The College Challenge Should Help to Broaden Swimming’s Horizons

SwimSwam spent the weekend at the 2017 USA College Challenge at USC, and we have some thoughts on its successes, few shortcomings, and future outlook.

Improves Public Perception of the Sport

While we at SwimSwam obviously love swimming and think that everyone else should, too, it’s clear that the world only really cares about swimming once every four years. What swimming often lacks is the “fun” factor: that intangible aspect that makes families want to gather around their televisions and watch meets (which, according to our expert, are officially four times more exciting than a football game).

For the last two years, the College Challenge brought that fun factor to the sport, and the athletes embraced the format.

A number of the athletes in attendance expressed that this meet was a great chance to relax, bond with people who are usually their rivals, and make a little cash (looking at you, Tom Shields). It brought out the best in United States swimming, in regards to both teams.

The low-stakes, high star-power meet drew a decent crowd, and continued to chip away at swimming’s public reputation as a grueling, no-frills sport that is quirky snd nuanced in a way that’s inaccessible if you haven’t done it yourself.

When you think of the most “fun” events in professional sports, you’ll likely be drawn to the MLB All-Star Game, in which fans vote in their favorite players from each of baseball’s 30 teams to compete against each other as the unified American League or National League (essentially the same thing as Pac-12 competing as one team).

Though the game’s outcome used to predict home field advantage for the World Series, as of the 2017 game, it was entirely meaningless. However, Fox Sports reported a seven percent increase in viewership from 2016. Clearly, events devoid of meaning — in that they have little consequence, not that the actions within the event are pointless — can still be exciting.

With its own form meaninglessness that allows for real times but discards team outcomes, could the College Challenge evolve into swimming’s All-Star Game?

Ticket Prices

For the casual spectator, this meet was pricey. Adult tickets were $32, for which you could easily attend another entertainment event that would probably have better amenities, food, and between-action fan engagement (can’t confirm, but site commenters said that the only public bathrooms in the vicinity were port-a-potties).

Swimming is famously expensive to partake in as an athlete, and if the sport is going to begin to shake its elitist reputation, the rare ticketed meet needs to be accessible for more fans.

Despite the ticket prices, those fans who did make it out were lively, despite long breaks for the broadcast commercials between events.


Given that the entire US National Team, save Pac-12 athletes, was up for grabs, you might have a random favorite athlete who wasn’t there and you wanted to see. But who can deny that this was an amazing roster? Zero complaints here.

Prize Money

Though this meet didn’t pay overwhelming well, pro athletes had the chance to make their trip to SoCal worthwhile. Tom Shields, for example, came away with over $2000 in under 24 hours of racing. The prize money fits the level of intensity and commitment that the meet required.

Here’s how it stacks up to other eligible events (note that the FINA World Cup stops offer money through 6th place, and the 2017 FINA World Championships paid through 8th). Also, at Summer Nationals, the 2017 Arena Pro Swim Series money was doubled for each place. At the 2018 TYR Pro Swim Series, athletes will have the chance to rack up a little extra cash through the 50 “shoot-outs,” as well.

College Challenge 2017 Arena PSS 2018 TYR PSS 2017 World Cup 2017 Worlds
1st $500 $500 $1,000 $1,500 $20,000
2nd $300 $300 $600 $1,000 $15,000
3rd $100 $100 $200 $500 $10,000

Again, the Challenge was really just a chance for top athletes to suit-up and see where they’re at, so the prize money was fitting.

Speed Comparison

Though the Pac-12 has a number of the nation’s best swimmers, the meet overall wasn’t really faster than last year’s. Yes, there are a couple outliers (Katie Ledeckys distance swims and both IM races), but this year’s times were pretty similar to last year’s.

Women’s top times:

 Event 2016 2017
400 MR 3:29.52 3:28.37
200 IM 1:55.89 1:53.24
400 IM 4:02.67 4:00.02
50 Free 21.72 21.63
100 Free 47.36 47.57
200 Free 1:42.93 1:41.60
500 Free 4:32.52 4:28.75
1000 Free 9:21.54 9:11.68
100 Breast 57.3 57.69
200 Breast 2:05.64 2:06.88
100 Back 50.99 50.62
200 Back 1:52.20 1:50.62
100 Fly 50.46 52.28
200 Fly 1:53.77 1:52.83
400 FR 3:11.64 3:11.28
800 FR 6:56.09 6:57.98

Men’s top times:

 Event 2016 2017
400 MR 3:06.44 3:06.26
200 IM 1:44.20 1:42.78
400 IM 3:46.00 3:43.11
50 Free 19.42 19.23
100 Free 42.40 42.73
200 Free 1:33.43 1:33.70
500 Free 4:15.87 4:13.63
1000 Free 8:46.22 8:45.71
100 Breast 51.90 52.10
200 Breast 1:53.98 1:53.42
100 Back 45.75 45.97
200 Back 1:39.68 1:40.44
100 Fly 45.00 45.16
200 Fly 1:39.89 1:41.59
400 FR 2:50.81 2:51.58
800 FR 6:19.62 6:24.97

While this year’s meet may have more times clustered near the winning time, to the casual fan, it’s only the winner that matters.

Between the two meets, 11 races got faster on the women’s side, and seven did for the men. This bodes well for (potential) future iterations of the meet that could move to other conferences which might lack the depth of the Pac-12, but not the individual talent.

Future Outlook

If the College Challenge moves on, say to the SEC, it would be great. Wherever it goes, the fast swimming should follow thanks to the format — in theory, any National Teamer outside of the participating conference could attend to boost Team USA.

USA Swimming should push itself to extend swimming’s reach nation-wide, potential implementing some outreach programs wherever the meet goes next. It would be great to see the organization offer heavily discounted or free tickets to groups who would otherwise not make it to the event, and show that swimming is ready to become a major sport in the United States.

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5 years ago

I think what would help is if you had weird-distance events like what Eddie Reese does at the Texas Invite. Have the swimmers do 75s, 150s, 300s, relays of fly, relays of breast, mixed progressive relays of 50-50-100-200-300, or ladder relays of 50-100-200-100-50. These would be the equivalent of three point shooting contests or skills challenges, and there wouldn’t be as much focus on the times so much has just the fun of it and racing. They could even do goggle or snorkel tosses over the backstroke flags between events or kickboard tosses for distance and accuracy. Or even a cannonball contest (off the deck of course) with random spectators chosen for judging. Something to show a little personality.

Go Bearcats
5 years ago

What would be cool is if they could pull the fastest swimmers by state and pit them against each other, college or professional (or even high school). Terms could be the state where you attended high school is the state you represent. This would be interesting.

Steve Nolan
5 years ago

Was it $32 per session or for both days? I could justify spending $16 per session, but deeeeeefinitely not $32.

Reply to  Steve Nolan
5 years ago

There were some discount tickets available. I think it was buy 2 get 1 free

5 years ago

There would have been a lot more people there if the ticket price was not $32 per person. Our whole swim team wanted to go but families couldn’t afford it.

5 years ago

One thing I don’t like is this: “in theory, any National Teamer outside of the participating conference could attend to boost Team USA.”

I like the meet because it pits college stars against Newcomers and Post-Grads. We already get to see plenty of college swimmers race against each other throughout the year, and I think adding college swimmers from other conferences dilutes the format.

If anything I want to see more professional swimmers attend. Most of them were stars during their NCAA days, and it’s fun to see them take a throwback and show these young college kids they still got what it takes to race or win. Where was Lochte in the 200 Back? Or Adrian in the 100… Read more »

Reply to  CraigH
5 years ago

Agreed. One other fix (especially if this is geared towards eventual mainstream) is to change the team names, particularly the “USA” team. People watching seeing Ledecky NOT part of Team USA could easily be thinking “huh?!” and I’m sure it’s not the best idea to get conference team Americans up for “beating” (rooting against, etc) the USA…

Reply to  DrSwimPhil
5 years ago

That’s a good point. I think “Pac-12 vs Pros” or something similar would provide an interesting hook and give casual fans a reason to get behind one team or the other.

It’s a little like the naming themes they use on the TV show Survivor. Millennials vs Gen-X and Brains vs Brawn vs Beauty are kind of corny, but they do provide an in for fans to immediately have an emotional attachment to one side, even without any knowledge of the sport/game or cast/rosters.

Coach Mike 1952
Reply to  Jared Anderson
5 years ago

Voted up because a catchy moniker IS important. With that said, “Pros” doesn’t work – Regan Smith case in point as just one example.

Reply to  Coach Mike 1952
5 years ago

Going that route would certainly limit the roster choices on the “pros” side a bit more. But that might be worth the trade-off. Or you go “pros vs NCAA vs juniors” or something in that vein, if you can fill a team of talented youngsters who can get out of school for a long weekend

5 years ago

The attractiveness of swimming to the average sports fan is the “star power” of someone like Phelps. Purists love the individual competition among talented and tough competitors and swimming wonks even go to great lengths generating event dope sheets.
But what makes events like the College Challenge so fun and interesting is the team competition. Swimming, like track & field, remains essentially an individual sport. But unless you’re a parent, sibling, or friend of a swimmer, your athlete is one of hundreds of other similar competitors at a major meet. What makes team sports so popular – like football, basketball, baseball, soccer and others – is the “my team” versus “your team” head-to-head. A chance to wear the team… Read more »

5 years ago

It would be cool if they did it long course one year or after NCAAs to see where everyone’s at.

About Torrey Hart

Torrey Hart

Torrey is from Oakland, CA, and majored in media studies and American studies at Claremont McKenna College, where she swam distance freestyle for the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps team. Outside of SwimSwam, she has bylines at Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, SB Nation, and The Student Life newspaper.

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