Mr. Phelps, who won eight gold medals and broke seven world records at the 2008 Olympic Games, will be the brand spokesperson for Mazda in the world's third largest auto market.
Details of the deal were not disclosed but the Japanese car giant will pay Mr. Phelps at least $1 million to become the brand spokesperson for Mazda in the company's No. 1 growth market. The landmark agreement is believed to be the largest single sponsorship deal for a western celebrity in China to date.
Mr. Phelps earns an estimated $5 million per year through endorsement deals with other companies such as swimsuit maker Speedo, but this agreement, which only covers Greater China, is his first with Mazda.
Chinese Auto Sales Will Overtake Japan in 2009
An older generation of the imported Mazda 6 sedan has been sold in China for the past three years and has grown into the company's flagship model in the mainland, despite strong competition from rival models such as the Honda Motor Co.'s Accord. The new Mazda 6, renamed Rui Yi for the Chinese market, will be sold alongside the earlier version of the car, according to Automotive News China.
China is an increasingly important market for global automakers. The country is expected to overtake Japan as the second largest auto market globally in 2009, and could overtake the world's No. 1 market -- the U.S. -- by 2020.
While sales in America and Japan are sluggish, they are continuing to grow in China -- albeit at a pace that is slowing rapidly in a worrisome trend for the global auto industry.
China's passenger vehicle sales fell to 522,800 units in Nov. 2008, a 2.9% drop from the previous month and a 10.28% decline from the same period last year.
A total of 6.16 million cars were sold between January and November 2008, an 8.87% increase, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
From Jan. to Oct. last year, Mazda sold 105,000 cars in China, up 27% year-on-year and 11% higher than the industry average in the same period. In the first seven months of last year, it sold 40,195 units of the current Mazda 6 sedan, a 43% year-on-year increase.
'Time to be aggressive'
Mazda's sponsorship deal with Mr. Phelps, a superstar in China, is "quite relevant because it shows where the [global car] market is at. I understand cutting back in other markets that aren't growing, but China is still growing. This is really the time to make more ground than you would normally [and] is the best time to be aggressive," said Dan Mintz, Shanghai-based chief executive of Dynamic Marketing Group (DMG).
The independent media and entertainment company orchestrated the deal through its DMG Entertainment division's offices in Los Angeles and Beijing.
Another DMG division, D3, handles advertising and media for Mazda in China.
During the lead-up period to last year's Olympic Games, Chinese consumers were focused on local athletes, but Mr. Phelps' astounding performance was widely admired by Chinese.
"His story and the height of his achievement is part of the height of China's achievement in modern times. There is a huge connection there. Chinese took this individual and really made him one of their own," said Mr. Mintz.
"He's the king of the Water Cube [Olympic venue] and was the king of the 2008 Olympic Games more than any other athlete. Chinese took him as their own because he achieved this during their Olympics."
Mr. Phelps will visit Beijing next week for the first time since the Olympic Games were held there last August, to take part in a press conference as well as shooting for TV and print ads for the new Mazda 6. The campaign will break when the car is rolled out this spring.
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