Under Armour signs Phelps as spokesman

Swimmer will wear company's clothes outside the pool

February 18, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Under Armour, the athletic apparel brand that popularized the catch phrase "We must protect this house," can now boast that the metaphorical pool outside the house will also be protected.

The company announced Thursday that it has signed Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps to a multiyear endorsement deal that will have him wearing Under Armour apparel outside the pool and appearing in commercials for the Baltimore-based company through 2013. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Phelps, 24, won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, breaking swimmer Mark Spitz's record for most medals in a single Games, and is the most decorated Olympian in history. He will continue to wear Speedo swimsuits and goggles when he competes in the pool, but as Under Armour's newest spokesman, he will be featured in a series of commercials that will debut during next week's NFL scouting combine, for which Under Armour is the official supplier.

The spots, which were filmed at the Ground Zero gym in Canton, will depict Phelps going through his rigorous out-of-the-water workout routine and focus on what Under Armour describes as "combine training" -- pegboard, pull-ups, sled pushes. The ads will also feature several other Under Armour-sponsored athletes doing the same, including Olympic skier Lindsay Vonn, mixed martial arts fighter George St. Pierre, basketball player Brandon Jennings and football player Dez Bryant.

"Michael is one of the most recognized athletes on the planet, and his apartment just happens to be across the water from us in Baltimore," said Steve Battista, Under Armour's vice president of brand. "We feel fortunate to be able to carve out a deal with him. Like all the athletes we sign, we approach them because they're wearing our stuff to begin with. I think a lot of people are going to see how hard he trains outside the pool. I don't think enough people know there is a lot more to it than swimming laps."

After his performance in Beijing, Phelps was rated as the most coveted commercial spokesman among athletes, but his public image suffered a bit when he was photographed holding a glass marijuana bong at a party in South Carolina and suspended for three months by USA Swimming. Although none of his corporate sponsors dropped him after the incident, Kellogg Co. said it wouldn't try to renew its deal with him after it expired. Subway delayed a national ad campaign featuring him but eventually went forward with it as the controversy faded.

What appeared to dry up were new sponsorship deals for Phelps. Two months after the photo appeared, he did sign a small deal with H2O Audio, a company that makes waterproof headphones, but the Under Armour deal represents the first major sponsor he has added since the suspension. In addition to Speedo, Phelps is still a pitchman for Mazda in China, as well as Omega watches.

Financial analyst Thomas Shaw, the vice president of equity research for Stifel Nicolaus, said that Phelps' deal with Under Armour can be seen as beneficial to both parties. As compared with the fallout from Tiger Woods' recent troubles, the Phelps scandal seems minor by comparison.

"We're a very forgiving society," Shaw said. "[The photo] didn't detract from what he accomplished. No one has ever done what he's done. He's a global brand, and Under Armour is basically a domestic brand. I think we're seeing Under Amour look for ways to partner up with athletes that can showcase there brand globally as they try to push into Europe and eventually into Asia."

Did Phelps give Under Armour a hometown discount? Did his past scandals bring his asking price down? Shaw said neither of those things would be as big of a factor as the economy in evaluating how the deal came together.

Phelps' spokesperson at Octagon, his management group, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday. Phelps is in Vancouver, attending the Winter Olympics as a fan, and was in the stands watching as the United States hockey team defeated Norway, 6-1.

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