Phelps setting pre-Athens standard

Look for the pre-Olympic Games scoreboard, where the standard is dollars invested in the pursuit of medals, to expand by a few more names in the next two weeks.

Five months before the start of the Athens 2004 Games, American swimmers already are the focal point of pre-Olympic marketing buzz -- thanks primarily to the hype around 18-year-old Michael Phelps.

When the NCAA women's swimming championships end Saturday in College Station, Texas, and the men's NCAAs conclude March 27 in Long Island, N.Y., at least two women and three men with Olympic star potential will emerge from the shackles of collegiate eligibility, free to sign with agents and secure equipment and other product endorsement deals.

The big catch will be multiple American and world record-holder Natalie Coughlin of Cal-Berkeley, poised to be the "next" Janet Evans or Jenny Thompson in terms of medal-winning and earning power. Another heavily decorated female collegian, Stanford senior Tara Kirk, is also on agents' radars.

On the men's side, Phelps has no peer at the moment for all-around world record-breaking, magazine cover-dominating potential, but he and 2000 gold medalist Ed Moses will have to share at least part of the endorsement pie with a trio from Texas after the NCAA men's championships. World record-holding sophomore Aaron Piersol, a backstroker, and senior Ian Crocker, a butterflier who has beaten Phelps, likely will join the frenzy after March 27, along with fellow Longhorn Brendan Hansen.

One of the agents who hopes to add some of those names to his client list, Evan Morgenstein, already represents Olympic medalist and model Amanda Beard, the legendary Thompson (who has earned 10 career Olympic medals so far and is on an academic track to become a physician) and Moses, along with the all-time Olympic icon Spitz. Octagon's Peter Carlisle is handling the Phelps machine, which has negotiated a $1 million Speedo bonus offer for matching the 1972 Spitz Olympic record of seven gold medals in 2004 or 2008, as well as deals with Argent Mortgage Co. and Visa, sponsors of USA Swimming.

Carlisle was not available to comment on other deals pending for Phelps.

"A third of the medals won by the U.S. in Sydney (in 2000) were won by our swimmers," said Morgenstein, who also represents Sydney medalist and broadcaster/spokesperson Dara Torres. "It is an odds-on bet that, if (a sponsor) signs a swimmer, you are going to get a medalist."

At least one Olympic sponsor, General Motors, is leaning toward making its Athens splash in the pool.

"Swimming may have the best potential for (GM)" to attract athlete-specific promotional campaigns, said Matt Pensinger, GM's manager of sports marketing and entertainment.

In what appears to be a growing trend among sponsors increasingly uneasy about gambling on individual athletes, Pensinger said GM has dropped a program through which the automaker granted free GM vehicles to select Olympic hopefuls in 2000 and 2002. There are no programs in GM's 2004 Olympic marketing mix -- which is comprised of gymnastics, swimming, and track and field, and a U.S. Olympic team sponsorship -- geared to individual athletes, but "it is a little early" to suggest that will not change, Pensinger said.

Visa, a global Olympic partner and also a sponsor of U.S. gymnastics and track and field, was early to the pre-Athens party by airing a beach volleyball Olympic spot during the recent Super Bowl. Visa has named a roster of "gold medal athletes" it can call on for promotional support. A Visa spokesman said Phelps is the centerpiece of promotional materials rolling out in banks and retail locations with ties to the credit card.

The Visa roster also includes two prominent American gymnasts, reigning world all-around champion Paul Hamm and world silver medalist Carly Patterson. While those two do not figure in Visa TV spots, USA Gymnastics senior vice president Steve Penny said he believes corporations have yet to begin their journeys to Athens.

"My take is that outside of the real obvious spokespeople, a lot of the Olympic sponsors are just beginning to finalize their marketing plans," he said. "There is a desire to wait until the Olympics become more front of mind with the American public."

It is also too early in the Athens countdown -- the Games open Aug. 13 -- to gauge the degree to which Olympic track prospects will be tainted by the emergence of their names during the ongoing federal investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), whose founder and three others are under indictment on steroid distribution charges.

Sydney multiple Olympic gold medalist and 100-meter champion Marion Jones, the world's fastest woman, was called to testify before the grand jury in the BALCO case. So was her spouse, world's fastest man Tim Montgomery. No charges have been filed against either athlete. Jones remains a fixture on Nike's "Goddess" Web site celebrating female athletes, and she remains one of the company's highest profile athletes.

But in a twist of irony that is difficult to overlook, Nike's current athlete campaign, in which stars are cast as contenders in other sports, portrays Jones as a gymnast, not a sprinter.

USA Track and Field CEO Craig Masback bristles at the suggestion that track is being taken down by the steroid scandal threatening to tarnish the marquee status of baseball superstars.

"This is not about track and field, not about Olympic athletes," Masback said. "This is about American sports, about something much larger. What track and field and Olympic sports have been doing (to enforce bans on performance enhancing drugs) is the best example, not the worst example. That's the message we are getting back from our sponsors."

Steve Woodward is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.