Seeing Other People

by Casey Barrett

USA Swimming breaks up with Speedo, hooks up with Arena… And what that means for the sport

They see themselves in iconic company with Xerox and Kleenex and Coke. Companies whose names became synonymous with the products they sold. It’s not a photo copy or a tissue or a soda, it’s the brand itself. For swimmers, for decades, you wore a Speedo, as in a tight-fitting racing suit. For a very long time, they were one of the ultimate examples of this name-branded success. No longer.

It’s time to remove Speedo from that list of brand behemoths that own their categories with ubiquitous dominance. They’ve lost a stroke and the biggest evidence of all just presented itself. After 27 years, they are no longer the exclusive sponsor of the greatest swim team on earth – USA Swimming. Days ago, the folks at USA Swimming announced that it was now pursuing an open marriage, opening themselves to non-exclusive deals with other swimwear sponsors. Its new suitor and the new title sponsor of the U.S. National Team? Speedo’s biggest rival, Arena.

Now this is a bit like being married to Michael Phelps for many years, and then one day the wife says to Michael – You know, honey, I think it’s time we saw other people… And then she jumps into bed with Ryan Lochte. But, you know, she still stays with Michael, sort of, when it’s convenient.

That’s one way to describe what happened to Speedo. After three decades with a virtual monopoly over Team USA, it’s a fair bet that they were blindsided when Arena made a move on their trophy wife. They used to own the sport – almost literally. What do swimmers wear? Speedos. You don’t get more entrenched in a sport than that. And because of that broad dominance, it only makes sense that they also owned the world’s best swimmers.

Except over the last few years, when it comes to swimwear, they really haven’t been the state of the art. They haven’t had the best suit on the market in almost five years – not since the game-changing LZR Racer, back in 2008. Competitors, from fellow apparel giants like Arena to scrappy upstarts like Jaked, were able to steal much of Speedo’s world beating thunder over the last Olympiad.

The prospect of Arena becoming the lead sponsor of USA Swimming was no small consideration out in Colorado Springs. You’re talking about a long-standing, at times incestuous relationship with deep roots. Not long ago, this break would have been unthinkable. If Phelps were still swimming, it’s unlikely it would have happened at all. Michael was the 800-pound gorilla in the pool. In many senses, he was the sport for many years. If Speedo had his loyalty locked up in contract, then it could be sure it would keep Phelps’s Team USA in line too.

Do you remember the 2009 World Championships in Rome? The meet where the saga of the supersuits climaxed with an unfortunate orgy of absurd world records… Remember the 100 fly, when Phelps smoked Mike Cavic in a bitter coda to Beijing? Do you recall his defiant post-race celebration, when he held up the Speedo logo on his suit for the cameras and slapped his chest? At the time, it seemed he was saying: “See, motherfuckers? Speedo’s still the best!” Yet, in retrospect, this is what he was actually saying: “See, motherfuckers? I’m so good, I can still win despite wearing an inferior product.”

Because let’s be honest, by that point Phelps was swimming at a disadvantage in his LZR Racer. He was just that much better – than Cavic, and everyone else.

The same can be said of Ryan Lochte these days. He’s the new face of the sport – and the biggest thoroughbred in Speedo’s stable. If his latest Speedo suit happens to be a few tenths slower than the gear from Arena or others, well, you’ll need more than that to close the gap on Lochte. But having the best swimmer doesn’t mean you have the best product.

Indeed, when top American coaches and swimmers were approached about this impending Arena game-change, the news was met mostly with shrugs. But that’s what I already want to wear, many seemed to say. This is not to say the current status quo of swimsuits will remain. These things are ever changing and Speedo may very well reclaim its technological superiority in the near future.

However, it’s not all product that led to the split with USA Swimming. It was more about marketing. When you have an exclusive deal, it really is a marriage. Have a great new promotional idea for U.S. Nationals? Gotta get Speedo’s approval first. Want to sell some slick advertising when NBC airs Pan Pacs? Sorry, Speedo doesn’t do commercials. USA Swimming’s hands were tied. And there were plenty of others out there eager to untie them. Which is why some ears perked up when Arena came knocking…

It will be very interesting to witness how all of this washes out. Both Arena and Speedo just signed eight-year deals with USA Swimming. Speedo will keep the “title rights” to Juniors and Sectionals and its presence on deck at every meet will still be impossible to miss. It will also continue to sponsor many of the greatest swimmers on earth, first and foremost being Mr. Lochte. Yet, it has now been relegated to second wife status. It’s unlikely that Speedo will appreciate this clear demotion.

What will that mean when Ryan Lochte is handed a pair of Arena Team USA warm-ups next summer at World Championships? His attention-grabbing shoes and the suit he wears will still be made by Speedo, but the logo of their biggest competitor will be splashed across his warm-ups behind the blocks. For many years, Arena and TYR and others were forced to sit on their hands and suck it up on the other side of the fence. Athletes like Rebecca Soni and Matt Grevers might make most of their living from Arena and TYR, but they were wearing Speedo behind the blocks in London this summer. Now the shoe’s on the other foot.

Unless you happen to work for Speedo or have a contract with them, this is good news for the entire sport. Open markets mean more competition. Speedo has been told – publicly and without subtlety – to step up its game. The preeminent swim team on earth is no longer assuming that its long marriage is working.

For the good of swimmers everywhere, they decided to see other people.