The Big O and the Traveling Swim Circus

by Casey Barrett

Big ratings, packed houses – and packed pools in Omaha… 

The cabbie knew all about it. So did the late night Motel 6 desk clerk on the outskirts of town. So does everyone else in this Gateway to the West. They’re a city on the move; indeed Forbes magazine ranked it America’s number one Fastest Recovering City. This is a town that’s aware of its growing stature and eager to get the respect it’s long deserved. The sport of swimming can relate.

For the last five days, Omaha has rolled out the red carpet for swimming – and swimming has returned the favor, delivering big time TV ratings and packed houses at the beautiful Century Link arena each night.

After spending the first three nights of U.S. Trials watching the action live on NBC from my couch, I boarded the 8pm Thursday flight from La Guardia to Omaha. (Bad planning on my part, as that departure time meant missing all of Night Four…) I got caught up on the results with a flurry of texts upon landing, then got caught up on everything else from our cabbie and the desk clerk.

In the morning I caught up with some friends from USA Swimming during prelims. They had that restrained but giddy excitement of a championship team at halftime, refusing to claim victory just yet, but ready with the evidence. First, NBC’s ratings… They’ve been killing it.

On the first two nights, the live broadcast scored a 4.7 rating and an 8 share. They won both nights. On the third night, ratings crept higher still, as NBC scored a 5.0 and a 9 share. Then on Thursday night, they dipped slightly (Thursday always brings the heavy TV competition), but produced a still strong 4.3 and another 8 share.

A note on these always esoteric ratings: The first number, the rating, refers to the percentage of TV households watching a given program. The second number, the share, refers to the percentage of TVs in use that are tuned to a given program. The current estimate is that there are 115.9 million TV households in the U.S. Therefore, when these ratings are converted to number of viewers, this means that around five and a half million Americans have been watching swimming every night this week. Watching swimming that is not the Olympics. That has never happened before, not even close.

To experience it live is something to behold. They’ve been averaging around 14,000 tickets a night. Sold out or damn close every finals session. Even the prelims are reportedly sold out this Saturday morning. Watching swimming in a sold out frenzied arena filled with all the slick loud production of an NBA finals game is something the sport has just never experienced. It’s disorienting in the best of ways.

I’ve spent three decades going to swim meets, seen them large and small from damn near every angle. There’s never been a meet like this. Sure, the Olympics – by definition – take it to the next level, but that’s something else entirely, a closed society of competition available only to a minuscule silver of the world’s best athletes. The Trials on the other hand are open to many. Too many some are saying.

There’s the catch: the times. They’re slow. Slower than they should be, and the reason is pretty clear to most coaches. There are too many swimmers here. Around 1,850. Only 52 make the Team. Only around 200 have even a remote shot at making the Team. This means that 90% of the athletes at this meet are really Trials tourists.

These tourists create packed warmup pools, endless heats of prelims, and less than optimal conditions for the true contenders to be at their best. If you swim your prelim heat of the 400 IM in the late afternoon, after a dozen heats of swimmers going slower than their seed time, then have little time to lunch and nap before finals, well that doesn’t exactly set you up for an all time effort at night.

“They need to be real careful that the marketing side of things doesn’t overtake the athletes as the top priority,” said one top coach.

From one angle, you can see that happening, and these grumbles are valid. But from another, you need to ask yourself – would the scale of this event be possible without those eighteen hundred athletes / tourists? They’re the ones making this the event it is. It’s their friends and families who fly to Omaha and pack the stands, who tune in back home and drive the TV ratings.

Some would disagree, and claim that U.S. Trials could be just as big – both in ticket sales and ratings – with harder qualifying standards and many less swimmers in the meet. (Like it used to be, a generation ago – when it was staged in 1,000-seat natatoriums and aired on TV a week later…) Maybe the one-two fame punch of Phelps / Lochte has lifted the sport to that level – where events can be driven by fans not of the friends and family variety. Maybe we’re getting close, but we’re not there yet. It’s a tricky balance.

However, for swimmers and coaches grousing about these packed conditions in Omaha, there might be something else worth remembering: Conditions are never ideal at the Olympics either. Insane security, mind boggling logistics, impatient international media – these are things that can affect performance too. Time to get used to being out of your comfort zone.

Because these are Trials. The final test to see if you have what it takes, no matter what stands in your way.