At its most elite levels, swimming is largely an individual sport. Furthermore, it is an individual sport without any method of scoring. Sure, there are the yearly Duel In the Pool matchups between different countries, most recently the German-Italian-British all-star squad. But these biennial competitions are hardly enough. Most USA-Swimming meets keep team scores, but rarely does anyone know what they are.
Summer league, high school, and college swimming have the highest participation levels in their relevant age groups by far. High School State meets, which employ scoring systems, far outdraw World Cup and Grand Prix meets with some of the best swimmers in the world.
USA-Swimming meets, with no teams, relevant scoring, and unlimited numbers of events per individuals are very dull, save for the 3 minutes that your child spends in the water. College meets, however, are supremely exciting, especially with two closely matched teams.
Look at the most successful and popular sports. Basketball, football, futbol, baseball. They all have teams, standings, and scores. Swimming has begun to catch on a little, as they have begun scoring systems and giving prizes for it’s FINA World Cup and USA Swimming Grand Prix series’, but it doesn’t take it far enough. The prize money is not enough to force commitments from the top swimmers, the publicity isn’t enough to provide colatteral benefits (dry-land marketing opportunities, squealing teenage fans), and the scoring systems aren’t enough to hold anyone’s interest.
This is why I propose that someone develop a competitive, professional, team swimming league. Split the teams up in a manner that would develop loyal fan bases, whether this be states of birth, alumni of different colleges, a draft system with different cities hosting certain teams. Then, sign the athletes to contracts. Force them to be committed to the team, so that fans can develop those relationships.
It would take some creative marketing to draw in a strong support base. Obviously, signing the Phelps’, Coughlin’s, Lochte’s or Hoff’s would be the smoking gun. But short of that, turn the events into a show. Come up with races that are more exciting for the fan base. Eliminate the mile, because it’s boring. Have show-down races, where swimmers can challenge other swimmers to a mono-e-mono grudge duel. Can you imagine if Lochte called out Phelps in the 20o IM, or Cavic v. Phelps in a 100 butterfly? That would be huge. Vary the formats, to keep fans coming back. Put emphasis on the dual meets, to hold interest throughout the whole season.
To become successful, the league would have to develop community outreach programs. Maybe one Saturday a month, have the swimmers hold a free clinic for the community. Let the local swimmers get to know the athletes, and then they will feel more involved in the meets.
Tennis is another sport that uses a hybrid individual-team format on the high-school and college levels, but is generally individual beyond that. Tennis, however, has developed a professional team league with moderate levels of success. I think that swimming could use their model and be even bigger, because there are many more tennis players that can eke out a modest living off of playing international tournaments than there are swimmers.
The fact of the matter is that under the current format, most swimmers, especially Americans, have to give up their sport when they’re 22 years old, even though in most sports, that is where athletes are truly beginning to develop into super-stars. If you graduated from college in the last 8 or so years as an American 100 butterflier, and your name was not Michael Phelps or Ian Crocker, your only choices were to hang the goggles up, pick a new event, or seek citizenship elsewhere, because there was no way you were cracking an Olympic or World Championship lineup. But imagine if these swimmers had an opportunity to pursue their sport and make a living wage off of it. That would be huge for the popularity of the sport for the younger ages.
If you put a professional swimming league in the hands of a creative and visionary commissioner, ala Bud Selig or David Stern, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be successful. Budding sports leagues always rely on hooking in kids, and there are few sports in the United States that have a higher youth participation level than swimming.
Obviously there would be a few kinks that would have to be ironed out, but what do you guys think? Would you pay a couple of bucks to go watch a professional team swimming meet?