By Katrina Beikoff
SYDNEY, Oct. 10. SWIMMING superstar Ian Thorpe will become the new face of Japanese television and launch an international range of Thorpedo toys, clothes and action figures in a series of massive new deals that will earn the 18-year-old more than AUS$10 million (US$5 million).
Three new deals finalized in the past week by Thorpe's management company will push the serial world record breaker into the earning stratosphere currently dominated by professional tennis players, golfers and sports icons such as Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.
It means for the first time, an Australian swimmer has been able to jump from the domestic market to attract major international sponsorships, and sets Thorpe up to rival top money-earning sportspeople including golfer Greg Norman.
The Shark was listed last year as Australia's top money-earning athlete for the fourth consecutive year with estimated gross earnings of US$23.9 million.
Thorpe's combined deals, unique for any Australian sports star, will make him one of the most recognizable sportspeople in the world and will cash in
on his hero-like status in Japan.
His multi-million dollar deals with Japanese broadcaster TV Asahi, adidas international and Gaffney International Licensing – which license Coca-Cola,
Holden, the Wiggles, Bananas in Pyjamas and Bob the Builder products – are worth more than US$5 million direct to the swimmer over the next three years.
The new deals come on top of Thorpe's eight existing commercial sponsorships, which have helped earn him more than US$1.5 million in the year since the Sydney Olympics.
"I'm overwhelmed by the support in Japan," said Thorpe, who is holidaying with friends in Queensland.
"They are so enthusiastic about swimming.
"And I'm excited by the opportunity to be involved in products that kids can enjoy."
The television deal, finalized yesterday afternoon, means Thorpe will become one of the Astralian national network's main personalities and the face of the station.
It will involve Thorpe, who turns 19 on Saturday, traveling to Japan once a year and television crews traveling to Australia once a year to film a series of swimming and lifestyle specials.
A TV Asahi spokesman last night said the network, which already promoted Thorpe as the face of the world swimming championships in Fukuoka in August – sparking Thorpe-mania across Japan – said the deal would last until just after the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
"Such a partnership agreement is not common business in Japan," the spokesman said. "We are looking to the next few years when we can work closely with Ian Thorpe, now one of the greatest athletes in the world."
While the television deal is certain to cement the Australian multiple world record holder as Japan's favorite sports star, it is the licensing deal, signed Monday, which will really heighten his worldwide exposure.
Gaffney's Mike Wrublewski, the former owner of the Sydney Kings, said the Thorpedo brand was expected to include swim aids such as goggles, boards and fins, a clothing range, Ian Thorpe action figures, toys, back-to-school products, computer games and information technology innovations.
Retail analysts have estimated the Thorpe products to reap a US$5 million turnover within their first year, with Thorpe committing a portion of the proceeds to his Fountain for Youth Trust. "Ian is now one of the top two or three icons in the world as far as a sportsperson is concerned," Wrublewski said.
"You've got Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan and I think Ian is the next most recognizable sportsperson in the world.
"It's wonderful to be able to create for an Australian icon the emotional ties that have been created for Jordan and Woods."
Thorpe's manager Dave Flaskas said any new Thorpe products would require the approval of his existing sponsors. "The market won't be swamped – we'll be selective and the products will be of the highest quality," Flaskas said.
Thorpe has also signed with adidas international until the end of 2005 in a new deal valued around US$1.5 million.
It means Thorpe, who has been with adidas Australia since 1999, will now become one of the main global faces of the apparel company.
He has also been integrally involved in the development of a new generation of the sleek, black signature bodysuit he wore in his Olympic medal-winning
swims and his unprecedented six gold medal haul at the world championships. The new generation suit, currently being kept tightly under wraps by adidas, will be launched ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in July.
Thorpe has also been signed up to be one of the icons of the Commonwealth Games.