2018 PRO SWIM SERIES – AUSTIN
- Thursday, January 11 – Sunday, January 14, 2018
- Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swim Center
- Austin, TX
- Prelims 9 AM (Th-Sat) / Finals 6 PM (Th), 5:40 (Fri-Sat) / Timed Finals 8 AM (Sun) – U.S. Central Time
- Links, Schedule & Points/Money Info
- Meet site
- Live Stream on NBCSN
- Meet info
- Psych Sheets
- Live Results
USA Swimming made some sweeping adjustments to its Pro Swim Series this season, and the tour opener in Austin gave us our first glimpse at how the new format will look in practice. While the adjustment to a wave of new changes wasn’t without some execution wrinkles, it also shows a remarkable amount of intriguing potential, particularly from a spectator standpoint.
We’ll run through each of the major changes with our feedback – what was good, what needs improvement and which tweaks were ultimately negative or positive for this stop of the tour.
The SwimSquad Battles have been pretty highly-anticipated and closely-followed by a lot of fans. The negative so far has been the difficulty for fans in following the details of the competition.
SwimSquad lineups weren’t publicized until the meet had already started, though there was some social media evidence that captains had set their team lineups at least a day or two earlier. My running theory? Lineups were set before some big-name scratches were known (hey Mallory Comerford and Leah Smith) and USA Swimming gave its captains a chance to change their lineups late.
Whether that’s true or not, absent athletes were always going to be the biggest concern to a Fantasy-style points format for professional swimming. Attendance at mid-season swim meets just isn’t as predictable as actives/inactives in football or starters in other fantasy sports. But if USA Swimming really wants to make the SwimSquad Battles hum (and make the format replicable for swim fans to do in their own copycat leagues, which would be the ultimate outcome of this experiment), then meet attendance has to become more consistent or high-level scratches better-publicized.
That said, the team battles were exciting, with scores close and leaders changing as the meet went on. The scoring format seemed solid (points for a top 8 finish) and there was some fun drama and speculation in the choosing of starters. A few teams were burned by not having enough IMers, but it could be argued that that added more retroactive importance to the draft and should be alleviated as more college swimmers start to compete by the last 4 stops.
There’s an opportunity here: several fans asked to make this team competition interactive somehow. An idea for future development…
The verdict: Very good addition, needs some small tweaks to execution and promotion.
Mixed Medley Relay
The mixed medley relay was very much a mixed bag in Austin. While the vision was certainly four teams of titans going head-to-head, the reality was very much a hodgepodge of National Teamers swimming off-strokes to cobble together relays with most of the top names not competing.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what the relay selection process looked like. How many athletes were asked to swim but declined? How many of the competing athletes were happy to contribute, and how many felt swimming on an essentially meaningless relay compromised their day 2 and 3 events through added fatigue? The biggest question is this: what does the mixed medley relay bring to the table for athletes or fans that makes it a positive addition?
The relay didn’t count for SwimSquad points. It didnt, – that we could find in meet info – count for any sort of prize money. There didn’t appear to be anything at stake for athletes, and while the relay was relatively fun for fans, it wasn’t anywhere near what it could have been.
There’s one potential quick fix: make the relay worth prize money for all four legs. Big prize money. Maybe throw in a matching donation to the winning Squad’s charity of choice. Professional swimmers don’t have many opportunities to earn money, so it’s a decent bet that a check of almost any size would entice swimmers to stick around and swim the relay.
Of course, money doesn’t grow on trees. If prize money for all 16 relay legs is too steep an ask, then USA Swimming will have to get creative in how to incentive athletes to participate. Either way, the mixed relay felt almost completely directionless and needs an identity overhaul for the next Pro Swim Series stops.
The verdict: Needs meaning for athletes beyond just spectator appeal. Big adjustments needed.
The mystery IM suffered in some ways from the same phenomenon as the mixed medley. Where the vision was for the top 8 from the regular 200 IM to race again in the mystery IM, only 6 of 16 A finalists elected to swim the mystery IM. In place of the athletes who bowed out, the meet was forced to reach down to swimmers who didn’t even qualify for the B final – the women’s race featured 19th and 20th place finishers and the men’s race the 19th placer.
That said, the event itself was still a very fun spectator experience, with constantly changing leads and fields that were relatively close, particularly in the men’s race.
The big question remains: how to incentivize top athletes to compete. The races were fun in Austin without the top IMers involved, but how long until the novelty of the mystery order wears off? Certainly this is a more spectator-friendly event with Chase Kalisz vs Will Licon instead of Carson Foster vs Andreas Vazaios and Sydney Pickrem vs Melanie Margalis instead of Madisyn Cox vs no one. But how do you get those big names to compete?
Again, the easy-but-expensive answer is to throw money at the problem and hope it goes away. Perhaps there are other ways to encourage participation. The swimmers involved certainly seemed to have fun (see race video here), both in the ready room and as they picked their lanes & mystery orders. But is fun enough of an incentive for top athletes to put themselves through another grueling swim?
The verdict: A fun spectator experience with intriguing potential, but needs more top athlete participation (& incentives) to thrive once the novelty wears off.
Sprint Session/Overall Schedule
The meet order was shuffled at the odd Pro Swim Series stops in order to accommodate the stroke 50 shootouts and the mystery IM. The result was a Saturday session marked by eight multi-round sprint shootouts broken up by four heats of 400 frees and the mystery IM event.
By and large, the new event lineup seemed like the best way to incorporate the new events without draining athletes energy for their main events. The mystery IM has to come after both the 200 and 400 IMs or athletes will scratch to save energy. The new lineup accomplishes that. The stroke 50s in general have to come after the 100s of their strokes for the same reason. Mission accomplished. As it stands now, the only real event conflict would be for athletes who want to swim a 50 shootout along with the 400 or 1500 free – a relative rarity among top-level contenders.
It’s fair to ask why so many top IMers scratched the mystery IM. Many had no day 3 or 4 events. Why not use the final day as a training swim and/or a chance to compete in something different? Maybe some athletes started their travel home during the day Saturday to get back to training quicker.
But as much as we’ve called for USA Swimming to incentivize athletes to compete in new events, maybe athletes and coaches need to start adapting to the future. Swimming is fast becoming a spectator sport. If athletes want more opportunities to make money, if coaches and swimmers want professional swimming to become a more sustainable career path, then maybe it’s time to start engaging more in the aspects of the sport that promote spectator experience.
Taking Saturday to swim “fun” events doesn’t have to be a waste of time. Swimmers and coaches tend to get too bogged down in the importance of training and forget that the ultimate goal of training is to be able to compete well. Experience competing is just as important as experience grinding out long yards. Maybe a stroke 50 shootout doesn’t have direct impact on an Olympic event lineup. But it has to have as much value as a stand-up set in practice – maybe more value if it means racing elite competition. A mystery IM is an odd event, sure, but that doesn’t mean athletes don’t gain some value from learning how to compete through wrinkles to their expectations.
The verdict: the lineup is put together about as good as it possibly could be and shouldn’t be a deterrent for any athletes to compete in new events.
Final Day Miles
One major criticism from fans has been the moving of the 1500 frees to Sunday morning in a timed finals session. The reality here is that USA Swimming has always faced a dilemma with the 1500, which is generally not conducive to spectators or to television schedules.
You can put the fastest heat at the beginning of finals, getting it out of the way early… but you risk boring fans right out of the gate. You can put it at the end of a session… but fans and swimmers will, in general, leave during the race and end the session on a low-energy note that doesn’t encourage fans to come back for another session. Putting a distance race in the middle of a session is a pretty good way to kill momentum, and swimming all the heats in the morning/afternoon is a pretty big bummer for the athletes themselves.
Of course that’s all generalization. There are mile races that blow everything else out of the water in terms of excitement. Heck, we ranked a 1650 free as our top race of 2017. But the reality is that an unexciting 50 free will bore spectators for 30 seconds. An unexciting mile can put fans to sleep for almost 20 minutes. When thinking about cultivating an audience, USA Swimming can’t sacrifice exciting event lineups to be nice to distance swimmers.
Most of the top names still stuck around to swim the miles on Sunday morning, and by and large swam well, regardless of the atmosphere. If teams are sticking around for Saturday night, it’s not too much more hassle to stay for one more session Sunday morning before flying/driving home. The combination of Saturday’s lineup and Sunday’s miles may have caused some swimmers and teams to head home a full day early, but if athletes can be convinced to stay and compete Saturday, pushing the miles to Sunday morning shouldn’t deter any true milers from racing them.
The verdict: A strong choice from a spectator standpoint; a somewhat-disappointing but defensible choice from an athlete standpoint.
Reactions to the new format will likely be influenced by perspectives. Those thinking only about the athlete experience will probably have a lot of gripes with the changes, but those on the spectator side should be relatively positive about the ideas behind the changes, even if there is some work to do in execution.
The truth is that sports are ultimately entertainment, and that reality is coming to fruition in swimming as well. Those who hope to see the sport grow, with more publicity and opportunities for professionals raising the level of swimming nationally, need to realize that the spectator experience will in general trump athlete comfort.
With that in mind, the new Pro Swim Series format seems a big step in the right direction. USA Swimming now has until April to iron out the kinks, with the even meet stops reverting to the old format. Mesa will be the next chance to show off the new format along with an influx of NCAA athletes after the finish of their season. That confluence of factors could make Mesa the start of a new era on the Pro Swim Series. Regardless, it should be one of the most-anticipated Pro Swim Series meets in years – perhaps since the 2014 Mesa meet that marked the beginning of a Michael Phelps comeback.