The swimming industry is constantly changing, and 2013 saw several big paradigm shifts in the sport. FINA revamped the World Cup series with huge success; we saw the best-promoted European Championship in history; athletes have found new ways to fund themselves; and a 14-year old declared himself a professional.
But no shift in the sport of swimming has been greater than the foundation-building changes within Paralympic Swimming in the United States. In addition to NBC announcing 116 hours of televised coverage of the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games, FINIS signed World Record holder and two-time ESPY award winner Mallory Weggemann to a major sponsorship deal.
This is a big shift for the Paralympic movement in the United States, where a major swimming brand has yet to promote their sponsorship of a Paralympic swimmer that we’ve seen. Weggemann exploded to win 8 World Championships in 2010, and was the 2012 Paralympic Champion in the 50 meter freestyle after being moved into a more difficult classification on the eve of the Games. This year, she’s been fighting primarily outside of the pool for a chance at “new mobility,” where a device fitted to her legs and her arms could allow her to stand and be mobile outside of her wheelchair again.
Weggemann also spoke at a TEDx conference, which is another sign of increasing visibility in this country for Paralympic swimmers.
This is big, because of the sheer size of the Paralympic industry in other countries. In places like the UK, Australia, and South Africa, Paralympians are in many cases of equal levels of stardom to their Olympic counterparts, as they rightfully should be.
The United States has lagged behind in this promotion and publicity arena, but the momentum of 2013 shows that things are on the right track. The dollar potential of this new industry is why this move earns the Industry Impact award. The biggest British Paralympic swimming stars make 7-figure sums from sponsorship, for example.
FINIS has begun designing suits specifically tailored to an Para-athlete’s disability, and they’ve made a big move into a market that has proven fruitful in other parts of the world. Most importantly, FINIS’ brand power entering this market can only serve as a bit of a ‘feedback loop,’ bringing even more visibility to it and growing it even further.
- Michael Andrew turns pro at 14 – There were a lot of people who didn’t like this decision by Andrew. There are a lot of people who still don’t like this decision by Andrew, and who will never like this decision by Andrew. But he and his family took a big leap, and the outcome of his decision to forego the potential of a collegiate scholarship far before any guarantees of future financial success will have an undoubtable impact on the industry, be it positive or negative. At any rate, it will test the theory that a local age group star can sell as much product as a borderline National Team swimmer can.
- 2013 European Short Course Championships – The 2013 European Short Course Championships, despite being just a continental meet, and just a short course meet, was a marketing boom. Through a lot of creativity and energy from organizers and the entire Danish swimming community, the meet was hugely watched around Europe and around the world, including a swimming-dedicated section in a local paper.
- Thomas Gompf, FINA High Diving Commission Chairman – The 2013 World Championships saw the addition of a new discipline into the aquatics mainstream: high diving. This sport, which is big with the biggest-of-the-biggest adrenaline junkies in the world, has great potential for FINA, as it’s already attracted Red Bull as a major tour sponsor outside of the World Championships. The challenge to really move mainstream will be around growing participation for this potentially dangerous, and often painful, sport. Learn more about high diving here.
- South Africa’s ‘Get the Girls to Gold’ Campaign – South African swimming was on the rocks. It may still be on the rocks. Despite the emergence of stars like Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos, and the support of a Princess of Monaco, who is former South African swimmer, Charlene Wittstock, things have been touch-and-go for the federation over the last few years. Athletes never really knew if they would be funded for meets like the Olympics or the World Championships until the last minute, some of their biggest stars skipped the World Championship Trials altogether, and the waters at said Trials were muddled in green. But then a ray of hope appeared: as the South African women’s team faded, and the whole federation looked on the verge of imploding, Marie Claire magazine and others came together to provide funding for some of South Africa’s talented young female swimmers. The program is paying off already. Marlies Ross, one of the stars of the program, finaled in both the 200 IM and the 400 IM at the FINA Junior World Championships.
- FINA World Cup Series – FINA could see that their World Cup Series, despite having big prize money on the table, was limping along. It was a challenge to get swimmers engaged for a fall, short course series after racing at the Olympic or World Championships. So they supercharged it with even more money, gave incentive to swimmers who could only make a small portion of the meets, and made the first two stops immediately after the World Championships and in close proximity. The result was much more attention paid, a much higher rate of participation, and a lot of record-breaking. Now, FINA’s challenge will be to keep that momentum rolling through 2014, where the just-after-Worlds bit isn’t as easy to pull off.