By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
During a broadcast of last summer’s World Championships, one of the commentators said that the U.S. swim team was the most successful team of any sport in the history of the world. While that comment can be debated, what is evident is that recent elite success, increased media exposure, greater connectivity to the grassroots of the sport, and the popularity of swimmers like Phelps, Lochte, and Franklin have at least helped surge USA Swimming membership by an all-time yearly record of over 13 percent.
No doubt this growth can be partially attributed to the Olympics. In fact, following every summer Olympics, membership growth surges. In 2009, after the epic performance of Phelps, growth was at a record 11.3 percent. In 2005, after the nation was first captivated by Phelps’ “hunt for 8,” growth was 7.2 percent. Following Sydney, it was 4.9 percent.
A variety of factors contribute to last year’s record growth, including a widespread effort of USA Swimming programs and employees. What’s interesting to me, though, is that growth was higher last year than following the Phelps Mania of 2008.
Remember that? Remember when the entire nation was captivated by Phelps’ 8 gold medal pursuit? When he hosted SNL and was on every single talk show on TV and was even featured in a few rap lyrics? (When did a swimmer ever do that?) Many assumed that was the “Golden Age” for USA Swimming – that popularity would never grow higher than in August of 2008.
And yet, like a plane taking off, growth has exponentially surged, according to the latest membership numbers by USA Swimming.
What this shows me are a few things: 1.) That programs like Swim Today, Deck Pass, social media efforts by USA Swimming (and other swim entities), and live broadcasting of the Olympic Trials attract attention, which attracts membership. 2.) This growth, somehow, was higher than in the aftermath of what I consider to be the most amazing athletic achievement in the modern Olympics -- Phelps’ Beijing 2008 performance. It’s difficult to directly link Phelps’ achievements with membership growth, but no doubt increased exposure, the SNL appearances, and the media coverage at least helped increase growth on some level. However, it’s just surprising to me that last year’s growth out-paced the aftermath of Beijing and Phelps Mania. 3.) The ability of Olympians to connect with fans on Twitter and other social media platforms, so fans can stay involved with the sport’s stars, helps, too. No longer are swim fans clinging to a few clippings in a buried newspaper article for swim news/quotes. Blogs, swim media outlets, social media, Deck Pass, Splash Magazine, Swim Today, the USA Swimming Foundation – these enterprises all allow fans to get their “swim fix,” even if ESPN buries swimming news.
In terms of growth, there’s no doubt we’re entering a Golden Age. Whether this continues remains to be seen, just as our status as the best swim team in the world remains to be seen. With retirements of Phelps and others, you just never quite know.
But swimming, I believe, is becoming bigger than one or two names. The sport is connecting at a grassroots level, which is key for continued success. And it’s connecting more than ever before. When I was an age group swimmer, it was impossible to “get to know” Olympians except during Olympic NBC broadcasts. We worshiped those 2-minute profile pieces before the Olympic finals because that’s all we had.
Now, with social media, documentaries, swim clinics, Splash Magazine, Deck Pass, the Arena Grand Prix Series, campaigns, swim blogs, and greater access to elite swimmers, it’s easier to be more of a fan of the sport than ever before.
Let’s hope this Golden Growth in this Golden Age of swimming continues. We’ve been winning in the pool. We’ve been called the most successful team in the history of sports. But let’s keep winning on the grassroots level, too. “If you win, they will come” may certainly ring true, but winning isn’t everything. We’ve always been a very successful USA swim team at the Olympics.
What matters most is creating genuine fans of the sport. Connectivity, access, and simply having fun – we’ve seen this increase since 2000 and 2004, too. Gold medals certainly matter. But to continue to grow the sport, we need to continue to make people fans of the sport of swimming. We will never become as popular as the NBA or the NFL. But we can continue to show the world why swimming is a lifelong sport, why it’s a wonderful lifestyle, and why we’re not just an “every 4 years” sport.
Swimmers swim because they love it. Not for money. Not for fame. And though a variety of factors might have contributed to last year’s record growth, including, obviously, the Olympics, by focusing on growing passionate fans of the sport, no matter if it’s 2015, 2017, or any off-Olympic year, we can continue to watch that Golden Growth continue…