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This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Shawn King.
Swimming. For casual fans, it matters every four years at the Olympics. Summer swimming leagues see massive involvement from many kids, only to see the athletes choose to pursue sports with greater levels of recognition and higher potential career opportunities. Unlike basketball, football, soccer, baseball, or hockey, swimming does not have a professional league with a fan base that supports the athletes with their purchase of tickets, merchandise, and fantasy leagues. What are the major limiting factors to the current construct of swimming that have limited the impact of swimming’s professional athletes and competitions? At least six major factors present issues for swimming to overcome: relevancy in national and world athletics, meet organization and duration, meet scoring procedures, team construct and organization, meaningful statistics that increase athlete value, and an annual defined high performance season. The modern age of on demand entertainment has increased the value of professional sports as one of the only mediums where it is better to follow live. Television networks compete for the rights to broadcast all of the professional sports and pay to have those rights for advertising and viewership. With the ever increasing demand for high quality, live athletic performances, the sport of swimming has an opportunity to rise as a viable, sustainable professional sport for athletes and fans if the sport is willing to adjust to address the major issues limiting its connectivity with audiences.
Let’s take a look at each of these issues in depth.
1. Relevancy in National and World Athletics
Swimming is well known as a 4-year sport built around the Olympics. There is a sharp spike of interest in swimming after the Olympics, but that interest declines in the years between the Games. In recent years, athletes such as Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, and Katie Ledecky have helped to produce a much larger interest in the sport of swimming. The strain of performing every 4 years in the major sport event is high and the demand required to maintain sponsors and meet the international performance level is intense. There aren’t many other events covered by the media in off Olympic years to draw fans to watch professional swimmers compete. This lack of viewers effects financial sustainability for swimmers and coaches of all levels.
Other major events that produce a significant media product are few and serve to allow the general populace to leave swimming for other more urgent sports and professional swimming athletes must struggle to provide a professional living without the support of a sports league or other professional organization that can produce high media demand. Recent trials of the TYR Pro Series, such as the mystery medley, the multiple elimination 50’s, and the professional fantasy league playing out throughout the series are attempts to make the sport more exciting and appealing to fans and media, but ultimately fall short of the media and fan demand for exciting entertainment.
The success of the Olympics for swimming lies in the simplicity of its format that a casual viewer can follow. In the United States, the viewer experience is very straightforward: Team USA swimmers verses the swimmers from the rest of the world. USA athletes medaling is exciting and compelling for the viewers. If an individual gets their hand on the wall first, they win and team USA accrues another gold medal. Team scoring is simple: if the USA has more medals than everyone else, the USA wins. No other swimming venue captures the attention of the viewers or the media like the Olympics. Outside the Olympics, swimming rarely makes news in comparison with other sports. Youth across the country do not follow swimming as a legitimate sport unless they are swimmers. The impact of swimming stars remains mostly limited to within the sphere of swimming.
Lack of relevancy outside the Olympics creates a major issue in the sport of swimming. Due to the fact that swimming only matters to the world at large during the Olympics, the main expectation when we watch swimming is to see World and Olympic records broken and gold medals won. Imagine if LeBron James or Tom Brady had to break the league record in every game, or even only every playoff game. The expectation is too unreal. Professional swimmers need to be able to compete in a format where the times swum are not the most important aspect of the sport. This would free athletes to just “swim well” without the need to have top 10 world times or other such things. Consistency of performance and simply RACING would be sufficient for athletes to sustain a viable career. This would allow more professionals to remain in the sport and extend the careers of many of the best athletes.
Much like golf and tennis, swimming has become a sport of individuals. Fans need to follow their favorite professional athlete into each of the events that the athlete chooses to participate in, with no real value attributed to the athlete’s performance at the meet. In golf and tennis, world ranking is used to determine seeding and thus elimination throughout the event. This creates urgency with every event to improve their status and thus their potential matchups. High value is placed on winning major championships within golf and tennis and is marked as a high accomplishment. Due to the large variety of events, specificity of event training, and the variation athletes event selections, there is no uniform measure to determine if an athlete has “won” the meet. Current proposals suggest a single elimination swim off bracket, however, this model increases the amount of time needed to swim the large varieties of events and does not have the diversity of golf or tennis matches. Golf has diversity due to the course changes based on the conditions of the weather, time of day, and length of tournament. Tennis is a dynamic sport with diverse ball movements and game styles. Swimming lacks the diversity that these other sports have in the event. Watching a field of 16 swimmers single eliminate each other to a championship would produce a meet where spectators are watching 15 heats of each event to determine a champion. While this increases the urgency of the meet, there is a limit to how interesting an event is once it is being repeated 15 times in a swimming pool, fixed in distance and player interaction.
Golf and Tennis over the years are losing viewers and fans. Individual sports do not carry the same weight within the construct of sports as the team sports do. The sports that currently shine and dominate the US media are professional football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and hockey. In seeking a pattern to design a professional sport, the most successful leagues should be considered in formatting and designing the sport. Swimming, as a sport, should structure its events to model other professional team sports.
Stars make a sport relevant, but stars on teams make sports relevant consistently. Tiger Woods doubled the viewership and exponentially increased the revenue of the sport of golf during his rapid ascension to stardom. When he left the sport, ratings and money dropped significantly. The NBA experienced a similar loss after Michael Jordan retired. The difference in these two examples is that in golf, an individual sport, the entire sport is waiting for a new messianic figure to rise to fill Tiger’s role, even Tiger. The NBA however, has a viable team format where groups of stars who are great, maybe not transcendent, but great, could get together and produce greatness. Although there was a drop in interest after MJ’s retirement, soon the Kobe and Shaq Lakers arose, the Spurs, and Lebron James. In all professional sports, the stars give fans connectivity and an investment in the sport. However, teams provide a stable and constant construct that provides audiences the chance to build loyalty and devotion to the sport.
Swimming has recently suffered the loss of Michael Phelps, the most transcendent swimmer, not to mention Olympian, that the sport of swimming has ever seen. If swimming does not make significant changes to improve the relevancy and connectivity of fans to more stable team constructs, our sport will suffer for years while we await the rise of the next Michael Phelps. If golf is any example, it could be a while.
The current swimming seasons make it difficult for fans to follow swimming with dedication. With the constant demand of a year-round sport, fans never have a time to really focus their energy and excitement. With major meets being held throughout the year with no real emphasis on a place where the professionals can shine, fans can quickly move from a professional athlete to an amateur who performed well in the same major event.
Every other major professional sport has a clearly defined season, an offseason, and often times a preseason. These phases provide time for the athletes, coaches, and administrators to review, adjust, and improve for the following year, while allowing fans to decompress and build excitement for a new year with new hope and opportunity. A year-round sport with no definite end creates an unreal expectation from fans that the athletes should be at their peak all the time, rather than just an important phase or time during the year.
Swimming events are laborious in design for everyone involved. Any meet in which a professional level athlete would participate is a 4-5 day event consisting of a distance session, 3-4 prelims, and 3-4 finals, with each session lasting up to 4 hours (and sometimes more). For athletes, coaches, officials, and spectators, this is taxing.
For fans, this format provides little value for the investment of their time. As an observer come to watch their favorite athlete, or even support their favorite team, the individual would need to watch hours of prelims to determine who would be swimming finals. If the fan chooses only to attend finals to watch the top athletes, it can be extremely difficult to know how well their team is doing in such a large format competition with 16-place scoring. The points scored are not immediately evident upon completion of each event due to the large number of teams in attendance at each event and the unlimited number of athletes from any team to compete in the event. This makes the experience of supporting teams difficult for a casual swimming fan.
The finals are not definitive for the entire competition. While an individual athlete may win an event, a team decision may not be reached for 50-75 hours after the start of the first event. This creates a lack of urgency within the meet structure and devalues the points scored at championship level meets. Even in college swimming, the final scores are not calculated until the completion of the 4 days of prelims and finals. This is a major concern at the college level, as programs continue to be cut year after year.
Another major issue with the current event structure is that Professional athletes are competing in the same venues as amateur athletes. While at first this may appear to be a great benefit to the development of the sport, it in fact damages the overall professional product. If professional athletes have to defend their status at every meet throughout the year, fans can be distracted by younger athletes having break-out performances. The division of the fans’ attention, devalues and harms the longevity of the professional athlete. Competition between amateurs and professionals is not the problem; devaluing the professional product that can be marketed is a problem. Lowering the value of professional athletes in swimming creates a high turnover for athletes that are engaged in the sport, which lowers fan commitment in the individual sport that currently exists.
The scoring system of swimming creates a massive lack of parity within swimming championship meets. Distinct differences in the size, experience, and talent of the teams in attendance at the Pro style championships leaves a majority of the teams without an ability to compete to win the meet. The existence of the “underdog” story is rare within the structure of club swimming. For fans, this can be a struggle because the meet does not matter for the team they support unless they are part of a limited few programs that have the capability of competing to win the meet.
Outside of a swimmer’s times and Olympic or World Championship medals, there are no other statistics that can determine the value of an athlete. In each of the major sports leagues, athletes have statistical measures to determine the overall value of the athlete. The diversity of statistics produces a broader field of athletes that can be involved in the sport. For example, in the NFL, teams and players can be rated on many different areas to determine the viability of the team. A team may be top 10% in offense but only in the 50th percentile of defense and special teams. A running back may be great in 3rd down situations, but limited in distance per carry. While statistics are not what makes sports great, it produces a culture of assessment and change that creates interest in the sport. Within the current culture and climate of sports, stats are valuable tools to connect the fans with the athletes through important benchmarks, awards, and fantasy sports. Swimming is currently unable to support many of these types of activities and fan involvement due to the lack of statistical variety within the sport.
About Shawn King
Shawn King is the National Development Coach for the Southern Utah Swimming Association in St. George, UT. Previously, Shawn worked as the Membership Director at the American Swimming Coaches Association. Shawn has been committed to bringing elite swimming to southern Utah and has seen a Utah High School State Title and SUSA’s first Jr. National qualifier this last season. Shawn is married and has 4 boys.