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Breaking News: Prince, Blake Agree to Split

James Blake
AP
James Blake

After an endorsement relationship that lasted 18 months, Prince and American tennis star James Blake are parting ways in what will be a rare case of an athlete leaving a brand voluntarily in the midst of a deal.

Prince was efforting to get Blake into its O3 Technology, which is the best selling racket in the sport and has held the top spot at specialty stores for the last 15 months. But like many tennis stars who resist the latest technology, Blake just couldn't get used to it.

Instead of faking a relationship, whereby the tennis player just gets his painted to look like the racket, which definitely happens, Blake and Prince just ended it.

For that, I give both a tremendous amount of credit. I've been covering the sports business long enough to realize that many athletes don't use the products they say they do. And I respect that it just didn't work out.

In my book, Blake and Prince were never in the business to deceive the public. Sure, his racket had a small Prince stencil on the side, but never put the big "P" on the strings. The company made posters with Blake, but never had a Prince racket in his hand and the Prince Web site listed his racket as "experimental."

Of course, critics will say that Prince and Blake couldn't have faked a relationship if Blake didn't want to use the O3 technology because those rackets have holes in it and it would have been hard to paint holes without getting caught.

Today, Prince CEO George Napier confirmed the breakup.

"James has concluded that, at this stage of his career, he is not prepared to switch to our technology and together, we have made the decision to move in a different direction," Napier said in a jointly released statement.

"I was playing the best tennis of my career and I guess I just wasn’t open to switching," Blake said. "I don’t know if superstition or habit came into it, but it felt like the right decision for me."

Not being able to use Blake since signing him had to be frustrating for Prince as Blake emerged as one the game's greatest players after a precipitous decline following breaking his neck, losing his father to cancer and contracting Zoster.

"We also congratulate, in advance, the lucky company that’s going to sign him as an endorser," Prince's Napier said.

In an ironic twist, CNBC has learned that Blake will now go back to Dunlop, which he signed with out of college in 1999, but the company exercised an option to terminate him when he fell out of the top 100 in 2005. That has to make things slightly uncomfortable for the No. 8-ranked Blake, who will have the Dunlop stencil on his racket at the French Open this upcoming week. It will be the first time since we've seen that in a top-tier tournament since March 2005 when Blake played in the NASDAQ-100 ranked No. 192 in the world. He is expected to be playing with a specific Dunlop brand by the summer.

Prince, which has Maria Sharapova under contract, has top men's players, but Blake's departure means their top American is now Vince Spadea, ranked 64th in the world. Still, the U.S. based company, which is private, announced this week that it expects to break $100 million in sales this year for the first time in a decade, helped by 11 percent year-to-year growth in the United States and and a 52 percent increase in the company's European region.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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