Thursday, August 04, 2011

Part Two: A professional swimmer "schools us" on tech suits, the economics therein, and the exploitation they all endure.

The blog post below was sent to me anonymously by a professional swimmer who prefers to remain completely anonymous for obvious reasons. When you read their perspective regarding tech suits, apparel companies, and finally: USA Swimming, you will be reading a pure insider view on how business is done. Part One can be read here: [Link]

In part-two our anonymous professional swimmer; (and this person is are our anonymous professional since he wears our flag), states how apparel companies are now grinding swimmers for lower-and-lower wages. USA swimming appears to notice this and has stepped up albeit in an anemic way.

Does he suggest that when the money leaves, so will the swimmers?

The argument that without tech suits there are less sponsorships is only part correct. Yes, there are less total "sponsorships" because they’re giving away less suits. But even with the legal sale of the tech suit, there were less total dollars in the proverbial “pool” for professional athletes. A higher number of athletes having contracts that will pay them only if they set a world record is not more conducive to the health of the sport than a smaller number knowing they can actually afford to continue swimming. As a professional athlete I can assure you, and I have had this conversation with many other pro’s, it is not a comfortable position to be in when you know you have to make the next big team or you can’t make your rent. This isn’t the NFL or NBA where you can have one off year and still have support behind you. Instead, the tech suit era ushered in an era where your performance of today is all that matters. It’s not healthy. I’ve talked with agents who can’t get their gold medalist clients even $5,000 a year in base salary anymore. I’ve talked to agents who said a living wage salary doesn’t exist anymore with apparel companies unless you’re one of the “Big Five” swimmers.

The one market that has been affected according to the marketing manager at my apparel company, is Masters swimmers. According to this person the Masters market is full of people who enjoy swimming faster by any means necessary. “They don’t mind paying for speed,” I was told referring to the tech suits. And I think that’s fine. But the Masters market isn’t a very large percentage of the apparel market, and manufacturers aren’t hurting due to this change.

Tech suits were a horrible thing to happen to the economics of swimming. It did provide a small period of time that was very active and very conducive to presenting the sport to a wider audience thanks to world records, and I’m not saying I didn’t benefit from this too because I did, but now that it’s over, it was without a doubt a black mark in swimming. I would rather have five years of guaranteed support in my career from my apparel company rather than one good year and when my contract came to be renewed hear, “You did great for us! We really want to re-sign you. We’ll give you a bonus-only contract.” Now being yourself is a business, and that’s not a comfortable place to be.

Thankfully USA Swimming is stepping up, but it’s just not enough to create a healthy market for professional swimmers.

It is time to talk about this! Less money in an industry usually means less participation. Tennis lessons may start to look more attractive to parents than swimming. No other athlete spends as much time training as a swimmer does. Swimming 10,000-meters a day is like a running a complete marathon-a-day for years on end.

After reading this rundown; (or perhaps we should call it the "lowdown?"), the economics of it all becomes painfully obvious that an employee at Wall Mart, who works all day for minimum wage, apparently is making more money than some or most gold medal swimmers.


Anonymous said...

Obviously it would be great for USA Swimming to devote a greater portion of its money from the top end to fund more National team members. I personally think Wielgus should be paid no more than the swimmers, since it's a non profit and I believe swimmers should come first. To raise swimming to a higher economic level, it might help to open the sport to more advertising. In particular, allowing athletes to have temporary sponsor tattoos or body art and logos on suits would certainly open up a lot of advertising "space" and make the sport more colorful (imagine what Lochte would do...). Also, we should consider going to a two piece suit for women (something like the one's for beach volleyball). Aside from more views, women outside of competitive swimming might actually want to buy a high end bikini like that (who buys a lzr outside of the sport?). It might also bring in companies in related businesses, such as Victoria's Secret or Calvin Klein, such as in Australia.

Tony Austin said...

there are something like 50-national team members. Giving each $60,000 would obviously equal $3-million. That is less than 10% their operating budget or roughly what they spend on executive salary compensation.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if this is already done, but national team members should be encouraged to go to as many meets as possible, possibly subsidizing travel/living costs associated with the Grand Prix meets. It encourages fast swimming by reducing the cost of competing and that's often as close as young swimmers come to seeing an Olympian swim. Decades from now, even if they never reach college or international swimming, they can always say they competed against the great Michael Phelps.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Kasey Carlson is one of the "suit swimmers" refered to as "can't swim for shit" without suits? She went from 1:05 bronze medal at worlds in 09 to only qualifying for nationals finals today because they moved it to 10 people in a final. Sara Nicponski also went from 1:06's to 1:11's, Katlin Freeman went from 1:05's to high 1:09's and a bunch of women's 200 breaststroker's fell off the face of the earth too after suits gone. Keri Hehn lost a bunch of time, the 3 Japanese women that ended 2009 ranked 11/12/13 at 2:22's all added a few seconds. And of course the Chinese fliers... list goes on and on. There are tons of suit swimmers. Look at the list of world records from 2009 worlds and now look at those swimmers and how many of those who sets records are still swimming fast?? Even bernard from french isnt doing nearly what he did before and cielo is probably on drugs, who gets a scrpit for caffine?!?!

Tony Austin said...

As for suit swimmers: I thought all of that made swimming better. I still do. You opinion varies.

Anonymous said...

How's that, Tony? Why is it good for swimming that a swimmer is a 1:09 swimmer and not finaling at Nationals in the same textile suits as anyone else, but they put on a tech suit and go 1:05 and beat the swimmers that were beating them in textile?

Technology is a part of sport but... it should create equal advantage. Tiger Woods wasn't better at golf because he got more out of a club than his opponents, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal aren't better at tennis than their opponents because they get more out of composite rackets than competitors, yet those suits made swimming entirely unequal. "I get more from a tech suit than you, so even though I'm losing to you by 2 seconds in textile, with a tech suit, we'll both get faster, but I'll beat you by 1 second because my body type is best for it." Not cool.

Tony Austin said...

I felt it was more of a global "horse race" and I liked wearing them.

Now it is the usual suspects that win. Just my take don't take offense.

Anonymous said...

I'm probably among a vast majority who like to see the best swimmers win based on talent, not technology they disproportionately benefit from. But it's all good, opinions are opinions... at least they're gone.

Tony Austin said...

Temporary exile. :-P


Anonymous said...

I'd be against more USA Swimming funding for just the best 50 athletes - that's what the USOC should be for. USA Swimming should be in the business of developing the best age group talent in the country, not just supporting the elite level athletes.

Over the last 6 years, USA Swimming has walked away from developing athletes and pursuing the science of the sport. It's based on observation only - R Mark is the only one worth a hill of beans in their performance/science section, and they are undermanned in their Sport Performance division, with only four people serving all of the club teams in the United States.

Only the club/college system is keeping the best athletes developing into world ranked performers - USA Swimming's influence on them is minimal. I do agree that the leadership caste is completely overfunded and out of touch.

Tony Austin said...

That is a very fair criticism. I will look into the USOC and see how they are throwing their money around and publish it,

Russ Payne said...

I completely agree with that last commenter on this point:
"I'd be against more USA Swimming funding for just the best 50 athletes -"

But that is what they have done, under the auspices of "development." In reality, they have already implemented what Tony has suggested and there is a program in place that provides 75,000 dollars to what basically amounts to the top 2 in each event for men and women for that year.
This is great, but it is insincere to call it development as it is simply funneling more money to our country's super-elites.
There is a reason you see such a huge drop-off in age in this country between the top swimmers and everyone else. If you haven't made it to the top by the time you're out of college, you are going to have a very tough time once that support is gone.

Anonymous said...

The progression is suppose to be age group to senior to elite swimming. In my LSC, the senior swimming was eliminated a couple of years ago.

Most families believe their swimmers cannot swim club once they graduate high school. Most clubs advertise that their club is for swimmers 18 and younger or "high school" and younger.

Now you have young adults who feel too old for club teams and too young for Masters swimming. Basically, they don't want to swim with "little" kids or "old" people.

Some kids have no desire to "go away" to college, they prefer to stay local. Some kids will choose the JC with a swim program over the university without a swim program.

Unless you swim for a NCAA 1 school, your times are not valid to enter USA Swimming meets. I was also told that times from Masters meets are not valid. (There are only a handful of 18-24 year olds who attend masters meets).

The USA Swimming website states, "in order to join USA Swimming, you need to join a club team". The club teams advertise 18and under.

There are road blocks everywhere. The organization is more exclusive than inclusive.

What's in it for the sponsors?

TedBaker said...

Two things. The first is a question for Mr. Payne and the second is an illustration for you, Tony, on the effect the tech suits had on different body types.

1.) Mr. Payne, does accepting funding from USA Swimming affect an athlete's NCAA status? Would they still be eligible?

2.) Tony, look at Brent Hayden and Alain Bernard and the men's 100 free: Hayden's best with the suit was around a 47.5. Without the suit, he went 47.9, a difference of around 1%.

Bernard went 46.9(?) with the suit and he hasn't broken 48 without it. That's a difference of 2.3%.

Bernard's pretty typical of the guys that suit really helped. He's big and heavily muscled. Guys like Hayden - very long and lean - didn't get the same benefit from the suits.

Tony Austin said...


As a result of these articles I have come to realize that the last thing any governing body wants are pro swimmers and/or to financially support swimmers unless they can profit from it.

I have come to realize that suit manufacturers only sponsor swimmers if they absolutely have to and when tech-suits were available they were absolutely forced to. All it took was one breakout swim by Paul Biedermann to bring Speedo to it's knees and threaten their empire.

I suspect this is the norm for a majority of Olympic sports.

For swimmers to make the 10% of the money that top ranked tennis players make; (read that 10% as $500,000 to $3-million a year), swimming has to be redefined.

What frustrates me is that swimmers is pay-to-play and those that collect the money are quite wealthy summarily off the backs of 12-to-14-year-old children.

Tony Austin said...


How do I answer that since I did not see a question mark? ;-)

You're right, suits make you go faster. Especially for the swimmers you mentioned.

So do running shoes, rubber racing tracks, and tighter fitting clothes, but there are no asterisks in track and field.

I get you now. It is not refined purism when you wear a techsuit. It's not swimming brought down to it's irreducible minimum but rather a value added proposition as our fins, paddles and one could argue caps and goggles.

I suspect there are runners who gained speed from better shoes and those that did not.

I like tech suits, it made racing more fun for me. (I have only raced in a pool once after they were banned - I just do open water now.)

I liked tech suits in pro swimming for I liked the idea of technology and sport mxing. I felt they could elevate a swimmers income; (I was wrong), and I believed by leveling the playing field there was more personality.

These are just my opinions. Tech suits are coming back because FINA is seeing the writing on the wall and on that wall is lots of dollar signs most likely for the execs at FINA.

TedBaker said...

I think you're right and I do think some form of tech suit is coming back. I also think, though, that they'll be way more careful, this time, about how they're introduced.

I suspect current suit regulations will remain in place through London 2012; in my opinion, they should. They'll be an announcement that they new suits will be allowed as of some date after London, probably January 1, 2013.

The suits themselves and what they're made off will be much more controlled and regulated. There will be a standard of some kind, with rules about coverage and composition. To be absolutely fair, they'll have also make sure the regs stay in place, without changing, for a complete Olympic cycle.

If the suits are introduced that way, frankly, I don't have a huge problem.

Anonymous said...

Tech suits didn't level out the playing field, quite the opposite in fact. Unlike tennis, swimming is not an equipment based sport. Integrating improvements in swimming and science must be done by improving technique and training, not technology. Using technology to make suits that stimulate you, reduce your pain, and maintain your technique just eliminates the difference between those who worked hard to reach a certain level and those who didn't work as hard but can now reach that level instantly for a few hundred dollars. I realize a lot of your support for tech suits comes from your personal enjoyment, and I feel that tech suit use in Masters swimming is a different issue, but to the majority of age group and elite swimmers, tech suits are something best left in the past.

Also, tennis is more conducive to higher incomes because of decades spent elevating its profile (why is the generic term for athletic footwear "tennis shoes"), better marketing rules, and man vs. man playing style that better suits rivalries.

Tony Austin said...

I can't argue with anything you say... Perhaps swimming should become more personality driven like tennis? i.e. Swimmer versus swimmer, brackets down to a final two, multi-event matches such as a pentathalon during a single session much like the 5-sets in tennis?

There are 100 top tennis players, I saw a female ranked number 89th whose earnings were something like $480,000.

If I can do something to help swimmers make a living like Billy Jean King did for female tennis players I would feel like I won the "Nobel prize."

Anonymous said...

Alot of organizations have youth divisions, where as, USA Swimming is a youth organization with an elite division.

Banning tech suits at the CIF level was a great idea. Many families couldn't afford or justify purchasing these expensive suits for one or two meets. This created an uneven advantage.

Tony Austin said...


Anonymous said...

The difference in technologies between sports is in baseball/football/golf/track/tennis, the best athletes are the best athletes regardless. Andre Agassi would have been just as dominant with a wooden racket as with a carbon fiber racket. But in swimming, people who by their own physical prowess have no business being the best, could potentially put on a suit and beat athletes who, by virtue of natural ability and training, deserve to be the winner. Not fair, not even comparable. Tech suits in swimming were their own disaster.

Tony Austin said...

I disagree regarding larger rackets; I also think swimming is heading for the dark ages.

Anonymous said...

What basis do you have to say that Andre Agassi might have been a worse player with older rackets than someone who he was better than when he retired? In swimming we have proof... athletes who dropped far more times than others in tech suits than others and are back to the C final with textile suits again. What's your opinion based off of? Or is it only because you liked wearing the tech suits, so you're going to say whatever to keep an option open for how they might be better?

Tony Austin said...

I think the newer rackets would have elevated the game of others, not bring his game down.

Anonymous said...

That makes no sense. The composition of your racket doesn't change the tangible things like your flexibility, hand-eye coordination, ability to put your body in the right position to hit the right angles. They allow you to have more surface area and hit the ball faster - things that benefit Agassi, Sampras, Federer, Nadal, etc. all just as much as their opponents. But when you put suits on people that factually help some more than others... well, we know how that turns out. =)

Tony Austin said...

I think it does. The newer rackets are more forgiving; taller players like Isner do better with them. Newer rackets increase velocities by 30%.

We don't agree, that's all.

Cliff Murray said...

All tennis aside, I was very relieved when the tech suits were banned. I am a club coach with, at best, swimmers qualifying for Sectionals and Nationals. After reading this 2 part essay from the pro, I have even more reasons to dislike tech suits.

At the foundation of USA Swimming, club/age group swimming, it was horrible to have swimmers from one part of town suddenly crushing swimmers from another part of town because they could spend $500 on a suit. I realize there will always be inequities based on individuals income, but there has to be some sort of level playing field.

I am more comfortable knowing that swimmers are mostly paying for a very snug fit and that most of the benefit is due to reduced drag. I hated the sale of buoyancy, through suits, in our sport....buoyancy that benefits certain body types more than others.

Now I can add the way they have limited the manner in which our elite, professional, swimmers can earn a living. I don't know if putting our national team members on the payroll is the answer, but I would rather put the money there than in Wielgus' pockets.

Coach Kacy Ota said...

I am way late on this conversation, but it is a conversation worth having, so I wanted to add a comment on this blog because it is way more viewed than mine.

People compare Swimming Salaries to that of Tennis Players. Swimmers make way less, but what led to this? We can't rely on our NGB all the time. Our swimmers are our highlight, and people are willing to pay to watch the elite swim, they are amazing to watch. It is them that need to come together and organize exhibition events.

In the 1920's professional tennis players organized exhibition events and charged spectators to watch these top level athletes compete. It grew from there.

If the top 10 swimmers came together and got their buddies (they don't even have to be the next top 50, as long as they were fast) Put together dual meets and charge for entry, people would come to watch. Facility? Come on, you don't think a facility would be willing to house this one day dual meet of elite athletes for free as long as they got a small percent of profits. Need insurance? There are sport insurance companies that do sporting events, their may have to be some work with an independent agent, but I'm sure that it could be put together. Do the events have to be official times for USA Swimming? No, these guys are fast enough already they don't need to add to their huge list of top times (it is primarily an exhibition).

Do these dual meets in big markets for swimming. The biggest LSC's that could advertise to their numerous teams.

Stop relying on USA Swimming, let them worry about the national team and the olympics. It will begin with the biggest names to come together and organize with their buddies. They know so many fast swimmers who are in the top 100 (those guys are fast and are still impressive to watch). It must start with a small group, and then possibly it will have room to grow.

A league developed by swimmers, with a little help from administrative people who believe in the product.

Tony Austin said...

I would like to add that the sport has to be redefined. The eight-lanes has to go... But I will keep the rest to myself. I am still looking for money.