Howard University Started a Swimming Revolution, and UNCW Gets It

There is a turning of the tide in collegiate swimming.

Led by Nic Askew of Howard University, college programs across the country are figuring out that there is more to the health of the swim program than the results of a single meet at the end of a season. While this is the model that swimming has been built around for most of its competitive history, in the last 18 months, more-and-more programs have figured out that there is another way, and it’s a way that doesn’t have to compromise performance.

There are basically three branches of the tree to how swimming programs can prove their value to their institutions:

  1. Keep your swimmers’ grades up to validate the athletic department’s academic mission and offset other programs’ shortfalls
  2. Produce high level swimmers, Olympians, contend for NCAA titles, win conference titles, and
  3. Create hype and excitement around your program, get people to attend meets, earn your program press coverage locally and nationally in both swimming media and non-endemic media, sell tickets, and create a network of supporters of your program who will maybe donate, but definitely cause a ruckus if your program loses funding, and most importantly increase the profile of your institution.

Howard University is the case-in-point of this. I would wager that 95% of SwimSwam’s audience, prior to last year’s hype-laden Battle at the Burr, never thought about Howard University. Now the program is driving the intersection of a number of the most important conversations in swimming, including diversity and the subject of this very article – how to increase the attention of the sport.

UNCW is a program that gets it (though they are also winning a lot of conference titles). The program had its breakthrough last weekend when it upended SEC opponents South Carolina – a big-name state school – in the pool. That doesn’t produce the same kind of community energy as a win in, say, men’s basketball would, but pursuing social media shows that there was a little ripple.

More importantly, UNCW head coach Bobby Gunturo is embracing the “make swim meets fun again” wave that is hitting the sport.

His idea is particularly novel: the program has a Learn to Swim program, the Wilmington Swim Academy, staffed by members of the varsity swim team. Besides the obvious goodwill this provides in a water-bound community where swim lessons are critical, it creates a fanbase and an audience.

And it worked. Check out the video below from UNCW’s athletics department, which besides being well-produced media (which helps this whole ecosystem), shows full stands.

And we should now be past the point where we rely on the old tropes about what does and doesn’t save a swim program.

I have been told by many coaches that they don’t score dual meets because they’re worried that it will lead to their programs being cut, and that athletics directors don’t understand swimming, so lopsided victories raise their red flags.

While that might be true for the coaches’ futures at their programs, if the program is proving its value in other ways, the athletics director will be less-concerned about results. And give your AD some credit – At the D1 level, especially, most at least a little bit.

While we’re at it, let’s drop the narrative that this somehow hurts athletes’ performance. As a sport, we need to get better at embracing the challenge of competition rather than shying away from it or trying to hide it. Lean in to the excitement of a dual meet instead of downplaying the importance of it, and your team might surprise you.

Let’s stop pretending like swimming is ‘too good’ for marketing, like marketing isn’t a huge lynchpin of every sport in the world.

The excitement will certainly appeal to recruits. High school swimmers don’t want their college swim meets to feel like their high school swim meets. They want to feel like the energy has gone up a level, like a college commitment is elevating to a new plane of the sport. They certainly don’t want to go and play sports where nobody is keeping score.

And that works for the local club teams too. Your easiest audience for college meets are local swimmers – and if they go and see a dozen parents sitting on their hands while athletes sleep through a dual meet, they’re not going to come.

UNCW gets it. Texas, arguably the best program in the history of this sport, is on board. Virginia, the hottest program around right now, gets it. Howard gets it. Many, many more programs are starting to get it.

So call up that local DJ, see if your department has some strobe lights laying around, rally your best local PA announcer, involve the spectators in your cheers, and build something special.

If you build fun, they will come. Let’s fill those stands and show the ADs that swimming does provide value to the community all year round.


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Lashun Debnam
2 months ago

Where is the photo or video link to Howard University? There are plenty that could provide insight into the culture and program Coach Askew has built.

Michael Gibbons
2 months ago

”Howard University…”

Photo caption:
”Howard University…”

Not Howard University

Happy Slappy
2 months ago

Please do this at Yale! That pool would be explosive

Swim Mom
2 months ago

I was at the UNCW/SC meet this past weekend and it was ELECTRIC!!! Every seat was taken and standing room only with both UNCW and SC fans. I was so impressed with both fan bases. The meet felt special. 🌊🦅💙

2 months ago
2 months ago

As a former D2 swimmer, current D2 coach, I would say a huge challenge that some D2 schools face (and maybe small colleges all around) is not being able to fit enough people on the pool deck due to lack of space. As much as we would want to bring in fans, some of us just have very limited seating areas ://

Lashun Debnam
Reply to  Dani
2 months ago

You may want to speak with Howard University’s Coach Askew! He’s doing an amazing job with the deck he has.

2 months ago

I love swimming outdoors, but in my experience the energy is usually much higher at meets held indoors – especially in smaller natatoriums. The energy level at the old Dillon pool at Princeton could be off the scales, and was much harder to generate after the move to DeNunzio.

Reply to  NoFastTwitch
2 months ago

Are you saying DeNunzio is too open? We just did the swim camp there this past summer and the facility looked impressive. Seemed like pretty good sight lines throughout, though lighting could be better. I did wonder how a meet might be like there.

Reply to  200isDistance
2 months ago

Don’t get me wrong – DeNunzio is a really good facility for both swimmers and fans. But 300 people in the stands could blow the roof off Dillon while at DeNunzio the noise/energy can get lost in the rafters. The bigger the facility, the more fans we need to get to the meet.

2 months ago

NC State been doing this for almost ten years now. Facts

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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