Column by Nathan Jendrick
SEATTLE, Washington, August 23. THE majority of swimmers who make up Team USA have a problem with money. It isn't that they spend it recklessly; it's instead that most of them don't really make any from their chosen sport. With news from around the world, we have a new facet to throw into discussions on this matter.
It is widely accepted among those in the business of the National Football League that the revenue sharing agreements the league has in place–which have been there in one form or another since the 1960s–are largely to thank for the success of the sport and leveling the playing field. Now, in light of Sun Yang's $18 million windfall in response to his Olympic success –and the fact that he, too, must share his revenue–this brings up the curious question: What would revenue sharing do to USA Swimming?
In the case of the NFL, the revenue sharing is in place amongst all professional teams and was drafted in order to create parity among all teams, large and small market alike. Clearly with there not being a pro league in swimming this isn't applicable. But, instead, we can use China's example in Sun as the basis for this entirely theoretical premise which, let's be honest, is absurd in the American psyche. Still, let's ponder the idea.
If all athletes on the U.S. National Team shared in each other's financial success, what would it do for the future? Would it push our team to new heights? Would it make no difference? Would it actually, in turn, hurt us because non-medalists this year, yet with lots of potential upside, may just “take the money and run,” so to speak, to early retirement?
In China, Sun had to turn more than a third of his deals–roughly $6 million–to China's national governing body to reimburse them for a lifelong training program supplied by the government. For us, let's accept the fact that USA Swimming doesn't need more money and since they don't support our athletes financially until they're already among the best in the world, in our made-up scenario here, they don't get anything.
Back to Sun: He then had to leave another third–another $6 million–in the presumably wide open hands of his fellow Olympians. That still leaves him with a nice, life-changing payday, but also puts significant financial resources into the accounts of his fellow elite-level swimmers.
With China's set-up, we're hearing about Sun because he's the one swimmer from their squad making the big money. In the United States, there's more than one athlete making considerable endorsement dollars, which makes for an even bigger pie to share in this mock-up (although ultimately with more teammates). Given the supposed differences in national governing body resources, let's make our plan a smooth 50/50 between the Haves and the Have-Nots on Team USA.
Now, let's get a simple dollar amount to work with; we'll use two commonly reported incomes from our biggest stars. This month, Forbes magazine estimated Michael Phelps' net worth at around $40 million, the largest portion certainly coming in 2008 and 2009. Since then, the magazine estimated his income at about $6 million a year. Forbes also estimated that in the past year Ryan Lochte had made about $3 million. Add the two incomes together and $9 million is a decent number, so we'll go with that.
The Olympic team this year had 47 members. If we took the $9 million–which would actually surely be higher as the other 45 members of the team had some nice deals amongst them–and divide a 50 percent share ($4.5 million) evenly among the rest of the team, that makes for a cool $100,000 per swimmer. Just for being a teammate. Not bad.
Now, what could $100,000 do for the average Olympian? Personal trainers, higher quality food, health insurance, recovery aids like hyperbaric chambers, altitude tents, safe supplements, the list goes on and on as to what that kind of money could provide an athlete. How much better could those things make the average athlete who trains under the same childhood coach as they always have, with a rudimentary dry land program? Further still, there's the mental aspect for the athletes no longer living at home of not having to worry about how you're going to pay for the mortgage or cover your bills.
The question then becomes, is this really for the greater good? If we had a team that shared its commercial success the same way they do in the pool under the banner of “Team USA,” would an agreement (like China's) really do the country any good for the subsequent Olympiad? With so many swimmers on each Olympic team competing in their first Olympics, we're still not adequately supporting the “next generation” of upcoming American stars. And with much less emphasis on World Championships (delineated by our country not bothering to contest individual selection for the 50s, even though they are medal events, for example), would it be worthwhile to support a group of athletes who, likely, won't be competing on the next Olympic team?
And then we have to ask, would the agents to our swimming stars stick around to work these deals out in the first place if 50 percent is taken off the top? Or would this only work if agents took their cut and the spoils were remaindered to their subsequent taxes and share programs?
So now I ask the readers, what are your thoughts — would a shared revenue system among Team USA ever be a conceivable reality, as we see in China? It certainly doesn't fit the general mindset of our country as a whole–and I personally don't see it ever finding its way into swimming–but it is, no doubt, a thought-provoking idea.