Outside of the Olympics and the Olympic Trials, and any meet in SEC country, it can be a big challenge to fill up a swim meet.
Time-after-time, swim fans, swim administrators, lament why National Championship and NCAA Championship meets wind up with half-full venues, and why the events are so hard to get on TV, despite how impressive the athletic feats are.
The answer is pretty simple. The sport isn’t marketed to the right audience to fill up venues. The sport, by-and-large, is marketed to 12-year olds, the athletes market themselves to 12 year olds, nobody wants to be the bad-guy, and everyone is thinking about the children.
Now, I don’t want to seem heartless. It’s always great to see athletes giving back to the kids, but until we can find a better balance between marketing toward children and marketing toward and developing events for the masses this issue will persist.
Case in point: toward the end of the USA Swimming World Championship Trials, I walked by a semi-impromptu Ryan Lochte autograph session in the concourse at the IUPUI Natatorium. Lochte was mostly mobbed by children as the parents stood back and watched. There was one adult in the crowd, however, who appeared to be trying to sneak in for a quick photo with the second most popular swimmer on the planet, but he couldn’t get through the wranglers to access the star and Olympic champion.
When a sporting event organizer tells you that the music playing during a swim meet doesn’t matter, despite it being the most heavily discussed topic of the entire meet, because it’s just ‘background noise,’ you know there’s a problem. That happened at this year’s World Championship Trials.
The sport may say they are trying to reach out to all audiences, but that’s just not obvious when you walk into the venues and follow the marketing campaigns, it’s geared toward children.
And why wouldn’t it be? The kids are where the market is. The kids are the ones who buy the most swimsuits, who attend the swim clinics, and most importantly: the kids are the ones who get hooked and continue to pay their dues to USA Swimming.
The adults, however, having suffered through so many hours-long swim meets, can find plenty of incidental ‘conflicts’ that would make it impossible to go to these events.
So how do we market more to the adult market? Bravado, which we in American swimming hate, will attract more adult fans. Somebody in swimming needs to let himself or herself be the bad guy and be the villain, and specifically it needs to be someone in the United States for the United States market to grow. The team element needs to be emphasized. The meet formats need to be changed (head-to-head races, make relays matter at the big meets).
If the post-Phelps era has proven anything, it’s that barring a second coming, swimming has tapped out its market size when only going after kids who swim and their families. Yes, more kids can be brought into the sport, but without another Phelpsian-type coming along (and, again, he had a bit of that ‘bad boy’ element from his out-of-the-pool incidents), current audiences will be limited by those boundaries.
Swimming needs to continue to find out how to bring new fans into the sport. Fans, perhaps, that swam briefly as a kid or never swam at all. Fans who aren’t really interested in cries about how many millions of meters the athletes swam to get to the national championships, but instead just want to come to a swim meet and be entertained.
There’s a lot of people who won’t like that answer. I’m sure at least half of you reading this post are sitting in your chairs and fuming at the insinuation that ‘hard work’ isn’t enough for athletes to earn millions of dollars a year. The reality of the marketplace, though, is that it isn’t. It just isn’t.
How do we get there? Maybe the next executive at USA Swimming will be from outside the sport, maybe they’ll bring a fresh twist to things. I, personally, would love to see an NBA executive in USA Swimming’s front office.
For now, though, why change? The people who make the decisions in swimming are all earning comfortable livings, and they’re not having to work too hard against the boundaries to make that money. There’s no real incentive to try and push the sport out to a broader audience, because they, in fact, benefit from the “underdog” nature of the sport.
We need more Mike Bottoms in the sport, we need more David Marshes in the sport, we need more Emily Whites in the sport, and we need more Gary Hall Jr’s in the sport. These are the people who push the envelope and try and find new ways to draw people into the sport, the innovators, the people who have done and seen enough of the other-side-of-the-coin to understand something bigger than the sport.
Swimming needs a change. 2014 would be a great time to experiment with those changes. Let’s hope that happens.
SIDE NOTE FROM GOLD MEDAL MEL: Even as the USA Swimming machine markets aggressively to 12 year olds, they charge them to attend US National Championships. Charging 12 year old swimmers and the parents of 12 year old swimmers to attend US Nationals makes no sense whatsoever. At the US World Trials the top swimwear brands sponsoring USA Swimming had large venues setup, entertaining stores and interactive social hangouts. Foot traffic through these venues was less than desirable. All of the USA Swimming Club Teams within a 100 mile radius could have been marketed to aggressively, invited to come to at “no fee,” incentivized to attend. USA Swimming could’ve distributed goodie bags to each and every Club Team swimmer. Their swimwear brand partners could’ve and (dare I say) would’ve paid for it. Three hours before each session, there should have been a swim clinic sponsored by Arena, Speedo, TYR, BREAKout Swim Clinic and the Fitter and Faster Swim Tour, servicing 800-1000 swimmers. Bottom-line: If you want to service the sport at these events (to 12 year olds), then service the sport. Block every spare minute with entertainment. 300,000 plus swimmers pay $125 per year to be a USA Swimming athlete. The revenue to accomplish a packed house at US Nationals is there. The good news is that the model for pulling in an audience and servicing an audience has already been created by USA Swimming. US Olympic Trials is exceptional. Clearly USA Swimming is following that model. While it’s challenging in a post Olympic year, it can be done, and, I hope, it will be a top priority in the coming years.