Welcome to March
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Welcome to March: bracketology, who’s-in and who’s-out debates, office pools, Elite Eights… Of course I’m talking about the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships, otherwise known as the quickest meet in the world. NCAAs elicit excitement for even the most fair-weather swimming fans. You’ll never experience a louder or more intense environment in America outside of the Olympic Trials.
But questions linger about the future of NCAA swimming, particularly how it relates to the greater scheme of NCAA sports. Men’s NCAA swimming and diving teams find themselves in the magnifying glass more as athletic departments downsize on “non-revenue” sports. The Division 1 landscape is changing due to sweeping conference realignments and greater pressure to succeed, both athletically and financially. Questions about the future of collegiate swimming permeate pool decks: “Are we OK? Are we next on the chopping block? What can our program do to stay viable and ensure long-term success?”
What can NCAA men’s swim teams do to not follow similar fates of UCLA, Nebraska, Illinois, Maryland, Clemson, Washington, and so on?
First, swim programs cannot assume they are “safe” just because they’ve experienced success or have beautiful 50m facilities. The UCLA men’s swimming and diving team was one of the more successful swimming programs when it was cut in 1994. The program produced 16 Olympic gold medalists. Didn’t matter. Cut. Gone. Forever. Maryland was an up-and-coming program to suffer. Ranked at one point in the Top 25. Their facility was one of the best in the nation. For years that facility hosted many meets including the YMCA National Championships. Now it’s used for recreational purposes. Arizona State was another. Reportedly, the men’s program had a Top 5 recruiting class coming in when they were cut. ASU has raised money to keep going, but it seems as though the success or size of facility increasingly doesn’t matter when it comes to an athletic department’s bottom line….
Second, begin to plan for disaster now. Take a pro-active approach. Don’t just sit back and assume nothing bad will happen to the program. If you swim, used to swim, or are planning on swimming for an NCAA team in the future, ask questions: 1.) What is the endowment plan? Is there any endowment plan? 2.) Have their been hints, warning signs, or communication that the athletic department is looking to cut costs among its sports teams? What are those warning signs? Is there a good relationship and communication between AD and program? 3.) What can NCAA programs do to not only be successful, but to put people in the stands? Are meets fan-friendly? Is there communication about dual meets and invitationals? Is there a social media presence to connect fans/alumni to current program news? Remember: It’s important to keep alumni and fans invested and interested in the current program. Relationships matter. 4.) Does the program have a strong alumni connection? Do we have a listserv set up with all alumni’s current emails? Are we communicating about the program? Why would alumni donate to the program if they have not heard from the current coach in years? 5.) Does the program have a fundraising or endowment committee established? If not, why not? What is the long-term plan?
Third, communicate between programs. If you’re starting a swim team endowment, talk to other teams about it. If you don’t have one set up, reach out to others who are starting one or looking into it. Get organized. Communicate. Reach out to other teams. Brainstorm ideas. Get together and talk it out during the off-season. Arizona State’s men’s swimming program was cut back in 2008. Quickly and efficiently, they raised enough funds to counter the decision, endow the program, and today, they are staffed and functional. Other programs are not so lucky. Time and time again, I hear the same comments from coaches, teammates, and parents regarding their cut programs: “We were blindsided” or “We had absolutely no hint this was coming” or “We had no hints whatsoever that this was coming.” The cutting of a program feels like a car accident: You know the statistics are out there, but you never assume it’ll happen to you. Oftentimes, these announcements are made swiftly like a guillotine. Communicate with programs. Gather ideas. Talk about what works and what doesn’t. And don’t assume it’ll never happen to you.
Fourth, if you’re a prospective NCAA swimmer, don’t be afraid to ask these questions to the coaches of programs you’re considering. Educate yourself. The last thing you want to do is find yourself as a sophomore or junior and find out your swim team is cut. Transferring between colleges is not as simple or easy as switching age group club teams. Ask the coaches and current swimmers questions: Is there an endowment? Have other teams been cut in the program’s department? Is there a strong alumni connection? Do you host fundraisers? Alumni meets? What is the turn out at dual meets? Does the team have a good culture on campus? Do students come to meets and support the team?
As a former NCAA swimmer myself, this issue is near and dear to my heart. NCAA swimming is one of the greatest experiences of my life. My experience on the Northwestern swimming team was and is the reason I am connected to the sport today. My coaches were some of the greatest influencers in my life. My teammates are still some of my best friends.
But make no mistake: with the changing landscape of NCAA sports – the further and farther we hurdle towards the “business” of collegiate athletics – the more in peril swimming teams find themselves in. It’s a shaky landscape right now. Major conferences are realigning. Money is becoming more important to athletic directors than ever before. However, by asking some simple questions, designing a plan for the future, and formulating and communicating both internally and externally to alumni and fans, every program can ensure its own success.
Swimming is a sport that touts its individuality as well as its team-like atmosphere. But the current landscape of NCAA sports is a wild-west mentality: You must take care of yourself. This applies to high schoolers looking to swim for an NCAA team the next four years, to coaches looking to secure life-long positions, to alumni hoping to attend reunion meets decades into the future. The landscape may resemble the wild west, but that doesn’t mean each swim team must traverse the barren, daunting landscape alone.
Welcome to March: The most exciting time for NCAA swimming and diving. But let’s ensure March stay’s special for years to come. Formulate an endowment. Communicate to alumni. Prepare now.
Before it’s too late.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.