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Team USA To Shine In Arena's 3 Diamonds

Dec 17, 2012  - Craig Lord

Speedo, the iconic British suit brand synonymous with speed in the water from Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller in the 1920s, through Mark Spitz in the 1970s and on to Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian who emerged from London 2012 with a career 18 gold medals, has lost its biggest shop front: USA Swimming. 

The news broke in The Times newspaper in London this morning, alongside an action shot of Eric Shanteau, the breaststroke ace, wearing his Arena cap in a sign of times to come.

For the next two Olympic cycles, including Rio 2016 and the 2020 Games, American swimmers will be kitted out in Arena, the three-diamonds brand based in Italy and back by a group of international investors. The deal represents the biggest kit coup of the commercial age in swimming. 

January 1, 2013 marks the start of a new era, while the Barcelona 2013 world championships will represent the first time that Team USA will walk out in full Arena kit. 

As Giuseppe Musciacchio, Manager of Brand Development, put it to SwimNews: "This is like in the world of football, we landed a deal with Real Madrid or Brazil. Its a big challenge and we are excited but our knees are knocking too." There will be some restructuring required at Arena’s modest headquarters and hi-spec design studio in Tolentino, where the staff have landed the biggest Christmas present in the sport.

The deal, topping the million-dollar mark (though value is difficult to assess where kit and good will and practice come into play) not only ends Speedo's direct link to the world aquatic superpower, the USA national team, in the wake of a decision to end exclusive rights to American swimming, but also killed off a much bigger offer from Nike that had been designed to get the track brand into the pool.

Musciacchio believed the Americans had chosen Arena over Nike because of a “whole approach to swimming, running events and developing the sport”. The culture and approach that has made Arena so successful in Europe is one that fits hand in glove with USA Swimming's take on how to develop the sport fit for the age and the new era now opening up to the sport.

Speedo and USA Swimming had a exclusive deal for 27 years at the recent end of a much longer relationship. The news that the federation was ending the days of exclusive rights at a time when the expansion and proliferation of the digital age offers opportunities on many fronts with multiple partners, reached the world of whispers back in October. The versatility it offers is good for the sport, while Speedo remains a powerful player in the US market.

Just as "hoovering up" became a household phrase long after Hoover had company in its market, "Speedos" became the word for any suit, particularly in Australian and American markets. 

Brand strength has been reinforced every four years by the site of the USA national team winning the lion's share of Olympic gold in the pool Games in, Games out. The US has topped every Olympic medals table in the pool since 1960 (barring boycott and under the weight of a challenge fuelled of Oral Turinabol in the days of the GDR), Australia's home 1956 victory a blip that was also good for Speedo, the Nottingham-based brand that has long been able to boast of winning more medals than any other, much of that dominance down to Americans.

Should another Phelps come along for the US, there would be no restriction on him wearing a Speedo suit in the water, while the likes of Ryan Lochte is free to race on in Speedos in a private contract. But Arena will get the glory from cap to track suit on the podium, press conference and TV broadcast. 

The deal also includes the USA Swimming Grand Prix circuit, a domestic race tour on which all all those who sign up to the federation's Athlete Partnership Program that provides funding are obliged to compete. The circuit is the home showcase for elite swimming in the US and attracts television rights and a hefty following in the swim market.

Talks between the USA and Arena started in the last summer of “shiny suits”, the Italians responding to the Speedo LZR - the suit of 2008, with polyurethane panels that boosted performance by significant margins - with a full non-textile bodysuit - the X-Glide - that brought the crisis in the sport to a head when 43 world records fell in eight days at the 2009 world championships in Rome. Speedo had understood which way the wind was blowing and went no further than the LZR of 2008.

When the LZR was poured into the pool in 2008, it marked the start of a 23-month period in which more than 250 world records were set in new conditions that FINA has never acknowledged, leaving a generation of swimmers to play catch up on the clock for the rest of their careers. 

In March 2008, Arena argued that the LZR should never have been approved by FINA, if only because it gave huge advantage to those who wore it at a time when other brands were sticking to textile-only apparel because FINA rules specifically barred performance-enhancing equipment. FINA allowed all makers to follow suit and suit wars ensued. The world records book and the all-time world rankings lists across all events remained swamped with times set in 2008 and more so in 2009. 

Arena’s X-Glide emerged from Rome 2009 as the golden suit but the sport had decided overwhelmingly, thanks to our campaign and the convincing arguments and sound direction of USA Swimming, that it ought to be about golden swimmers, not suits, skills not body socks that ironed out natural and hard-honed advantage.

The crisis ended with the banning of non-textile suits, and three years on in a fast-changing commercial environment, Speedo’s exclusive rights in the US were on the negotiating table. The federation ended up deciding to end all exclusive deals and breaking its world, from learn to swim to Olympic podium, up into more lucrative parcels with different sponsors.

Speedo will take consolation in the fact that it holds on as main sponsor and image of the Junior nationals and the Championships Series it lends its name too. It also has good access to the American leisure market but its shop front will not include any images of the aquatic superpower it has been linked with since Weissmuller traded in his Speedos for Tarzan's loin cloth after his last Olympic gold in 1928 - Adolf Keifer’s pioneering nylon suit intervening at the 1948 Olympic Games in London.

The seismic impact of the shift in suppliers for the USA national team, announced officially this morning by Arena at its Portland, Oregon, subsidiary, was on display at the world short-course championships in Istanbul last week when three of the four members of the winning 4x200m freestyle quartet wore bright blue Arena suits, leaving Lochte, the star of the show with six gold and eight medals in all, two world records in the mix, the only man in Speedos, courtesy of a private deal.

SwimNews understands that Nike had also approached USA Swimming with the promise of a bigger cash pile in hand but the richest federation in the world, which raises the bulk of its own budget and runs a foundation that Arena will assist as part of its deal, wanted more than money.

As Cristiano Portas, chief executive of Arena, out it, the deal is “the most ambitious project in our history”. 

Extract from The statement from Arena, confirming the story above:

Portland, Ore. (December 17, 2012) - Global swimwear company Arena today announced that it has landed an eight-year sponsorship agreement with USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport of swimming in the United States. The core feature of the new deal is Arena’s role as exclusive sponsor of the U.S. National Team, which includes the creation of new National Team uniforms. The sponsorship goes into effect in January 2013.

In addition to its role as sponsor of the U.S. National Team, Arena will also be the exclusive title sponsor of USA Swimming’s annual Grand Prix Series, play a key supporting role in the USA Swimming Foundation and its Make a Splash water safety initiative, and enjoy worldwide merchandising rights for the USA Swimming brand.

“Based on our international success over the past decade, it was time for us to target one of the most ambitious projects in our history - to be a leading player in the U.S., the most important market in the world of swimming,” said Arena CEO Cristiano Portas. “USA Swimming is an organization that excels both in and out of the pool and is a leader worldwide in advancing the sport. Today, we are immensely proud to partner with them, because we share their vision, passion, and determination.” 

The new partnership signals Arena’s growing presence and commitment to the U.S. market and comes on the heels of the recent opening of its wholly-owned North American subsidiary in Portland, Oregon. In less than two years since re-entering the U.S. market, propelled by the groundbreaking technology found in its top-performing suits and the speed of innovation that is powering its surge worldwide, Arena has now claimed a leading role in the racing category. 

“It was clear from our first meeting with USA Swimming that we share the same values and devotion to making sure the sport of swimming continues to grow for generations to come,” said Vice President and General Manager of Arena North America, Tim McCool. “We are excited to work with them on multiple levels, from elite to grassroots, all to benefit and celebrate the sport year-round.”

American swimming is stronger than ever, and rapidly growing in popularity and participation. The strength of the sport in the U.S. is growing with a projected growth in membership after London 2012 of 10% or more, record attendance and TV ratings for the U.S. Olympic Trials, long-term TV and Internet partnerships, and all topped off by the highest medal production of any swimming country in the Olympic Games. 

Arena’s commitment to the highest level of U.S. swimming builds upon the brand’s existing involvement in the nation’s swimming community. Arena is involved at numerous levels, from individual sponsorships of athletes including Rebecca Soni, Aaron Peirsol, Eric Shanteau, and Conor Dwyer, to strategic college sponsorships (including the 2011 and 2012 NCAA Men’s champions the Cal Bears), grassroots sponsorship of Swim America (an American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) program), and charitable initiatives including the Edith Sanford Breast Cancer Foundation and Eric Shanteau’s Swim For Your Life program. 

“The fact that USA Swimming and Arena are joining forces creates an extremely powerful combination. I’ve been a member of the U.S. National Team, as well as a member of the Arena family, for several years and have a tremendous amount of respect for what both organizations stand for,” said six-time Olympic medalist Rebecca Soni. “This partnership will absolutely benefit the swimming community, both here in the U.S. and on a global level.”

This is the first time in its history that USA Swimming will partner with multiple swimwear brands - rather than one brand, as has been the case for the past three decades - in an effort to further grow the sport of swimming.