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?
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.
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 with 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|
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.
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 Ledecky‘s distance swims and both IM races), but this year’s times were pretty similar to last year’s.
Women’s top times:
Men’s top times:
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.
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.