Ryan Lochte has almost everything necessary to be the star of the London Olympics: looks, personality, even a catch-phrase. He just needs success in the pool.
After dominating swimming’s world championships since Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the 27-year-old Floridian who endorses green sparkled high-top sneakers and has his own sports apparel line is entering the most important week of his professional life.
“If he goes to London and he blows Michael Phelps out of the water, then we’re talking much, much, much more publicity and bargaining power,” his agent, Erika Wright, said in a telephone interview. “You’ve got to go win some golds and Ryan knows that.”
The opening ceremony of the games is tonight, with swimming beginning tomorrow, when Lochte and Phelps are set to race in the 400-meter individual medley.
Lochte won two gold medals in Beijing, setting a record in the 200-meter backstroke. His effort was overshadowed by Phelps, who became the only person to win eight golds at a single Olympics. Lochte is 11 months older than Phelps.
Tired of life in Phelps’s shadow, Lochte rededicated himself, said Rowdy Gaines, a three-time Olympic swimming gold-medalist who now is a television analyst. The effort paid off, with Lochte winning 15 gold medals at the following three world championships. Though he picked up several endorsement deals along the way, he has yet to become a household name.
Last month Lochte, whose interests include fashion, became just the fourth man to appear on the cover of Vogue.
“He’s a really good-looking guy, and I base that on four daughters,” Gaines said. “Phelps will always be the beloved one in our home full of women, but Ryan is definitely the new kid on the block as far as huge crushes go.”
A longtime endorser of Speedo International Ltd, the swimwear unit of U.K.-based Pentland Group Plc, Lochte now also represents Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co., Procter & Gamble Co. and its Gillette brand, PepsiCo Inc.’s Gatorade, Ralph Lauren Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and AT&T Inc.
He “stands to make millions of dollars this year,” Wright said in a telephone interview, without being specific. A Fortune magazine article that estimated his earnings at $2.3 million this year was “close,” she said.
“From 2008 until this year, he will increase by at least five times the amount of money he made then, and that might be on the low end,” Wright said.
USA Swimming team members receive stipends of between $1,500 and $3,000 per month, depending on how many appearances are made, according to Wright. Given his other commitments, Lochte’s take is currently on the lower end.
His Speedo contract, which runs through 2016, is valued in the “high six figures and can go into seven figures depending on what he does in the water,” Wright said.
As of the U.S. Olympic trials, which ran from June 25-July 2, Lochte ranked 2,056th out of about 2,500 people in the Davie Brown Index that measures U.S. celebrity status. Phelps was 182nd.
The index, created by the Dallas-based Marketing Arm, is broken into categories such as “Awareness,” how well a celebrity’s image is known by consumers, and “Breakthrough,” the degree to which the public takes notice when a celebrity’s image appears in media such as TV or print. While Lochte’s awareness ranked 2,266th, his breakthrough score was 90th and his “Aspiration” score -- how much consumers feel he has a life they desire -- was 97th.
“It tells us that people look up to him and he’s able to break through the clutter,” Darin David, an account director at the Marketing Arm, said in a telephone interview. “When he is in the news he’s able to get his name out there. He has been in Phelps’s shadow to some extent because his awareness is extremely low.”
Since teaming with Lochte three years ago, much of Wright’s efforts have been to prepare him and his brand for the Olympics and their aftermath.
On RyanLochte.com, fans can buy sunglasses with Lochte’s name and the American flag-embedded on the lenses for $14.99. Also for sale are 146 different T-shirts with prices ranging from $17.90 to $27.40. A fitness video, “Lochte Hard-Core,” will be released in August. A message on the website says U.S. Olympic Committee rules forbid the sale of the items during the London Games.
“It’s extremely important to us to capitalize on his marketability and ability to capture a large audience directly after the Olympics,” Wright said. “That’s the reason we have products to sell.”
Peter Carlisle, Phelps’s agent, said after the Beijing Olympics that his client might earn as much as $100 million as an endorser during his lifetime.
“I don’t back off of that, so long as he continues to want to be out there and work in the way that he has,” Carlisle said in a telephone interview this month.
He’s made $40 million in endorsement income so far, according to CBS’s “60 Minutes,” a figure Carlisle said “isn’t wildly off base.” He wouldn’t be more specific.
Regardless of what transpires when the two compete against each other, it will be hard for Lochte to match Phelps as an iconic international endorser, said Carlisle.
“He’s a great competitor, but if you look at it globally, it’s really difficult to stand out, to be relevant on a long-term basis and recognizable in all these markets,” Carlisle said of Lochte, who will enter a maximum of seven events in London. “To do so, you really have to do something unique.”
On several of Lochte’s shirts is “Jeah!,” a catch-all expression he uses that’s morphed from a similar word created by the rapper Young Jeezy. Jeah, which rhymes with yeah, can mean anything good, according to a video posted on his website.
“I’m still the same old Ryan,” Lochte said at a news conference during the Olympic trials, pointing to his love of skateboarding and surfing. “I don’t think I’ve changed.”
If the glare of the Olympic spotlight becomes too bright, Phelps, a friend, said he’d be there to help.
“He knows if he has any questions he can always reach out,” Phelps said in a telephone interview. “Business isn’t something we usually talk about. We’re usually joking around more than anything.”
Lochte plans to compete through the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, while Phelps said London will be his last games.
Asked if Lochte’s improvement had made him work harder since the last Olympics, Phelps replied, “It made me start working.”
“I wasn’t really focused on what I had to do and with Ryan’s success it made me get a little more excited and focus a little more,” Phelps said.
At the trials, where the only thing that mattered was Olympic qualification, Phelps beat Lochte in two out of three head-to-head races. They’ll face each other in the 400-meter and 200-meter individual medleys in London.
Lochte seems immune to distractions, Gaines said. When he had NBC Sports to his Gainesville, Florida, home for an interview, the shoot was interrupted by Carter, the world champion swimmer’s Doberman Pinscher, and A-Milli, his brother’s blue pit bull.
The two dogs repeatedly disrupted what the Comcast Corp. network crew had hoped would be a quiet set. Lochte was “totally oblivious to it,” according to Gaines, who conducted the interview.
“The point is, I think he’s that way in swimming,” Gaines said in a telephone interview. “I think he’s totally oblivious to the kind of pressure that he’s under.”
Lochte and Phelps probably will be teammates in three relay races. Each may attempt to win seven golds.
Wins over Phelps would mean more than just medals for Lochte; they also would enhance his opportunity to become a celebrity endorser. He says he’s up to the task.
“I love a challenge,” Lochte said. “He is one of the world’s best swimmers ever. For me to be in the same era as him and be in the same events as him and being able to race him to the finish, it’s awesome.”