Shifting Tides: Swim Teams Weigh Splitting Membership Between USA Swimming, AAU

by Riley Overend 31

July 01st, 2023 Club, National, News

USA Swimming has acknowledged the rollout of its online member registration (OMR) system last year could have been better tested while insisting that this year’s sign-up process will be much easier for clubs thanks to a new bulk renewal feature. But is it too late?

Traditionally, club coaches could register their athletes in bulk with USA Swimming. But starting last September, each member had to register directly with USA Swimming, creating headaches for coaches and families dealing with technical difficulties and potential insurance liability issues.

From USA Swimming’s perspective, the change was part of a larger initiative to modernize the organization’s database, seeking to better communicate with its members by allowing them to directly update their contact information. And in that regard, it has been a huge success: USA Swimming went from hitting 30% of email inboxes with critical information about topics such as SafeSport and membership to “97%, 98%, 99%,” according to managing director of sport development Joel Shinofield.

However, along the way, USA Swimming may have alienated clubs that are already seeking other options to save time and money.

SwimSwam spoke with several coaches across the country who are considering a dual system in which they would sign up their clubs under the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) umbrella for cheaper, more convenient coverage while keeping their competitive swimmers with USA Swimming. AAU supports more than 700,000 young athletes across 45 different sports.

For many of these disgruntled coaches, their loyalty to USA Swimming reached a limit when the organization told clubs in January that their insurance is not valid “even if one individual has failed to renew their 2023 USA Swimming membership.”

Shinofield now says that was a miscommunication — that clubs experiencing technical difficulties signing swimmers up with the new registration software were in fact still insured — but coaches started exploring alternatives amid the uncertainty. When they researched the AAU option, they found it much cheaper for member registration and insurance (about a fifth of the cost per swimmer compared to USA Swimming) as well as meets, which don’t include LSC sanction fees.

Mecklenburg Swim Association (MSA) head coach Peter Perers said he expects his North Carolina club to save between $50,000 and $60,000 annually — enough for another full-time coach — by only registering about 60% of his 1,200 swimmers with USA Swimming, signing up his whole club with AAU for insurance coverage, and running a couple meets under the AAU umbrella for his non-competitive swimmers.

“I think United States Swimming does a great job servicing the top 1%,” Peters said. “I think they could do a better job for the other 99%.”

Swim Atlanta head coach Chris Davis crunched the numbers for his club of 1,700 swimmers and calculated a similar $60,000 savings. With about half of his team not even going to meets, he found it difficult to justify the value of a $70 USA Swimming membership (plus more in LSC fees) for his more casual swimmers.

“I’m looking for things in my life and in my program to make things easier, not harder,” Davis said. “Everything USA Swimming does makes my life harder, makes my coaches’ lives harder.”

Coaches lauded the convenience of AAU when it comes to both registering new swimmers and getting new coaches certified to be on the pool deck. They complained that USA Swimming currently requires about 30 hours of U.S. Center for SafeSport training classes and certifications on top of a background check in order for part-time coaches to get on deck, but Shinofield said the organization is addressing issues of accessibility with a new provisional coach membership program that lowers the barrier to six hours of online training within a coach’s first three years, starting September 1st. AAU, on the other hand, only requires a background check and no educational courses.

AAU aquatics national chair Lewis Fellinger said his organization met earlier this month to approve “the most comprehensive background in the industry” based on an external examination of every national governing body (NGB). If someone somehow slips through the cracks, he said the AAU’s board of review can react quicker compared to USA Swimming’s adjudication process (through SafeSport) because it’s internal and has fewer total cases to manage. Fellinger also questioned the efficacy of the rigorous SafeSport training required by USA Swimming.

“I would make the argument that a 30-hour online course is not protecting your athletes,” Fellinger said. “It’s just another step for your coaches to go through. Where we’re doing is propping up the security at the gate. We’re trying to keep those people out in the first place. So we’re increasing our level of screening on the front end because there’s no level of online training that’s going to make the athletes any safer.”

Shinofield claimed that the educational components of SafeSport, while “tedious,” have been shown by research to be an effective method of prevention. He also pointed out that SafeSport is recognizing the fact that its material can be difficult to manage, having reduced the length of refresher courses from over an hour to about 40 minutes.

“Listen, USA Swimming has changed from having no regulations when I was coaching — other than you pay your membership fee — to then adding CPR, to then adding concussion training, to adding SafeSport requirements and some coach education,” Shinofield said. “We’ve obviously become a much more regulatory environment that’s mandated by the federal government through the Center for SafeSport, which we have to comply with. It technically applies to all youth sports, but they’ve only exercised jurisdiction over the Olympic movement. Eventually, they’ll exercise jurisdiction over the AAU.

“But the thing I do worry about is that if you’re going to a less regulated environment, then so are the people who don’t want to be regulated, who potentially could endanger children,” he emphasized. “We’ll continue to work with the Center on making sure that their regulations work for coaches and for our clubs. Most of the research around prevention is around the effectiveness of education.”

The conversation about how to best keep swimmers safe in a vulnerable sport is of utmost importance, of course, but the reality is that the cost- and time-saving benefits of AAU might be enough to convince many clubs to make a change. Based on conversations with coaches, Fellinger thinks there’s a “wave coming” to AAU.

It wouldn’t be the first time there was a mass exodus of members from an aquatic NGB to AAU. Two decades ago, Fellinger was part of a group that led a switch from USA Diving in response to rising costs. He said “the overwhelming majority” of divers who made the move have remained with AAU ever since as the organization’s diving national championships have grown to attract over 700 participants.

Asked if USA Swimming sees AAU as a threat, Shinofield answered “not necessarily” before raising doubts about other organizations’ level of investment into the sport.

“I think the more kids that are swimming the better, right?” Shinofield said. “And there may be clubs that need different solutions, just like, we have some rec teams that have different solutions than full USA Swimming.

“I think the concern that I have is, what’s the investment in the sport itself, and is the AAU investing in the sport?” he continued. “Whereas, the aggregate dollars that go to USA Swimming from a membership standpoint are investing in the sport.”

Shinofield pointed out how during the COVID-19 pandemic, USA Swimming gave out $3 million in grants to help clubs stay in business, over $400,000 through the Club Excellence program rewarding clubs for their performance, and over $100,000 in grants to clubs trying to expand their clubs into new areas and new communities.

“So we continue to invest dollars into making sure that the sport is accessible and then making sure that clubs are rewarded for the work they’re doing on the competitive side,” Shinofield said. “And then additionally, the events obviously from the zone age group meets all the way up through Olympic Trials are events that we don’t make money on there. Those are events that we invest in to make sure that there are opportunities for athletes to compete. So I just don’t see that investment from other organizations involved in the sport. It doesn’t mean that they’re not good organizations.”

On the other hand, Fellinger argued that AAU makes it easier for pre-competitive swimmers to get involved in the sport and eventually become USA Swimming members, thus providing a mutual benefit.

“NGBs — and this is a global statement not specific to swimming — but they’re in a tremendously difficult position because they are graded on the performance of their Olympic athletes, which is the top half of the top 1% of their membership, but yet they’re trying to service 100% of their membership at the same time,” Fellinger said. “Of course the overwhelming majority of their time and resources and money are going to go to that part that they are being evaluated on, which is what’s on TV every four years. We are incredibly lucky in our dynamic that we can truly just focus on every athlete because we don’t have that report card coming due during the Olympic Games. We can just make sure that we are servicing our membership and giving them the experience that they’re looking for at all levels. We don’t have to worry about that top half of that top 1%. That’s all we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to provide people options.

“The biggest thing that’s gonna make our sport grow is for that NGB to be successful,” he added. “So the last thing we want for this to be an us versus them thing because we need them. We need them. We’re fooling ourselves to say otherwise. We need them to be successful and we want to help them be successful by helping them develop that piece of the pyramid that they can’t really address because of their, because of their resources, because of their time, because of their mandates.”

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11 months ago

I think Chris said it best. USA Swimming makes his life more difficult. It’s one thing to charge more and make life easier. USA swimming hasn’t done that. They weren’t perfect by any means before the current leadership took over, but since then they have continually made decisions that caused issues for the membership while also making it harder to question those decisions. Any pain USA Swimming experiences from teams registering with AAU was caused by USA Swimming.

Mike Griggs
11 months ago

Interesting discussion. Back in the 60s AAU and YMCA was all we had. They seemed to work pretty well for that era. How are present USA teams that are also affiliated with YMCAs affected by all of this?

11 months ago

I had issues with a diving coach that was only coaching in AAU and I wanted to file a SafeSport type report against the coach. The AAU platform did not have a way to do that as far as I could see. At that point my only other recourse would be to go to his employer who was the club owner and a friend of his. I didn’t pursue it further because it was a one time issue with improper communication to a non-minor athlete, but the fact that there are no safeguards institutionally in place is an issue. There should be multiple hurdles in place before people can work with kids, and SafeSport training isn’t anywhere close to 30… Read more »

11 months ago

I haven’t seen many AAU meets.
Swimming can be an expensive sport.
I remember USA swimming had a two swim meet option that was cheaper. What happened to that?

Looks like USA swimming should look for options to reduce costs.

Reply to  Seth
11 months ago

Come to Arkansas. We have them all the time.

Stressed Team Admin
11 months ago

Our club is stuck with USA swimming for the moment. What I would like is a hybrid option where my coaches could bulk register and the swimmers/officials registered directly with USA swimming. The fact that USA swimming claims success in any of this mess is ridiculous. How tone deaf is this organization?

Reply to  Stressed Team Admin
11 months ago

We’d love to hear more about what you mean by “stuck with USA Swimming”. Could you email me

11 months ago

Many clubs already do this. Have been for quite a while. Very cost effective.

11 months ago

AAU’s long game is fierce.

pete kennedy
11 months ago

Power and money to the forefront once again.

I remember back when the AAU became dictatorial and faced the same discontent from its membership.
Result the formation of a new power structure in swimming the USA swimming.

Those who ignore history will suffer the same fate of the AAU debacle of years past. A chance for a rebirth of the AAU? Very interesting.

About Riley Overend

Riley is an associate editor interested in the stories taking place outside of the pool just as much as the drama between the lane lines. A 2019 graduate of Boston College, he arrived at SwimSwam in April of 2022 after three years as a sports reporter and sports editor at newspapers …

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