By Barry Janoff
August 5, 2014: Michael Phelps, arguably regarded as the greatest Olympic athlete ever, has been sponsored in his swimming career by Speedo since he was 16.
That has changed with Phelps moving to Aqua Sphere as he prepares for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The man with 18 gold medals and 22 medals overall has signed what was called a "long-term strategic partnership" with the company that also includes his Hall of Fame coach, Bob Bowman. Phelps' deal with Speedo expired at the end of 2013.
Phelps will get his own signature line with Aqua Sphere, which he will help design along with Bowman. Products will be targeted for both competitive swimmers and the general public to help increase participation in the sport.
Financial terms were not disclosed. Phelps is expected to appear in marketing for the brand, but details were not revealed.
"Excited to be a part of the @aquasphereswim family!!! Love the chance to be able to grow the sport of swimming even more with @coach_bowman," Phelps wrote on his Twitter account.
The move coincides with the two-year countdown to the Summer Games, with Opening Ceremonies scheduled for Aug. 5, 2016.
The alliance is part of Team Phelps' successful strategy to keep him front-and-center with consumers, marketers and fans even during extended non-Olympic periods.
Phelps this week is scheduled to compete against other elite swimmers in the Phillips 66 National Championships (Aug. 6-10 in Irvine, Calif.). The five-day meet is the sole qualifier for next month’s Pan Pacific Championships in Gold Coast, Australia and will help to determine next year’s national and world championship teams. The meet will be broadcast live for seven hours on NBC Sports Group and Universal Network.
"The barrier to getting into the sport and the barrier to Michael's efforts to grow the sport relate directly to product," Peter Carlisle, Phelps' long-time agent and the managing director for Olympics & Action Sports for Octagon, told AP. "The motivation is there for both partners to really change the approach that's been taken, to take a much more inclusive approach to it. We think a big difference can be made."
Phelps earns about $10 million a year from endorsement deals, according to industry analysts. They include Subway, Under Armour, Procter & Gamble, Hewlett-Packard, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Omega.
Aqua Sphere said that it "maintains a stronghold on the design and production of swimwear, wetsuits, eyewear, and accessories for triathletes, open-water, and fitness swimmers, and the partnership with Phelps and Bowman will expand the company's industry-leading product offerings to the competitive swimming community."
According to Vista, Calif.-based Aqua Sphere, which was founded in 1998, the partnership would include a "diverse collection of swim products and accessories designed for every level of swimmer with a focus on comfort and performance."
"Michael Phelps is one of the select global icons in all of sports, while Coach Bob Bowman is a true swimming mastermind," Todd Mitchell, business line manager for Aqua Sphere, said in a statement. "Together, we have an extraordinary opportunity to inspire and educate consumers about the full lifestyle of swimming through a premier brand complete with instructional context that will minimize the barrier to entry, regardless of skill level."
"With Aqua Sphere's product design and development capabilities, we believe there is an opportunity to help make the sport more inviting to others."
Phelps, who has competed in the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Summer Games, retired after the London Olympics two years ago but this past April unveiled his plan to return to competition in order to compete for a spot on the U.S. team going to Brazil in 2016.
"Bob and I share a passion for swimming that goes well beyond practice sessions and competitions, and we have always talked about how we could improve different aspects within the sport," Phelps said in a statement. "We have tried to address that through programming we develop at the Michael Phelps Swim School (in Baltimore). We've also seen over the years how certain technical aspects of swimming products and teaching aids could be improved, not only for the elite-level competitive swimmer, but also for entry-level and fitness swimmers.
According to Phelps, "With Aqua Sphere's product design and development capabilities, we believe there is an opportunity to help make the sport more inviting to others by recognizing that everyone begins at different levels, requires assistance matching their skills with products, and lacks the appropriate context in order to maximize their swimming experience."
Photos courtesy Aqua Sphere