July 22, 2014
Team sports are all about competition, but sports also compete against one another. And one team sport that has been treading water in recent years is competitive swimming, with participation levels in 2013 ranking 17th among 24 team sports, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Now USA Swimming, which along with supporting the Olympic team, encourages participation at all levels, is trying to increase the number of youngsters who choose to perfect flip turns rather than jump shots, with a public-service advertising and promotional campaign.
One spot opens with an underwater shot of a swimming pool that is perfectly still, until, in slow motion, a young girl plunges in, hugging her knees. “Basketball,” begins a voice-over, also a young girl, as the swimmer breaks into a wide grin. “Football. Cannonball. Which sounds the most fun to you?”
Another spot opens with a boy about 9 wearing a racing swimsuit and dripping wet as he emerges from a pool. Funk music plays as the boy, also in slow motion, pushes his goggles up on his forehead, catches a towel thrown to him from off-screen and struts confidently alongside the pool. In the bleachers, male teammates clap wildly while girl teammates watch him with undisguised awe. The swimmer wipes his face with the towel, tosses it to the ground, points to a blonde girl smiling at him, high-fives a teammate, and does a jaunty dance-floor full turn.
“Swimming introduces kids to the benefits of a healthy lifestyle,” says a voice-over, this time an adult man. “And a healthy kid is a confident kid.”
Mike Caguin, chief creative officer of Colle & McVoy, Minneapolis, part of MDC Partners, which handled creative duties on the campaign, said that the strutting swimmer was meant to counter self-consciousness that some children have about swimming.
“When kids think about putting on a tight bathing suit and being essentially half-naked, there is a bit of a stigma sometimes,” Mr. Caguin said. “But we wanted to embrace it and say, hey, this kid is completely 100 percent comfortable in his own skin because swimming has given him that confidence and that swagger.”
The spots direct viewers to a website for the effort, SwimToday.org, and promote a hashtag that will not endear the organization to English teachers, #funnestsport.
Accentuating the fun factor is a focus of the campaign. But in a Mayblog post, Matt Farrell, the chief marketing officer of USA Swimming, acknowledged that training for meets could be grueling, and that accentuating only the pleasurable aspects of swimming was a bit disingenuous.
“If a kid joins our sport duped by the campaign thinking it’s all cannonballs, laughs and giggles they will find themselves on the soccer field much quicker,” Mr. Farrell wrote. “But if they give it a shot, hang with it for a few months and experience the culture of the sport, then I like our chances against any sport out there.”
In a phone interview, Mr. Farrell said parents often were not thinking about the sport beyond signing children up for lessons so they learn how to swim. “We don’t need to teach these parents what the sport is, but it’s not entering their consideration set like soccer is or basketball is,” Mr. Farrell said. “They know our product is on the shelf, but they’re just not thinking about us the same way.”
The campaign, which was first introduced before Memorial Day, when much of the country was taking the first plunge in an outdoor pool in nine months, will be heavily promoted again in mid-August, as back-to-schoolers consider which sports to pursue.
Among a handful of partners USA Swimming has in the Swim Today effort are three competing swimwear and equipment brands — Speedo, Tyr and Arena — and Mr. Farrell said such cooperation was unusual.
“Some of these people who fight with each other like cats and dogs on a daily basis on retail floors across America have come together for this one joint grow-the-sport initiative,” Mr. Farrell said.
Joe Favorito, who teaches in the sports management program at Columbia University, said that official organizations like USA Swimming must promote their sports simultaneously to different age groups and abilities.
“The first piece is you have to seize the moment when something magical happens — like when Michael Phelps wins nine gold medals, you have a plan ready to go,” said Mr. Favorito, referring to theOlympic swimmer. “The second piece is that you’ve got to build the foundation, and that’s where a sport like U.S. Soccer has done so well.”
Swimming has lagged behind many sports when it comes to promoting youth participation, Mr. Favorito said, but he liked the tone and approach of the new campaign.
“This puts swimming more in the game than they’ve been in the past,” he said. “If you want to attract kids, you want to make it cool, and you want to make it fun.”