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Phelps holds key to the vault

By Reuters in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2015-12-24 07:57

 Phelps holds key to the vault

Michael Phelps is preparing for an Olympics without the support of longtime sponsor Speedo, and is instead wearing a suit designed by Aqua Sphere, a virtual unknown in swim racing that is making its Games debut at Rio de Janeiro next year. Bob Stanton / USA Today Sports

Olympic icon switches gear sponsor ahead of Rio Games

For the first time in his career, swimming superstar Michael Phelps is preparing for an Olympics without the support of longtime gear sponsor Speedo.

Instead, he is wearing a suit and other gear designed by Aqua Sphere, a virtual unknown that will make its Games debut at Rio de Janeiro next year.

Phelps has helped Aqua Sphere design a range of products bearing his 'MP' initials, which will adorn the suit, goggles and cap he will wear at Rio if he makes the US team.

For Phelps and Aqua Sphere, the stakes are high as they pursue a piece of the estimated $1 billion in annual sales of competitive and fitness swimwear worldwide.

The 30-year-old, who came out of retirement last year having already amassed a record 18 Olympic gold medals at three summer Games, used the Aqua Sphere suit at the US Winter National Championships earlier this month.

"When he announced he was coming back, there wasn't a swimwear company that didn't aggressively court him," said Phelps' agent, Peter Carlisle, managing director at talent agency Octagon, a unit of Interpublic Group.

"The offer that stood out as being the most compelling was launching his own brand with Aqua Sphere."

Rio is the first Olympics that will feature a technical racing suit made by Aqua Sphere, which FINA, the international governing body of swimming and water sports, has approved.

The brand faces some formidable competition from the likes of Speedo and other established swimsuit makers, such as TYR and Arena.

But if Phelps performs like he has in the past, Aqua Sphere could have a chance to break through, according to David Abrutyn, executive vice-president at sports marketing firm Bruin Sports Capital.

"Everybody loves a comeback story, and Aqua Sphere could stand to benefit considerably," Abrutyn said.

Global market

Phelps was attracted to the fledgling brand because it offered him the chance to promote the sport in the global market, his agent said.

Aqua Sphere has access to an international network of manufacturing, product development and sales offices through its parent company, Aqua Lung, which is part of industrial gas company Air Liquide SA.

Carlisle said the agreement, the value of which is unknown, runs through 2020 and functions more like a partnership, with equity-type elements that might include royalties or a cut of sales that go to Phelps in addition to licensing fees.

Teaming up with an athlete so closely associated with a single brand, as Phelps has been with Speedo, can sometimes be a challenge, Abrutyn said. He pointed to adidas' sponsorship of Andre Agassi at the end of his tennis career after Agassi had spent many years with Nike. Agassi's name never became closely associated with adidas, and eventually he returned to Nike.

Character issues have also surrounded Phelps, who was photographed with a marijuana pipe in 2009 and pleaded guilty to a drunk driving charge in 2014, his second offense in 10 years.

When asked about Phelps earlier this month, Speedo International president David Robinson noted the swimmer became the greatest Olympian in history under Speedo's sponsorship.

"We understood he was retiring, and at that point we moved on and started to look at the new fresh talent that was coming through," Robinson said.

Speedo is sponsoring 24 swimmers this year, including Phelps' US teammates Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin.

Suit designs changed in 2009 when FINA said it was banning "tech suits" made from polyurethane and other materials that led to a streak in world records.

Now racing suits must be made exclusively from textiles, with no plastics.

Aqua Sphere took its cues from Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, when designing the suits and accessories. One suggestion Phelps made was to make the swim shorts, or "jammers", as they're called, more flexible, allowing him to move his hips more freely and not walk "like a penguin", said Todd Mitchell, business line manager for Aqua Sphere.

Phelps is scheduled to compete at the USA Swimming Pro Swim Series event in Austin, Texas, in January.

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