Something a little bit crazy happened in swimming over the weekend.
No, we’re not talking about coaches getting in trouble, or records that were broken.
Rather, in Berkeley, California, a college swimming dual meet not only sold out, but turned away at least 200 fans at the gate.
That’s right: for the Pac-12 televised match-up between a pair of top 10 teams, Cal-Berkeley and the University of Arizona, in both men’s and women’s competition, there was an estimated 1,500 fans through the gate, plus a few more through the family gate, plus more fans were turned away because there just wasn’t room to put them.
This wasn’t the only case of this mysterious epidemic over the weekend. In Gainesville, Florida, what was described as an “overflow crowd” of 1,000+ showed up to watch the Gators sweep Auburn.
Which means that between two different college dual meets, on opposite sides of the country, one could conservatively estimate that somewhere north of 2,500 fans showed up (and most people we spoke with from both programs were confident that this would be a very conservative estimate).
And it was all over the place, too. A standing-room-only crowd filled the 800 seat Ralph R. Wright Natatorium, and that’s with only one of four teams competing being a top-10 program.
These aren’t NCAA Championship meets, or even SEC Championship meets. In fact, swimmers, coaches, families, and hardcore fans from all eight teams involved have repeatedly said, both on SwimSwam message boards and elsewhere, that these dual meets “just don’t matter,” and that it “doesn’t count until March.”
And yet somehow, these college dual meets were drawing crowds that any national-level USA Swimming meet would be envious of. At the Austin Grand Prix, for example, we’ve seen no specific figures, but estimates are in the neighborhood of 200-400 fans per night.
So what’s the magic formula? What makes college swimming dual meets work for such huge sections of people?
Here’s our thoughts.
1. Rivalries – College swimming has rivalries. The swimmers aren’t afraid to get a little chippy and mix things up on social media. Unlike the pro ranks of swimming, everyone isn’t trying to preserve their glowing reputation all of the time. What’s more, these rivalries carry over from other sports. Florida fans will come watch the Gators beat Auburn in anything, same with any of the big rivalries around the country. Rivalries take time to develop, they transcend generations, they’ve been in the making for 100, or more, years. USA Swimming has a lot of great assets: they have great meet announcers, they have big-time sponsors, and they have the best swimmers in the world, but 100-year old rivalries are something they don’t have.
2. Team Competition – More than just the winner matters at a college dual meet, so everyone is worth cheering on. The entire meet isn’t focused on the three or four swimmers that win all of the races. While that’s a draw, once those guys have finished, there’s still something to watch. See if the guy in your cap can beat the guy in the different cap next to him. Watch the battle for 2nd. So on. Team competitions also give clear winners and losers for fans to leave the meet talking about, as compared to the format at USA Swimming meets, where you know a bunch of people won races, but it’s hard to grapple with context. This also gives meets a crescendo, a build to a finish. Sports thrive on context and crescendo.
3. Television – The Cal-Arizona meet was televised on the Pac 12 Networks. That’s a huge draw in any sport. Check volleyball, soccer, or baseball attendance histories, and it’s easy to see that television draws crowds. The Pac-12 Network and the Big Ten Network have both aired swimming. So too has the Longhorn Network. The SEC Network launches soon, and surely they’ll find some time for the conference’s highly-ranked swimming programs. Cries of “show up big to impress the TV audience” will continue to inflate crowds.
4. Intra-University Athletic Support – It can be hard for a fan to go to a sport they don’t know much about and immediately go nuts with fervor. That’s why in some cases, it’s best to have other athletes in your corner. Take the University of Louisville, for example. The men’s swim team attended most of the Louisville women’s volleyball team’s home matches this season. The gimmick was that they each wore 25 articles of clothing over their team suits, and stripped down one article for each point until the Louisville women won the set. It earned them television time, and a spot in ESPN the Magazine, and helped the Louisville women to a perfect 11-0 home record for the season.
On Saturday against Kentucky, the volleyball team returned the favor. They showed up for the team’s rivalry meet against Kentucky, and pulled the same drill: an article of clothing for each event win. It creates a fun atmosphere, and can be a nice ice breaker for the rest of the fans.
5. Missy Franklin – Ok, so Missy is a big example. Short of Michael Phelps’ comeback, there’s no bigger draw in swimming than Missy Franklin. but on a college campus, people know who the big stars are. Florida students know that the swim team is good, and so while the faces might not be recognizable to the entire student body, “Florida swimming” is a star on campus. So too is Auburn swimming, or Cal swimming. Star power + rabid fan base = huge crowds.
6. Built-In Fan Bases – What we can’t ignore is that these universities have built-in audiences at the big state schools in the form of huge student bodies. But all of swimming has a similar fan base, we just have to work a little harder to attract it. Austin, for example, has several big club teams and a thriving Masters Swimming community. But for some reason, they didn’t show up for the Grand Prix and bring their parents, spouses, and/or children with them. One of the great things about college athletics is that they don’t pander. There’s not this marketing sense of “come watch swimming, because children love watching their heroes and idols swim.” College meets are about “come watch our team kick that team’s butts,” and people get into that. People get loud for that, people get crazy for that.
Saturday meets seem to play well as well, so timing counts. Even at Grand Prixs, Saturdays tend to be the biggest audiences.
7. Competitive Meets – No, these meets weren’t all that competitive at the final score. Florida’s teams both beat Auburn pretty handily, and the Cal meets were veritable blowouts over Arizona, but there was a perception that these meets would be competitive. Personally, we at SwimSwam would love to see the dual meet format encouraged to keep the scoring competitive for longer, but ultimately, the fan base just wants to see a meet that they feel is a competitive meet. Everyone wins a few races, one team isn’t going 1-4 in every event…these are the kinds of things that can keep audiences engaged. Even the home team audience, as much as they may not admit it, doesn’t truly want to watch their group sweep every race. A Florida fan who took the time to show up at that meet wanted to see good battles; they wanted to see Brad deBorde and Marcelo Chierighini go down to the wire in the 50 free; they wanted to see Emily Bos pip Sinead Russell at the wall in the 100 back by .02 seconds, because it was that much sweeter when Elizabeth Beisel beat the field by four seconds in the 200 back.
Sport is evolving, the television opportunities for swimming are growing greater, and as a sport we need to be ready to take advantage of them. Right now, college swimming is tearing its way into the driver’s seat for the future of the sport at the big-money, mass-appeal level. Swimming has been ignoring the above concepts, which aren’t necessarily new ideas, for a long time, banking on Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin to show up at the Olympics, win a bunch of gold medals in front of a prime-time audience, and give a shot of energy to participation and revenue figures. But the college swimming model offers more stability to the sport with less reliance on NBC’s schedulers for an audience.
And that’s a winning formula.