Here’s why… effort. I’m not talking about the effort of the swimmers at workouts or meets. I’m talking about the effort culture imposed by us as a group of swimming fans, coaches, organizations, and athletes. There is this idea present in the US swimming ecosystem that the only thing that matters is the Olympic Games every 4 years. I think you would agree that this exists. There might be a disagreement with whether this is a good or bad thing.
I used to LOVE that swimming only mattered 10 out of every 1,461. So cool, right? The pinnacle of our sport happens once every 4 years, which makes it as special as it is. But the question is, what do we want as a group of athletes, coaches, and fans? Do we want ‘professional’ post-grad swimmers to barely scrape by while training for a chance to get 3rd in Omaha 4 years from now? Or do we want our sport to thrive with media attention month after month, year after year? I would love to see a more frequent cycle of truly exciting swimming events.
Let’s look at 2 variables in the US swimming fan world:
- Fan effort cycle
- The organization’s effort cycle (USA Swimming, coaches, athletes, coach organizations, etc.)
Swimming – Fan Effort Cycle
Swimming fan’s in the US have a very distinct effort cycle. It’s once every 4 years. Perhaps the ’10 days’ thing above is a bit exaggerated. But you get the point. We tune in heavily around Trials and the Olympics. Likewise, casual swimming fans tune in during the olympics as well. Everyone and their mom loves to watch swimming when it’s on NBC during the Olympics. Swimming is consistently one of the top 3 watched summer olympic sports in the US. I’m sure those same people could get excited about it a couple of times per year. This demonstrates huge potential for the sport. Conclusion: effort is strong for the Olympics, but this effort is perhaps the most non-uniform through time of any sport in the world.
Swimming – The Organization’s Effort Cycle
I’ll preface this section by saying, I’m not intending to blame anyone. In fact, I struggle with which came first in our sport, the lack of a consistent fan effort or the lack of a consistent organizational effort. That being said, the lack of effort by USA Swimming, many of the coaches, athletes, and other swimming organizations during non Olympic years is mind blowing. 2015 Worlds. And yes, the event that sparked this post, 2016 short course Worlds. There was definitely low energy from ‘the organization’ around these events. That is hardly controversial. Whether or not this is caused by the fan’s effort cycle or the other way around, I’m not sure.
To ensure the continual growth of our sport and a decent living for our athletes, we have to find a way to create a more frequent cycle of truly exciting swimming events. Before we try to get to the bottom of this and propose a solution to the problem I’m putting forward, let’s glean insight from the most popular major professional sports league in the US – the NFL.
The NFL pre-season fan effort is similar to the effort swimming fans give 1,451 out of every 1,461 days. But that’s where the similarity ends. Each NFL team has 16 regular season games over the span of a 17-week season. Fans live and breath Football during those 17 weeks. The NFL fan engagement is arguably the highest of any of the 4 major pro sports. This bodes well for swimming, right? Because football has the least number of games out of the 4 sports, swimming having 1 big event every 4 years is moving towards an even more optimal schedule… wrong. There is an optimization curve here folks, and football is the closest sport to being at the global maximum of that curve that I can think of.
Not by coincidence, the NFL’s and each franchise’s effort is consistently strong throughout the entire NFL season as well. It’s a money-making effort and they do it beautifully. The season is not too long and not too short. One game is Thursday night to tease you for the weekend. Sundays are jammed with NFL coverage when they know families are relaxing at home. And, to top it off, the NFL blasts you 1 last featured game on Monday night televised on ESPN, the world leader in sports. Everything is optimized. Even the playoffs are done brilliantly. The number of playoff teams selected is exclusive enough for the playoffs to be special, but still inclusive enough that the majority of the teams are ‘in the playoff hunt’ the whole season. And of course the Super Bowl is not 1 week after the AFC and NFC championship games, not 3 weeks after, but instead it’s 2 weeks after – the perfect amount to maximize Super Bowl excitement, NFL gear sales, and advertising revenue.
MLB – NBA – NHL
We could go through each of the other 3 major sports in the US, and probably toss in the PGA Tour, to get some great examples of fan engagement side by side with governing organization strategy and effort. And, I was tempted to do so when I started writing this article, but I’m not used to this whole writing thing, so I’ll leave it to you to extrapolate examples from those sports. Bottom line is they all have their flaws, but in general both fan effort and organization effort are high throughout the duration of the seasons.
What do we do?
So, are we resolved to the fact that swimming ‘season’ lasts for 10 days once every 4 years? Or should we do something about this as a sport? Let’s assume that everyone reading this wants to feel the same level of excitement for similar lengths of time that so many other sports’ fans enjoy. There are 2 ways to make this happen if you believe, as I do, that fan effort and organization effort work in both directions.
1. Proactively increase our fan effort and excitement throughout each month/ year
That means pour the same heart and soul into the short course World Championships every 2 years that we do the Olympics. That means following the Arena PSS with the same passion that we do when we follow the Olympic Trials. The problem with this is that it has to happen organically and channel throughout hundreds of thousands of fans. This is a tall ask.
2. USA Swimming re-designs it’s engagement strategy and emphasizes a culture shift from the top down to put almost as much emphasis on big events throughout the year as there currently is on the Olympics.
When you analyze the NFL, as I started to above, you realize how every decision is made for a reason. So many things are done by design to keep fans engaged, because fans need to be pulled along. Not enough of us are willing to spend thousands of dollars on game tickets and gear without a perfectly crafted effort by the league itself. The NFL and franchise owners are motivated to increase value.
What I’m looking for is a top-down culture shift where there is true excitement from elite coaches, athletes, and USA Swimming as an organization throughout all years. I’m looking for creative minds at USA Swimming to find great ways to bring our sport into the limelight more than just 10 days every four years. I’m looking for interesting coach and athlete personalities to make the sport more exciting for casual viewers. This is the only way our sport will thrive for decades to come and hardworking athletes that are role models for future generations will be able to pursue their dreams throughout their 20s and 30s.
Of course, the solution is some combination of 1 and 2. But, I question how effective #1 will be without a strong #2 push at the same time. So, let’s do what we can to create energy and passion around this sport each and every year and hope that the organizations around us follow our lead.