When American super swimmer Michael Phelps won eight gold medals and broke seven world records at the 2008 Olympics, he became an instant celebrity. Since the Olympics were held in the land of the Great Wall, Phelps is perhaps an even bigger sensation in China. In fact, Phelps is so big in the Middle Kingdom that he has just scored what is believed to be the largest endorsement deal of any western celebrity, a $1 million deal to pitch the all-new Mazda6. Mazda is spending big bucks on a pitch man in an effort to capitalize on its recent success in China. The outgoing 6, named Rui Yi in China, experienced a 43 percent sales increase in 2008, outpacing Mazda's already impressive brand-wide increase of 27 percent.
China is currently the world's third largest market, behind only Japan and the United States. The world's most populous nation is expected by many analysts to surpass Japan in this category as soon as this year, and the US could be in the rear view mirror by 2020. Mazda spending big to land an American hero shows goes some way to showing just how important the growing market is for the Japanese automaker.