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:
- Keep your swimmers’ grades up to validate the athletic department’s academic mission and offset other programs’ shortfalls
- Produce high level swimmers, Olympians, contend for NCAA titles, win conference titles, and
- 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.
Our stands will be packed with parents, alumni, students, and ….more importantly with kids age 3 to 11 who are coming to watch their learn-to-swim instructors competing.
Learn to swim program is the best way for teams to connect with local community.
— Bobby Guntoro (@bobbygunt) September 23, 2023
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.