The Buzz: 10 Ideas for Spectator Friendly Meets
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Four years ago, I was trapped inside a tiny conference room adjacent to the Texas Swim Center. It was days before the Encore Swim Meet, a charity function taking place the day after the 2008 American Long Course National Championships. The meet was co-organized, in part, by Aaron Peirsol, Dale Rogers, Brendan Hansen, Eric Shanteau, and David Cromwell. (Most of the Texas pros, obviously, since they played host.) This meet – the Encore Swim Meet – stands out in my mind years later as being the potential model for future swim meets, but not for obvious reasons.
Obviously, the meet played host to big-name swimmers. Olympians. National Teamers. I forget the numbers, but many big names attended. Spectators were already there for the championships. Those who stayed an extra day were treated to a fun-filled short course meters spectacle. That, in itself, would make any swim meet successful.
But it was more than that.
Last Monday, I ate lunch with someone and discussed the important criteria needed for a “successful” spectator-friendly swim meet. I kept coming back to this aforementioned Encore Swim Meet. (As well as some experience working in “live” taped TV…) And so, in part to help start a dialogue about ways to make more meets “spectator-friendly,” here are 10 ideas, based on what that Encore meet (and others) do well…
1. Hire a band to play between events.
TV talk shows do this. Many “live” events do this. Why don’t swim meets? Ever go to a taping of “The Tonight Show”? During commercial breaks, a live band plays. During the music, an M.C. tells jokes, does prizes, games, and interacts with the audience. But the band keeps the pace moving. The music keeps audiences excited and energetic. Live music makes any event feel more edgy and engaging. The Encore Meet did this, and it was fantastic.
2. Collaborate with an in-audience M.C.
When I worked on a sitcom called “The Class” in 2007, the live-taping audience M.C. was a vital component of the show. The M.C. was as important as the jokes. He not only told the standard array of one-liners, but he informed the audience. He explained what they were witnessing on the studio floor: How the writers would bundle and re-write lines, what the actors did between shots, factoids about the set design and build-up, and historical highlights of Stage 24 (where “Friends” was shot.) These informational facts, delivered between shots, informed the audience of the “orchestrated chaos” they saw below (a live TV sitcom taping). I’ve advocated the need for swim meets to hire an M.C. that knows and understands competitive swimming, its players, its personalities, and its strategies – someone who can inform as well as entertain – between the events, in the stands, among the audience, talking and interacting. Informing audiences is vital at swim meets (especially for parents/spectators confused to the nuances of swim meets), and swim meet announcers cannot have the burden of announcing races AND entertaining the audiences. An informative M.C. that knows swimming would really enhance any swim event.
3. Scoreboard Video Shorts.
Most major natatoriums in the country have video capabilities. Why don’t they utilize their scoreboards for video? I’ve been a huge fan of the pre-game swim show, when great swim meet announcers like Michael Poropat discuss the event on-deck before the meet and during finals warm-ups. But outside the Olympic Trials, I’d love to see more pre-produced segments with our Olympians and National Teamers to give audiences a behind-the-scenes perspective. One thing: They have to be funny. They have to be entertaining. Check out this piece that’s been living on YouTube called, “The Rivalry,” starring Brendan Hansen, Aaron Peirsol, David Cromwell, and Eric Shanteau. It still makes me laugh. (In full disclosure, I was part of the production team that put this together, but I thought the guys did a great job with this.) For a while, the swimmers at Club Wolverine were doing a lot of hilarious videos for their Facebook page. And we all saw how popular the “Call Me Maybe” video became. Swimmers have creativity. I’d love to see more creative videos in the future, specifically, before and during big swim meets. Something for fans to watch before and between races.
4. Host a BBQ after the meet.
For smaller events, why not host a post-meet BBQ? During the high school swimming season in Michigan, after every dual meet, the host team serves both teams dinner. It was a fantastic way to mingle with swimmers, coaches, parents, families, spectators, etc.. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Hot dogs and burgers. Charge $10 at the door (National Teamers eat free, of course.) These functions bring together the swimming community. Many diversity-focused swim meets, like the National Black Heritage Swim Meet, have organized functions such as these. They turn weekend swim meets into a three-day festival celebration… and why not?
5. Live stream meets.
There’s no reason why every swim meet can’t utilize today’s technology such as I-High. The best way to grow the sport is to spread access to the sport, including digitally.
6. Reach out to the community.
Look in the stands. Are they empty? Can you fill more seats? Why not invite local charities, Boys and Girls Clubs, or entire swim teams to meets? Provide deep discounts or free tickets? Organize a meet and greet with Olympians afterwards? People can’t attend a swim meet if they don’t know one takes place. Don’t assume the world knows about your upcoming meet. Reach out.
7. Hire creative post-grads to market the meet.
Swim Meet Administrators: There are bundles of post-grad swimmers who know the sport and seek employment. Why not hire one to lead a freelance marketing effort for your meet? Swimmers: If you have a marketing/advertising degree, or know your stuff, why not research large-scale swim meets and present a proposal on how you can help with event marketing? Few swim meets have individual Twitter accounts (Charlotte UltraSwim comes to mind), but it wouldn’t take significant energy to create an online marketing platform and execute it. If swim meet organizers truly want to attract the best competition, they need to spread the word. A lot of post-grad swimmers would love an opportunity to help market and advertise a swim meet.
8. Pay a post-grad/professional swimmer to attend, and to market, your meet.
So, you know how Kim Kardashian types allegedly get something like $125,000 for Tweeting out a product? Think on a much smaller scale. What could paying a professional swimmer do for your meet? Some of them have tens of thousands of followers. Most of them are not being approached on Kardashian-esque levels to market products. I’m sure some of them would be willing to “help” in the marketing efforts for your event. Or get creative. Instead of putting up major swimmers in hotels, offer to have a host family take them in for a weekend. Organize swim clinics around the swimmer. If you’re a more local event and don’t have a huge budget, you can still get creative.
9. Publish meet programs with articles/tidbits/interviews.
I love most swimming meet programs, but I wish there was more original content. I’d love to read interviews and articles featuring swimmers, coaches, and organizers about the event. (The biggest events do this, but I wish smaller meets did this as well.) Maybe organizers can ask swimmers what some of their favorite things to do in the city of _______ are. Or give spectators a “Top 10” list of attractions/restaurants/destinations to go see. I wish more meets embraced the fact that spectators come from hundreds of miles away. Many are not familiar with the town. Some creativity with swimming meet programs would go over well with parents in the stands, especially during those long heats of the 1650. (Swimming-themed crossword puzzles, hello?)
10. Parent-themed clinics and events between sessions.
A lot of parents just want to go back to the hotel and relax between prelims and finals. Watching swimming is surprisingly exhausting. But meets should create more things for parents to do. Parental-themed educational clinics and lectures would be hugely beneficial. For example, bring in someone to talk about the college recruiting process – perhaps how swimming in college is an easier process than most parents think. Or bring someone in to talk about sports nutrition. So many speeches are “I’m an Olympian, and this is how I got here,” that I feel like most parents have heard the same speech again and again. What about swimming in college? What about nutrition? What about injuries? What about burnout? How can parents help their kids avoid hating swimming forever? What can parents do to help their kid swim faster, and be happier? Parents deal with so many questions outside of the pool, I’d love to see a swim meet embrace the fact that they have hundreds of parents in the stands, many of whom would appreciate additional information (parent-themed information) between events.
Hopefully this can get the dialogue going on how organizers and administrators can get swimming meets to become more spectator-friendly. Check out this article on the upcoming Michigan Carnival where some new ideas will be attempted in October. If you have more ideas, Tweet them to me at @MikeLGustafson. I’d love to hear what YOUR swim meet does…
Mike Gustafson (@MikeLGustafson) is a freelance writer with USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine.