The U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials have grown into one of the biggest properties in the sport since the event was first moved to a basketball arena in Omaha in 2008. With now even larger football arenas being proposed to host future meets, it seems like a runaway train of revenue that is an opportunity to bring a lot of cash into the professional side of the sport: through ticket sales, through television revenue, and through sponsorships.
The opposing force in play, though, is that the meet has also continued to grow, leading to marathon prelims sessions that can be counterproductive to the commercial value of the event.
This has resulted in a tug-of-war between the need for big meets to fill seats with parents, friends, teammates, and families of athletes who have no realistic chance of qualifying for the Olympic team, and the need to present an event that will best meet the needs of the elite athletes from both a commercial and a competitive perspective (crowded warmup pools, 4 hour sessions, and constant photo opps on deck can distract from the mission on deck).
There’s also the hypothetical “Olympic Trials experience” that could benefit athletes who come back 4 years later with a more realistic chance of making the team. This argument has developed into dogma without any real empirical evidence but survives none-the-less.
There is a hidden factor behind a large Trials meet that isn’t really discussed, though. The event is the absolute best advertising for the sport of swimming in the United States. Not for the professional sport, for the Pro Swim Series, for the ISL, for spectators tuning in, but for the participation base of the sport that makes up 90% of the economic activity in swimming.
1,600 qualifiers for the U.S. Olympic Trials means at least 1,600 news articles in local papers (digital and/or physical) around the country, and surely even more. An article when the athlete qualifies, another as the meet approaches, one more when it’s done. Some localities have multiple local publications.
And all of these things contribute to the famous “Olympic bump” in swimming enrollment – something we need more this year than ever after the challenges of the pandemic.
A parent will come across that article, think to themselves “a possible Olympian from my town? You mean I can have my kid in an Olympic caliber sports program on a 15 minute drive for $100/month?”
That can be enough to get the American dream, that uniquely hyper-competitive American culture, coursing through a parent’s veins, and can be enough for them to at least begin exploring registering their children for swim teams.
Frankly, these huge Olympic Trials events are the best thing that USA Swimming (in concert with the USOPC) does for its member clubs, financially.
It feels like this year’s pandemic-driven split into two Olympic Trials meet may be the start of a new era that continues this trend. Low participation numbers in the Wave I meet have led to questions about the financial implications of it, questions about why it’s even being held, and whether this is a strategy that swimming leadership will use in future years to continue to hang the carrot of the “Olympic Trials” without having to host as many swimmers in one shot.
But the local media doesn’t know that. They don’t know that this is a new system, they won’t make the distinction between the two meets, and their readers won’t see this as anything less than a real Olympic Trials event. In their minds, this is akin to the uber-famous 30 or 40 NBA and WNBA players who are invited to USA Basketball’s selection camps or to international friendlies to narrow down the roster.
They’ll seed the word “Olympics” and light up. That’s cool for those athletes. That’s a lifetime highlight for them, when they get the big local sendoff, when they’re asked about it in school or the local restaurant. And that’s huge for their clubs.
The Wave I meet might not be as big of a deal endemically as the Wave II meet, and anybody who says differently is probably just lunging for the moral high ground. But that doesn’t mean it’s not just as important for swimming.