Monday, July 04, 2011

Attention US National Team members: White courtesy telephone please...

This July 4th weekend the Wimbledon Championships held on the grass lawns of the All England Club saw two tennis stars, Novak Djokovic, and Petra Kvitova, earning $1,600,000 for winning their final matches. Both Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova placed second to these opponents took home a "mere" $800,000 for making it into the final round.

What did you make at your last meet?

In the 1960's both tennis and swimming were both on equal footing as "amateur" sports. There was no prize money back then and tennis players supposedly played because they loved the sport. It only took a couple decades to change all that and players like Maria Saharpova, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer are now making as much or more than USA Swimming.

Roger Federer: $47-million per year
Rafael Nadal: $31-million per year
Maria Sharapova: $31-million year

Imagine if you swimmers were able to make just 1% of those amounts?

Tennis has completely surpassed swimming both culturally and economically and all the while the national governing bodies that managed the sport did what they could to prevent the athletes from profiting.

How did tennis change? In 1966 female tennis player, Billie Jean King, defeated Maria Bueno of Brazil at the All England Club in the town of Wimbledon. She would go on to win 5-more Wimbledon titles setting up a de facto dynasty that few have matched. The prize money at Wimbledon circa 1966 was summarily non existent. Players played for free. Female singles players after winning their game would simply receive a replica of the Venus Rosewater trophy, a fast handshake and that was it!

Isn't that what they do at the Olympics as well?

Now, contrast that fast handshake and the Venus Rosewater trophy delivered to Billie Jean King on plushy grass at the All England Club to the cool, white, tile on the Beijing Aquatic Center's deck during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Keep in mind that this is an aquatics center that took $200-million to build so the world could watch Jason Lezak swim the fastest 100-free in history; an astonishing 46.06 which had never been done before. Imagine what the governing bodies made in TV rights? The result of Lezak's efforts ultimately helped his team win not only a gold medal and a "firm handshake" but an eighth gold medal and a huge $1,000,000 bonus for Michael Phelps from the marketing bosses at Speedo for accomplishing such a feat.

So, what would Billie Jean King say about that?

In 1967 "... King criticized the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) in a series of press conferences, denouncing what she called the USTLA practice of "shamateurism", where top players were paid under the table to guarantee their entry into tournaments. King argued that this was corrupt and kept the game highly elitist. King quickly became a significant force in the opening of tennis to professionalism. "

Now here is a question I have for the members of our US national swim team: Does our Michael Phelps receive appearance fees? If so, how does that make you feel?

Billie Jean King appreciated fairness and this quote was quite stinging to the governing bodies of the day and I think it is applicable now:
"... In America, tennis players are not people. If you are in tennis, you are a cross between a panhandler and a visiting in-law. You're not respected, you're tolerated. In England, you're respected as an artist. In Europe, you're a person of importance. Manuel Santana; [A Spanish tennis player], gets decorated by Franco; [Former dictator]. The Queen leads the applause. How many times have I been presented at the White House? You work all your life to win Wimbledon and Forest Hills and all the people say is, "That's nice. Now what are you going to do with your life?" They don't ask Mickey Mantle that. Stop 12 people on the street and ask them who Roy Emerson is and they're stuck for an answer, but they know the third-string right guard for the Rams. I'd like to see tennis get out of its "sissy" image and see some guy yell, "Hit it, ya bum" and see it be a game you don't have to have a lorgnette or a sash across your tuxedo to get in to watch. ..."

[Reference: "Huck Finn of Tennis: That's Billie Jean", featured in the Oakland Tribune, September 26, 1967, page 38:" ]
In an act of "mutiny" she and World Tennis magazine founder, publisher, and editor Gladys Heldman founded a pro league for women's tennis. Paying the women players only $1.00 each to play in the league, she convinced Houston Racquet Club to sponsor the tournament and persuaded her friend, Joseph Culiman, then CEO of the Phillip Morris company, to put up the prize money. Hence the Virginia Slims circuit; named after a cigarette line aimed at young women, was founded. Five games were played, prize money was delivered to the winners and then the concept exploded.

The governing body of Tennis was pissed! The USLTA suspended all nine-girls that had the audacity to go pro and try to make a living. By the end of 1970, the USTLA had 31-more-girls to worry about and by 1971, the Virginia Slims Circuit became an institution. The resulting branding image for the cigarette still resonates today.

When the suspensions were handed down to the original girls who thumbed their nose at the governing body, talking points were seemingly handed down to the some of the players that skipped this new pro league: Chris Evert, Margaret Court, Virginia Wade all made statements that "We play because we love the game, they play for the money." [Link]

Guess what changed their minds? I think his name was Benjamin Franklin?

So where is swimming's "Billie Jean King?" Where is the "white knight" that has the "means to production" or the capital to organize a pro league?

So where is our "devil"; (read as a cigarette, alcohol, or gambling consortium), that can come in and provide actual prize money, a reason for people to watch, and thereby take advantage of the branding possibilities that the Phillip Morris company did?

I suspect that swimmers like Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps are perfectly happy with the situation in swimming as it is - i.e. Let the governing bodies run the show and the suit companies send them checks.

The only potential white knights I can see in this national governing body morass who has the means to production to produce a pro circuit are suit manufacturers and gambling bodies. I also foresee that a pro league in the US may soon be a dead option if the sport doesn't evolve soon. Unfortunately swimming is now crumbling in America and this month may provide the evidence at the FINA World Championships.

There is no income for swimmers in the sport as it is conducted today. Swimming needs a face-lift. It needs a technology lift, a management lift. Colleges and universities are shuttering programs with not even a perfunctory "peep" of upset emanating out USA Swimming. The sport is rife with lawsuits, lousy management, and over paid executives in Colorado Springs.

If all this is to be averted, then swimmers needs to become political and embrace change rather than "purism." Obviously affluent "Prima Donnas" (Italian for "first ladies"), getting appearance fees and huge paychecks have no reason to want to see change or do anything to elevate the swimmers around them. There are no "Billie Jean King's" in swimming but there could be... Couldn't there?

If not what will you be doing with your second act in life once you are done with swimming?

Finally, why can't I see you being a brand ambassador for Tag Heuer like Maria Sharapova is as featured in the photo above? Check out all of Tag Heuer 'ambassadors" here at the MagXone Beauty Pages circa 2009: [Link]


Button said...

it doesn't have to be sponsored by a casino.

major league lacrosse got it's start when jake 'body by jake' steinfeld put his money where his mouth was (is). the game's a bit different than the high school/college game.

if blue seventy wants to sponsor it, great.

put every athlete in the same suit.

make it a tech suit 'league'.

swim 50's of strokes.

get it televised.

get vegas to take wagers.

away they go...

Tony Austin said...

F-YEAH! - The Balggio fountain, The blue lagoon in Icland, tora bora, exactly!

livefreeswimhard said...

You have to wonder, how is that the best exercise on the planet is not a highly watched sport?
If people were actually interested in the sport of swimming they would pay attention but sadly they're not. They have no understanding of the sport or culture which is huge. People understand the sport of tennis. They can watch and tell you what is going on and even offer some detail. You also have players of different ethnic backgrounds. Tennis is not just dominated by one country either.

While tennis lessons are not cheap, if I was raising twin daughters in Compton, CA I could take them to the local tennis court and teach them the game of tennis. Could I do the same with swimming? Well I myself could but how many other people would be able to.

The sport of swimming doesn't need a face lift just some restructuring. The bottom line is that its just not affordable. Suits, goggles, pool time etc.. Technology lift? Yes but not in tech suits. How about a focus on technology that teaches people to swim or a solution to building cost effective pools?Swimming is already great at the top, its the "base" that need work.

In the end swimming, not the sport but the activity must become big. Bigger than running. It certainly is safer. If football and basketball players of those college and universities used swimming to cross train no would even question the existence of those programs. The person or people who crusades swimming for the masses will eventually make the sport grow.

I dont think a "devil" is going to work in this sport. But I do think a dominate African American swimmer would do wonders. Hello Center of Excellence for Diversity.

And as far a second act, How about opening up a swim school to help grow the sport from the bottom.

Tony Austin said...

I have a lot to say but I am late for work. I think swimming should be bracketed like tennis, I think swimmers need to swim multiple events - IM in other words - at least a half hour worth of work. I think the settings should be exotic and fresh rather than in a chlorinated pool. I think viewability of the underwater work is vital.