Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Big Lie: Omaha's Too Big Trials

The Centurylink Center will feel a bit more crowded in 2012
The announcement today that USA Swimming would not be allowing time trials at the upcoming Olympic Trials meet in Omaha should come as a shock to no one. It has been plainly evident for a long time that the 2012 Trials would be a bloated behemoth of a meet. With nearly 2000 qualifiers and still another weekend of qualifying to go, the upcoming Trials meet will break all records for participation in a meet of its kind. This begs two questions: how did we get here and is that a good thing?

In May of 2011, USA Swimming sent their #2 man Mike Unger to the CSCAA meeting in San Diego. I sat in a room as Unger announced that to that point, roughly 800 swimmers had qualified for Trials and that he expected roughly 200 more to make it under the standard. He assured the assembled coaches that 2008's Trials meet with 1200 swimmers was too big and that it shouldn't happen again.

There are only two possibilities for why Unger said this. Either, he couldn't predict that far more than 200 (roughly 1200) would qualify in the intervening time period. Or, he knew that far more were qualified and was purposely deceitful to mollify coaches. To speak to the former, I can understand why the overwhelmingly conservative hive mind in Colorado Springs would predict a smaller number of qualifiers for 2012. After all, "the suits" were gone and the standards were the same. This both overestimated the helpfulness of "the suits" and underestimated the recent improvement curve in swimming worldwide.  As for the latter, I'm far beyond expecting transparency from the leadership of USA Swimming.

The final piece in the puzzle are of course the standards themselves, largely unchanged in the past 30 years. If you want a comparison for how much the standards would have to change to reflect the worldwide improvement in swimming times, take a look at FINA's B standards over the same time period.

Whether or not the resulting huge number of qualifiers is a positive development depends on who you ask. From the standpoint of having a meet to select our Olympic team, its a disaster. Actual olympic hopefuls will have to contend with overcrowding both in terms of the length of the prelim session and in warmup spaces. From a developmental standpoint, it could be argued that getting a ton of athletes to the meet to have the experience is excellent. From a business standpoint, USA Swimming looks to reap huge amounts of money from the number of entrants, not only in entry fees but also in ticket sales and from sponsorship agreements (particularly Marriott hotels). At this year's CSCAA meeting, National Team Director Frank Busch told coaches that the economic impact of hosting Trials was now $35-40 million dollars for the host city, and it's reflected in the number of cities lining up to bid for the 2016 version.

Olympic trials, rather than being primarily a selection meet for our London squad, has become another vehicle of USA Swimming's business plan. Facing the seemingly insurmountable task of building interest from non-participants, Colorado Springs has instead built their business model on extracting more from their large and mostly affluent membership. They certainly are succeeding.


  1. U.S. Swimming going after the $$$$. So what is the story with U.S. swimmers showing their sponsor's logos on their caps?!?!

  2. I gotta disagree with you on this one:
    "Facing the seemingly insurmountable task of building interest from non-participants, Colorado Springs has instead built their business model on extracting more from their large and mostly affluent membership. They certainly are succeeding."
    There are 2 conflicting ideas here, promoting our sport (ie. getting more people interested) and having a quality swimming event. Trials is our premier event besides the Olympics and should be exciting. How many “Seniors Nationals” have you been to where there are only a handle full of fans in stands at night. Not a very exciting event by any means and certainly not something that NBC wants to try to sell to advertisers. Do we really want that type of event to be our showcase? Please understand, I am not saying that Trials would have attendance similar to those events but attendance would certainly be down. Look at NCAA’s, that is one of the most exciting swimming events each year and the stands are rarely filled.
    I doubt US Swimming’s goal is “extracting more from their large and mostly affluent membership.” They are trying to create an exciting event that showcases swimming while bringing in revenue. The bulk of this revenue comes from TV contracts and ad space sales. TV does not want to have to sell an event to advertisers that is poorly attended. Ad space sales and TV sales are all about the number of views signage and advertisements will get from sponsoring the event.
    Butts in seat creates and exciting event and more revenue (and not just from ticket sales).
    I am all for reducing the number from 1200 and making warm-up optimal for the swimmers who have a realistic shot at making the team but let’s not go to low. Let’s also keep in mind that US Swimming is not always trying to get more money from membership, sometimes they are trying to put on an exciting event that sponsors and television advertisers would like to be associated with.

  3. Great comment! Let me tell you that I agree with you in many parts, so let me clarify. The meet has become exponentially more marketable in a short period of time. I very much doubt that even as recently as 2004 there was this much competition to host the event, and the atmosphere for finals is awesome with 17k people screaming their heads off.

  4. Don't actual Olympic hopefuls have reserved warm-up lanes? At a meet I attended in California, there were roped off lanes for the National Team Members only.

  5. Oh no - there are too many swimmers and Mary Jo Swalley is scheduled to be one of the Deck/replay referees.

    I certainly hope the rules are going to be followed even though there are "too many" participants.