not the first or last time someone his age has done that. I get that, and I suspect on some level even Kellogg’s gets that too.

But the marketers I spoke to noted that while Phelps is only human, his sponsors have paid money for his wholesome, hard-worker image. Last weekend’s photo is a blow to that image his sponsors weren’t anticipating, as with they might with other athletes (party boys Matt Leinart and Bode Miller come to mind).

There’s a reason Kellogg’s, a very family-oriented brand, signs athletes like Phelps and doesn’t sign ones like Miller or Leinart. This is a business decision and the cereal maker is looking out for itself.

Do you agree with Kellogg’s backing out? Will there be more sponsors to follow?

LIZ FARMER, Business Writer

Phelps named Sportsman of the Year

It’s been a 13-year drought, but today that was broken when Sports Illustrated named Olympian Michael Phelps its sportsman of the year. The last Marylander to win the honor was Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995.

sicover.jpgThe cover features Phelps, a Baltimore native and the winner of a record-breaking eight gold medals in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games this year, in a sopping-wet white dress shirt and black suit pants and a tie. Phelps is grinning and is holding the black suit jacket casually over his shoulder.

Sometimes I wonder what the subjects of these photos think about the poses they take or costumes they’re made to wear by photographers. From what I’ve heard about Phelps from people who have met him, he’s a pretty down-to-earth, regular guy. Is the studly-GQ look one that he’s going for now or is he grinning and bearing it for the SI art department?

But back on topic, I’m reminded of a conversation I had this summer with marketer David Warschawski just after Phelps won his eighth gold medal. He pointed out then that there were similarities between the Ripken brand and the Phelps brand.

“For us as marketers, this is a really intriguing time to watch the Michael Phelps brand because it has so much potential,” Warschawski said at the time. “This is the beginning of his career and endorsement life — how the brand develops from here is going to be really interesting to watch.”

Prophetic words, looking back. With this latest honor — one that literally parallels Ripken — it does seem as if Phelps is well on his way to following the Iron Man’s path of becoming a Maryland sports icon.

How far do you think Phelps can go?

LIZ FARMER, Business Writer

Jockeying for Facebook fans

In the pool, Michael Phelps would have me beat hands-down. There’s no doubt he’d lap me in record time.

But online, I’d like to think I’d have a fighting chance in a skill match against the golden boy. After all, I spend 40-50 hours a week hunched over my laptop, messing with code and trying to help TDR harness the power of the Web.

phelpsy.jpgBut according to his marketing agency, Phelps is no slouch when it comes to technical skills. It’s all part of a strategy that Peter Carlisle of Octagon mapped out over the last six years: a strategy that includes having the swimmer post to his Facebook page himself, upload his own photos and participate in Web chats.

Now, I created a Facebook page for our new pub, Exhibit A, last week. I’m not proud to admit that it took longer than I expected to finish the job – the array of available features is dazzling. So, once complete, I scoped out what “MP”’s page had to offer.

Sure enough, it puts mine to shame.

There are 1,557,250 fans of Michael Phelps as I write this.
Exhibit A has 7. (..to be fair, my advertising budget’s a lot lower).

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The ‘Phelps brand’ and the Hilton

08_25_phelpsblog.jpgAt the Hilton Convention Center Hotel’s official opening Friday, a Hilton official mentioned the hotel brand’s recent endorsement of Olympic swimmer and Baltimore native Michael Phelps and said they hoped to bring Phelps around the new downtown hotel sometime soon.

David Warschawski, a Baltimore-based sports marketing and branding expert, said the key to Hilton’s partnership with Phelps is to create opportunities where people can actually interact with the athlete rather than just watch him from afar.

“If you can create activities that enhance the chance for guests to have those encounters then you increase your chance of getting people to come to your hotel,” he said.

Examples from Warschawski included giving Phelps eight years of residence (one for each gold medal he earned during the Beijing Olympics) at the Hilton, a free membership to the hotel gym or free dinner reservations at Hilton’s upscale restaurant, Diamond Tavern.

“Just the thought that when you’re booking the hotel you may have a chance to run into Michael, that gives you a lot of media opportunities and it’s a selling point for the hotel,” Warschawski said.

How more likely would you be to book a room at a hotel where you have the off chance of seeing Michael Phelps, or any athlete? Is this an effective marketing tool?

LIZ FARMER, Business Writer