Missy Franklin, five-time Olympic medalist and swimming superstar, is among the most dominant athletes to ever choose to compete at the NCAA level.
According to the Sports Business Journal, Franklin would have earned roughly $1.5 million in endorsement revenue if she had turned pro, making her ineligible for NCAA competition.
Franklin has given her reasons for competing in college repeatedly, a desire to be a part of a team and enjoy the collegiate experience. However, after carefully weighing her options for a long-term career in a swimming culture historically marshalled by USA Swimming and the NCAA, did she really have another choice? Also, since Franklin recently committed to the University of California at Berkeley, what is her value to the Golden Bears as a bona fide star, in marketing, fundraising and donor dollars?
FRANKLIN COMPARED TO OTHER STAR ATHLETES
Superstars like LeBron James and Derek Jeter leapfrogged the NCAA monopoly, and its amateur restrictions, going pro. While in high school, however, neither had the global visibility or brand power Franklin now commands after she innocently and playfully smiled, danced and swam her way into fans’ hearts and minds.
Franklin has lived on camera since the 2011 World Championships, long enough to reveal any cracks in her character. They don’t exist. She is truly an athletic phenom and an American Darling, one from a middle-to-upper-class, educated family, and, most importantly, a family grounded in their understanding of the institutional swimming landscape.
For the LeBron James of the world, a professional league is in place; a means of making millions over a career before dollar one is reaped in endorsement contracts.
For Franklin, no professional league exists, not on the level of the NBA or NFL. FINA, swimming’s international governing body, hosts the World Cup Series, but it is still in its infancy, and, to date, has not been pushed by USA Swimming, the national governing body (NGB) which develops swimmers from the age group level to Olympic stardom. While U.S. world-class swimmers often lament the lack of drive from USA Swimming to develop a professional circuit, they might as well be whining silently into the wind. A professional circuit runs counter to USA Swimming’s Core Objectives, which is, on the performance side, to develop the most competitive Olympic Team once every 4 years. To that end, USA Swimming has been a leader among its peer NGBs under the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) umbrella, supporting its athletes with subsistence dollars; revenue generated from registration dues and corporate sponsorships aligned with the wholesome swimming brand. (USA Swimming direct athlete support through the Athlete Partnerships Agreement (APA) and Elite Athlete Grants totaled $1.86 million in 2011, and support is projected to be roughly $2 million in 2012.)
For a long-term, healthy career, Franklin chose correctly. She chose the USA Swimming / NCAA path, the system of development that has been indoctrinated into every American swimmer for the last five decades, and she’ll gain a great education, friendships, and memories that will last a lifetime. Moreover, Franklin will continue to be praised for remaining amateur. Interestingly, Americans, who arguably have a religious belief in capitalism, love their athletic purists, particularly when they’re Olympians.
So, frankly, Franklin’s choice was not surprising. It was expected, despite the topic being hotly debated over the summer. Only one swimmer has fared extremely well skipping NCAA competition, going the endorsement revenue route, and he, Michael Phelps, is an anomaly. Female swim stars have had mild to failing efforts in this area and need not be mentioned here. In the end, Franklin, given she’s in good health, will step away from NCAA swimming after two seasons and will generate seven-figure coinage on the ramp up to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games when she’s more mature and better able to manage the dual responsibility of being an elite athlete and corporate partner.
FRANKLIN VALUE TO CAL BERKELEY
It must be said. Franklin is the number one swimming recruit in the history of the sport.
Coming out of high school, Michael Phelps, while dominant, still had not won his six gold and two bronze medals in Athens. Had Phelps chosen to compete at the NCAA level he would’ve entered college as a multi-world champion and 5th place finisher from the Sydney Olympics. Before Mark Spitz committed to Indiana University he was a multi-medalist from the 1968 Mexico Games (2 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze), but not on the level of Franklin, and certainly not in the global media age we occupy now.
Franklin has measurable value, but it’s challenging to quantify. Sport columnists often attempt to measure football and basketball stars’ value to universities, but rarely put a bottom-line figure to their reports. Typically they amount to a bump in event ticket sells, merchandising, and a vague argument about the boost to the television audience and the athletic department’s corporate partnerships.
I’ll go this far: Between the post London and pre-Rio Olympic rush, August 2012 to April 2015, Franklin could have generated at least $2.5 million in endorsement revenue had she turned pro, 1.5 million after London, and another million over the following two years. By becoming a Golden Bear, which she’ll be for the rest of her life, she’ll impact Cal Berkeley’s bottom-line over and above that value. It is a perfect match, a university with an international profile, big assets to support, and, potentially, big assets to build. Franklin will, as most Golden Bear alumni, be a passionate supporter for many decades to come.
POINT VALUE PLUS LEGACY
As an athlete, Franklin’s estimated point value at NCAA Championships is impressive. Considering her lineup, she should score, conservatively, 45 individual points, and on relays it can be predicted she’ll add up to another 10 points (only so few because Cal is already so dominant in the relays). Under Teri McKeever, the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Head Coach, the Cal Berkeley Women’s program has nearly become a dynasty. Franklin may seal that title for many years to come, with points scored and by attracting more talent to the program.
PAC 12 NETWORK
Franklin plus McKeever plus the recent Golden Bears’ NCAA Team Titles will draw a bigger audience to the newly minted PAC 12 Network. Televised swimming competitions are dismissed by analysts, the old guardians of the sport, and even swimming purists as money losing endeavors. They are not. My wife and I have produced swimming television for the last three years, and the events do turn a profit. With an Olympic superstar like Franklin headlining, profits in excess of $15,000 to $20,000 per event can be realized, and that’s with a title sponsor only. It does not factor in 2nd and 3rd tier sponsors.
More television time plus more NCAA Team Titles will motivate the Cal Berkeley base, the hundred thousand plus alumni, to support the university. Like all Olympic superstars, Franklin transcends swimming. She has name value beyond the sport, and this will translate to the broad base of alumni willing to open up their checkbooks.
A NEW CAL BERKELEY POOL
Cal Berkeley alumni power is key here, a driving force when you consider the Golden Bears are in need of a new pool. It will take more than passionate swimming alums alone. Franklin, combined with Coach McKeever and Coach Dave Durden’s (Cal Men’s swimming) success, plus past superstars like Natalie Coughlin and Matt Biondi, creates the perfect pitch. The best swimming recruit in history has chosen, arguably, the best swimming program in the world. It’s time to allocate dollars where they are deserved. Franklin is the all-important icing on the cake, the immediate tipping-point talent, which is so very crucial when striving for that 50% fundraising milestone on a multi-million dollar facility.
FRANKLIN, THE ACADEMIC AMBASSADOR
From here on, Franklin’s value is plus, plus. As a celebrity student-athlete, through university marketing materials, she will draw global visibility to the college of her major and the university overall. Moreover, at every national and international competition, going forward, reporters will tie Cal Berkeley to her name.
We spoke with Olympic manager Brant Feldman, CEO and founder of American Group Management (AGMsports), for background, and he was quick to point out, “Most research institutions may highlight a student-athlete within their major to help that department…if the athlete has notoriety as a great student. Andrew Luck with Stanford was noted many times in the media that he was an architecture student. This helped that department.”
FRANKLIN, THE CAL BERKELEY ALUM
Flashing-forward years into the future, Franklin will always be a Golden Bear, and she will always be an Olympic star. While swim fans love to dream of the future, they often do not like the undo pressure the media creates by making predictions. Concerning Franklin, predictions are a safe bet. She’s already earned her place among the greats. Franklin will have earning power for the rest of her life, even if she never performs well at another Olympic Games. Franklin will always be an asset to Cal Berkeley’s donor-base. She doesn’t even have to donate herself. Franklin can simply lend her name to initiatives and/or attend donor functions.
Franklin’s value to Cal Berkeley will exceed the 2.5 million she could have earned on her own, and her choice to develop at an renowned university may impact the sport as a whole more significantly over the long-term. Coach McKeever, cited as one of the greatest female coaches, deserves due credit here. Moreover, McKeever deserves to not be delineated in the coaching community by her sex. Franklin chose a great university, and she chose one of the greatest swimming coaches, male or female, in history. In the end all swimmers and swim-fans will be the ultimate beneficiaries. Much like Michael Phelps, though taking a slightly different path, Missy Franklin will grow the sport.
POOL DECK DISCUSSIONS:
Hindsight is 20/20, but the best opportunity to develop and monetize the USA Swimming Grand Prix Series as a truly professionally enterprise was 2009 to 2012, during Michael Phelps’ reign of global star power. Was that an enormous opportunity loss, or did USA Swimming do the right thing by keeping the Grand Prix Series small and focusing their athletes on the annual peak meet, World Championships, Pan Pacific Championships, the Olympic Games?
USA Swimming’s mission, on the performance side, is to develop the best Olympic Team. Does a professional swimming league “actually” run counter to that mission statement? If not, can you argue to the contrary.
“Don’t fix if it ain’t broken.” USA Swimming is the most successful NGB under the Olympic umbrella (most medals won in London, offering financial support to elites). Is developing a truly professional series too much to ask of them when they’re already #1 among their peer organizations?
If USA Swimming, or any other organization, had developed a professional series with enough television visibility (to increase an athlete’s endorsement revenue) and prize money to support a pro swimmer lifestyle (in excess of a million dollars per year), would a swim star like Franklin still be better off competing at the NCAA level? Consider that they could still attend a top university and get an education.
At SwimSwam, college swimming news is extremely popular. Surprisingly World Cup Series news is equally popular. Would a successfully developed professional swimming series actually increase interest in college swimming? College football is exciting, but the college football story continues into the professional ranks. Does one complement the other, making all boats rise?