By Liana B. Baker
NEW YORK, Dec 22 (Reuters) - For the first time in his career, 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.
Phelps has helped Aqua Sphere design a range of products in his name, called "MP", with the initials to adorn the suit, goggles and cap he will wear at Rio should he qualify for the U.S. team.
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 U.S. 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, who is a 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."
For both 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.
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.
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 the industrial gas company Air Liquide SA.
Carlisle said the agreement, whose value is unknown, runs through 2020 and functions more like a partnership, with equity-type elements, which may 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, Bruin Sports Capital's Abrutyn said. He pointed to Adidas's 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, at an event in New York, Speedo International president David Robinson noted that Phelps became the greatest Olympian while wearing Speedo.
"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 told Reuters.
Speedo is sponsoring 24 swimmers this year, including Phelps's U.S. 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 have to be made from only textiles and not 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 of Aqua Sphere.
The swim caps also have features based on Phelps's input. While most caps cover most of the swimmer's ear, the "MP" cap will cross the ear at an angle, allowing Phelps to hear the roar of the crowd, Mitchell said.
Phelps is scheduled to compete at the USA Swimming Pro Swim Series event in Austin, Texas in January.
(Editing by Stephen Wood and Andrew Hay)
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