Why Swimming's Boutique Brands Are Winning

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, just signed with the relatively unknown swimwear brand Aqua Sphere. And it's about to send him even higher into the swimming world's stratosphere.

Michael Phelps just signed with a little-known swimwear brand. Why that decision could make him very, very rich.     Photo: Marco Paköeningrat/Flickr

Michael Phelps is the most famous and decorated swimmer in history. Heck, he’s the most decorated Olympian in history, with 22 medals to his name.

So when he decided to sign a six-year deal with relatively unknown Italian swimwear brand Aqua Sphere this week—when he could’ve re-upped with long-time sponsor Speedo or inked lucrative deals with just about anybody—he turned heads. The company hasn't even designed a racing suit. But his decision to go small may just make him one of the most powerful names in sports.

Phelps isn’t the first Olympian to shun big-name endorsements for boutique brands. As we reported in March, seven-year-old running company Oiselle stole Kara Goucher away from megabrand Nike by promising more flexibility in her sponsorship contract and more input in product design.

While she had to be covered head-to-toe in Nike in the past (shoes, clothes, watch, glasses), Goucher’s new setup let her negotiate a sponsorship package with a more diverse roster of brands. (For example, in addition to Oiselle, Skechers sponsors her, too.) Ultimately, that gives Goucher more control over her own image and schedule.

Just as appealing to Goucher was the opportunity to “participate in clothing and design decisions, instead of just being told what to wear,” we reported. Though the details of Phelps’s new contract weren’t released, it’s clear from Aqua Sphere’s press release that Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman will have a large role in product design. That gives Phelps not just the satisfaction of having created something for his beloved sport, but also the chance to build a legacy that lasts long after his final competition.

“This is similar to (Michael) Jordan in basketball,” Mark Sunderland, a textile engineer and strategist at Philadelphia University, told ESPN. In 1984, Jordan signed on with Nike, a sports brand that was pulling in less than $1 million annually in sales, the Huffington Post’s Misha Hyman writes. Nike promised Jordan input into the design of the shoes that would bear his name and, eventually, the logo of his body flying through the air to a slam dunk.

Jordan’s image and expertise sold the shoes, and continues to sell them 10 years after he last laced them up to play an NBA game. “Jordan Brand sneaker business alone had $1.25 billion in wholesale revenue in 2012,” Forbes reports.

Just like Nike did for Jordan 30 years ago, Aqua Sphere promises to do for Phelps. That is, give him control over products that will bear his name, and let him build a lasting empire from which both Aqua Sphere and Phelps will benefit (and, you know, fans and customers). “Royalties now generate more than $60 million annually for MJ,” Forbes says.

Looks like Phelps just took on a passion project that could set him up for long-term riches. 

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