Why Isn’t the USA Joining in the World Cup Party?

Commentary by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, October 11. SIX years ago, the United States hosted a stop on the FINA World Cup circuit for the last time. The meet was held on Long Island, N.Y., at the Nassau County Aquatic Center, and featured Michael Phelps, Therese Alshammar and Brendan Hansen. I won't go into the sad reality that the pool hasn't held a major national or international meet since then. What irks me most is that the United States is no longer a part of this annual fall tour that still features great international talent.

USA Swimming had hosted a two-day World Cup meet in various locations for nine years, beginning in 1998. I remember watching a few of the U.S.-hosted World Cup meets on television, noticing that the stands were nearly full, and spectators were soaking up the joy of watching people like Natalie Coughlin break world records. Then, in 2007, the World Cup moved to other cities around the world, never to appear in the United States again.

I spoke with Mike Unger, the assistant executive director at USA Swimming, about this, and he mentioned lack of athlete interest and next to no revenue as the primary reasons why USA Swimming decided to let go of the World Cup.

“It was pretty much a drainer money-wise,” Unger said, “but we did it because we wanted to be a good partner with FINA, and we wanted the elite athletes to come and maybe have a great television property. Eventually, our committees (at USA Swimming) questioned why we were putting so much money in the meet when our athletes wouldn't support it.”

Unger said the average cost of putting on a World Cup meet hovers around $400,000, and that doesn't include the per-event cash prizes. FINA contributes 50 percent to the prize pot, the only money the sport's global governing body pours into these meets. I would imagine it's actually cheaper than hosting nationals, since the World Cup meet is shorter. But USA Swimming gets huge revenue from nationals, thanks to largely to entry fees. With that revenue source not available for the World Cup, Unger said USA Swimming's major revenue source came from TV broadcasts, and they weren't large enough to offset costs.

Unger said that very few of the American swimming superstars expressed a strong desire to take time from training to attend not only the U.S. leg of the World Cup, but the other meets around the world as well. According to FINA rules, a country that hosts a World Cup meet must send four athletes to every other stop on the circuit, an estimated cost of $50,000 that USA Swimming incurs. This is what perplexes me. I can understand a college or high school student turning down USA Swimming's invitation to attend the World Cup meets. That's six weeks out of class. But postgraduates really have nothing better to do with their days in the fall. Many of them complain about not finding enough sponsors to fund their training, but a bunch of them could make double their current annual income with six weeks of travel. We debate back and forth over how much money Missy Franklin is passing up by not going pro right now. I shudder to think how much money Conor Dwyer, Rebecca Soni, Matt Grevers and others are passing up because they'd rather stay home. Half of the American Olympic team could easily battle for a chance to win that $100,000 grand prize, plus thousands more in per-race earnings.

And think how much media buzz swimming would get back home when athletes talk to newspapers about how fun it is to travel around the world, race the best swimmers and earn some cash. That could seriously lighten up our post-Olympic lull.

I understand why USA Swimming can't afford to pay for a large team to travel around the globe for the World Cup. But many of these swimmers earned some good money winning medals at the Olympics, and a few more have lucrative swimsuit sponsors that can surely foot the bill to have their athlete swim in eight meets wearing their gear. Surely someone outside of USA Swimming can foot the bill.

Unger said the topic of hosting a World Cup meet has come up in committee meetings “once or twice.” I accept USA Swimming's reticence to host the World Cup, but I still believe the Americans should remain invested in the event, and that starts with the athletes. They talk about wanting to grow the sport and maintain interest, but that isn't done with TV cameos.

You can reach Jeff Commings at jeffc@swimmingworldmagazine.com.

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