Thursday, August 4, 2011

Lifeless Crowds

When's the A Final? It already happened????

All week I've been bringing you observations from the pool deck at US Senior Nationals out in Palo Alto. By the way I know that's not the official name but I don't want to type out the long drawn out name. Today I'm bringing a more downbeat one. As I probably mentioned, there are a ton of people at this meet. Upwards of 1800 swimmers. Throw in coaches, parents and other various spectators and you have enough people to create the atmosphere. Still, yesterday during the "A" final of the women's 200 free, one of my swimmers turned to me and said "when are they starting?". The swimmers were already a 50 into the race. That is both part of the problem and revealing.
I don't fault the meet announcer, Sam Kendricks, who does a good job trying to rile up the crowd during each and every race. I actually think the problem has far more to do with the content of the crowd. Think of the upwards of 3000 people I just told you were at the meet. Almost none of them are their because they just like watching a big swim meet. They're there because they swam, or know a person who is swimming. Could they get a little more excited? Of course, but USA Swimming makes very little effort to attract anyone to our premier competitions that is not somehow involved in them.

Even if they did- there would be room for precisely none of those people to attend the meet. I know what a difference such an atmosphere can make because I was in Omaha in 2008. The first men's final had Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte battling stroke for stroke for the world record. The crowd absolutely exploded. Here was a large group of people that were invested in results that had very little personal connection to them.

Of course, its hard to compare because the stakes aren't nearly as high out here in Palo Alto. But there are stakes here- and storylines that deserve to be followed. What if we actually tried to host nationals like it was a big time swim meet? Right now it feels like a lazy money grab for USA Swimming, wherein they attract as many people as possible to say they are at "Nationals", collect all the entry fee/time trial revenue, and then sit back and count the money. What if we invested in actually building excitement around our biggest national meet of the year, promoted it and held it in a venue where spectactors could come and watch?

If there is a consistent theme that cuts across swimmers, coaches and the bureaucrats it is a fear of change. We fear losing what we have so we don't take the risks to get a lot better. A year from now, post London, I think we'll have all the momentum we need again to build something in swimming. I fear we'll waste it again.


  1. I think the problem is less with USA Swimming and more with the fact that your own swimmers aren't excited for a race. If the most die-hard of people in the sport -- the ones that are at this meet, the swimmers, the people who flew here, invested money, time, their entire lives to be there -- aren't screaming at the top of their lungs for an A final, then something's wrong. You write that USA Swimming should bring more non-swimmers to meets. I don't disagree. But, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You don't need countdown clocks and screaming announcers and everything like that. If the core audience can't get super excited with just the sport itself, just the race itself, then there's a problem that's bigger than just hype and marketing.

  2. Gus,

    How many other sports competitions rely on the competitors themselves to provide the atmosphere?

  3. Good comments ... please include specific suggestions on how you would "invest in actually building excitement around our biggest national meet of the year, promoted it and held it in a venue where spectactors could come and watch".

    It is actually a lot harder than you think ... when Michael Phelps isn't swimming or it's not an Olympic Trials there is not a lot to attract the non-swim fan.

  4. Agree with Gus ... if the swimmers themselves aren't excited about winning - Have you seen any post-race celebrations yet? -- why do you expect the fans to get excited?

  5. We definitely shouldn't have to "rely" on our in-house crowd (swimmers, coaches, parents) to be the cheering section at these types of meets... but we really don't have a choice. They should be the ones at least the most INTERESTED in the race. Shouldn't they? Aren't sports all about some sort of connection? Either to a team, geographically or friends/family related, or to a certain player/competitor, or to the sport itself? Where is the rooting interest for non-swimming, non-swimming-educated, non-connected spectators? This is why I think a "league" of some sort would be so fun in swimming these days. It would provide a specific rooting interest in every single event to these fairweather fans. But I digress. To me, swim meet spectator apathy has two reasons: 1) Lack of specific rooting interest. 2) Lack of high stakes (like you said in your blog above). Improve those two reasons, and people still stand and scream, just like they do in the World Cup, in NCAA March Madness, and most other heavily-attended sporting events.

  6. I dread to think what's going to happen when Phelps retires. ....

    I was at Nats last year and USA Swimming tried to make it "interactive" and exciting. There were countdown clocks, cheerleaders, people throwing tee shirts into the stands and at one point we were asked to sing karaoke-style to "Livin' on a Prayer." They tried.....I don't know if I would call it a huge success but they tried......

    I think the excitement needs to come from the sport itself/the athletes themselves. Unfortunately, the sport of swimming doesn't naturally lend itself to consistent balls-out thrills. Generally you have a laser-focused athlete with headphones on walk up to the block, give a conciliatory wave (sometimes) step on the block, race, get out and walk away. This sport has great personalities. If more people got to know other swimmers they'd be more invested. They need to learn who the rookies are and root for them as they come up the ranks. A lot of these people have interesting stories, most people don't know them. Marcus Titus has a great story.....people would root for him......

    I agree with Gus in that the answer isn't in the theatrics. It's in the sport itself and the athletes themselves.

  7. Here are my speciic suggestions: do any of the stuff we saw at Irvine last year. None of the countdowns or effort. If you drive around Palo Alto or anywhere on Stanfords campus you wouldnt know this meet is going on.

    There are stakes here- spots on the Junior team and the Pan Am games but there is nary a mention of it

  8. Missb said...
    I was also at Nationals last year. There were these cool banners hanging from light posts all over Irvine. I wanted one but I wasn’t tall enough it reach. So you knew something was going on there.. I don’t think the crowd was completely dead either.. I know I cheered, and jumped up and down when my favorite swimmers swam.. Even some of the signings were painful.. when someoen was late… Rickey Berens was trying to kill time waiting for Walters and they did a QA… there were a few questions and then it was silent. So I asked about Rome and the “bum” incident. I pretty much made a fool out of myself by telling him he had an A+ behind; but who cares, it was fun and everyone got a good laugh.. Gus even wrote about it! 

    I do agree that you need to get to know the other swimmers. Case in point.. Clark Burckle.... he hasn’t made an olympic team, or a world team. He was a strong NCAA athlete, with national promise. I met him briefly at the Charlotte Grand Prix in 09 and since then I’m a fan. I cheered very loud for him last year.. Fans need to follow the college teams; that helps: UT, USC, UF, CAL.. get to know them and you will find other swimmers to follow .. Make it intersting

    When Phelps or Lochte aren’t dueling I think it’s a let down for some. Not going to lie, I was very disappoint when I went to Mizzu this year and Ryan/Phelps or Grevers were not there. But there were other folks there; Thoman, Rogan, Berens, Soni, hardy, and Alexandrov. The Nadaores (sp) team from Florida were their fun to watch and listen too on the side of the pool. You have to make the best of it.

    I don’t understand how you can watch a final and not get excited and not cheer.. If I was there.. you’d hear me,

  9. Ummm should I be hiding somewhere? Craig Lord agrees with me, says the meet has a "post-party" feel to it:

  10. I agree with Gus about a league. I think it would help exponentially in markets where swimming is non-existent aside from the Club Teams that travel hundreds (or thousands) of miles to large meets such as Nats, or even the GP's. The swimming community is very small, and I guarantee aside from the people that got sucked in from the Olympics, not many people stick around the other 3 years between events. Aside from Golden Goggles every other year, what happens in the Northeast? Nothing. They took away the only GP meet in that area (NYC), and replaced it with another location. Granted, a thousand things might have went into that decision (probably just getting to and from Long Island). Then, when you have a huge International meet aside from the Olympics, who watches that on TV aside from the die-hard fans/other swimmers? No one, really. I read on a twitter a very good point regarding NBC's telecast: why would you put a non-Olympic event, where non-US swimmers are putting up good swims first, on a nationally televised event? I guarantee you 98% of the non-swimming community didn't stick around for an hour and change to wait for Phelps, Lochte, or Soni to come on. They might have just went in order of the races, who knows? They could have gotten that attention if they put something semi-exciting first and then built on it to hold the attention. They really have to think outside the box to get these people to stick around. ESPECIALLY in a market that is over run with die hard "mainstream" sports that have games on at the exact same time. Not to mention, in an area where the only thing more important to these people who are watching baseball at the same time is the oxygen to keep them breathing and the beer they're drinking. USA Swimming has such potential given the athletes that they have (even post-Phelps) to really help the sport grow, and make it exciting for those who do not know anything about the sport, and make them want to learn. The have the personality, the "swagger", and these athletes are spectacular role models for kids to look up to. I just hope it can get to that point quickly, before it's too late.

  11. After the show it's the afterparty and, after the party it's the hotel lobby. After the Belve than it's probly Cris, and after the original its probly this.