Thinking Outside the Box with George Block and Chuck Wielgus (2006)


Published


My name is George Block. I am a former president of the ASCA, and it is my pleasure this afternoon to be interviewing Mr. Chuck Wielgus.

This interview was set up almost a year ago by my ex-friend, John Leonard, who spent all summer telling me that it was going to be a 75 minute long interview and to plan on that. Then I got here yesterday and found out it was a 45 minute interview — so I had to cut out all the good questions. We only have time for the boring ones.
Chuck wanted me to mention the rules. I said the rules that we will follow are: I will not “ambush” you, if you do not “bullshit” me. Also, we set up a “no cliché” rule. A “no cliché” rule might seem odd when the title of the presentation is “Thinking Outside the Box,” because you know, “thinking outside the box” is the ultimate current cliché. I work for a public school district. We actually went to a presentation entitled: “thinking outside the box.” One of my buddies leaned over and said: “You know, they are always asking us to think outside the box.” I acknowledged him and then he said: “The problem might be the goddamn box.”
One of the things that Chuck brings to the table, by being an outsider, is that he is aware of some of our boxes that we are not aware of. Before he came to USA Swimming, he spent ten years as a coach — so he knows what the coaching side of it is. Then, he spent seven years as a program and facility director — so he understands that side; and then he began his career as an Executive Director, at Indianapolis Canoe and Kayak; then he went to the professional side of the PGA before coming to USA Swimming.
Chuck is a man for whom I have tremendous professional respect: because he has done exactly what he said he would do in exactly the way he said that he would do it. He said he would keep out of the technical side, but that he would get the best minds involved. He has done that with Pat Hogan and Mark Schubert. There are no better. I am intermittently familiar with one NBA team, and so I have been to see the others. I think it is arguable that Chuck has assembled the best technical team in any sport – Olympic or professional – in the world.
Chuck said that he would get Nationals back on TV, and he has done that. He said our Olympic Trials would become a primetime event, and he has done that. He said that we needed a signature event, and he created the “Duel in the Pool.” I think this interview is our chance to see where he is leading us next.
I know many of my coaching colleagues have been frustrated with Chuck at times because he has been slow to commit. I would say that he has been slow to commit because he is one of the few persons who really does what he says he is going to do in the way that he has said he is going to do it.
Please welcome our Executive Director, Chuck Wielgus. [aside from George]: I have to make these chairs face each other. I feel like I am on sort of a date in high school, not quite facing my date here.

Chuck Wielgus[chuckling]: You are a scary date, George.

Block: I was that, and sloppy. Okay. I gave your history. Ten years ago, you showed up here, the new guy in town. Quick scenario: what did you see then? What do you see now? Where are we?

Wielgus: When I came to USA Swimming ten years ago, what I saw, George, was a real solid infrastructure of programs, and a very strong National Team Program. What I also saw was the opportunity to continue to grow those programs, and also an opportunity to market the sport to a much wider audience. I think that over the last eight, nine, ten years we have made an awful lot of progress in both of those areas. I think our business has matured dramatically.
I also think that today we are at a point where the really tough challenges are ahead of us. We face tough competition in the market place to market our sport. Our ability to enhance, to grow and enhance our property assets is absolutely going to be critical to our future.
#2. I think we need to become financially independent from the US Olympic Committee.
#3. I think we need to confront the issue of diversity in our sport; and if we don’t, we are going to be marginalized as an even greater niche sport than we already are.

[Block]: That is a little bit scary when you say “niche sport.” Let’s start with those four. I think that will get us through 45 minutes. How do we enhance assets? What are our property assets? We will start there.

[Wielgus]: When you talk about marketing or promoting any product, any sport, any activity, you have got to deal with television, media and corporate sponsorship and advertisers. What both of those elements, both media and corporate advertisers, are looking for are platforms to tell their story; or in the case of media: to tell a compelling story that will draw an audience that will satisfy the advertisers who are paying for that story. It is really a struggle for a sport like swimming. We have very few assets or platforms, and what we do have, in some cases, such as Olympic Trials, are not even our own. Olympic Trials is all about the US Olympic Committee — and it is not even an event that occurs every single year.
Let me just take you through what has happened with our Olympic Trials because I think that is a good example of building a property asset. In 2000, our Olympic Trials were held in Indianapolis. That was the same year that the NCAA Final Four was held in Indianapolis. There was an economic impact study that was done comparing those two events. The Olympic Trials had an economic impact on the city of Indianapolis in terms of heads in beds, people in restaurants, rental cars, and the commerce that flowed through that community. The impact of Olympic Trials was 25% of the impact of the NCAA Final Four. That was a very significant number. The Final Four is a prestige event and is considered one of the prestige events in this country. I think people were kind of surprised to see that our Olympic Trials, even at 25%, had that level of impact. We were in a venue with a little over 4,000 people and we were operating clearly under the umbrella of other things going on in the community at that time.
So, in 2004, we took the Olympic Trials to Long Beach, California. We had a swim stadium with 10,000 seats. We sold 106,000 tickets. We had more hours of coverage on NBC than we did in 2000. We created an Aqua Zone area where people could come to the venue early, buy a hot dog, go to a beer garden, go to bigger booths, see sponsor activity, hang out with their friends, and just be part of the atmosphere that takes place before a big game or a big sporting event. There was no research done in 2004 to compare our Olympic Trials to the Final Four because we didn’t have a similar location, but the economic impact was much higher than in 2000. In 2008, the economic impact of Olympic Trials is going to be higher still.
We are going to Omaha, Nebraska, in 2008. People are going to say: “Omaha – My Gosh – what is in Omaha?” I remember saying that. People are still saying it; so naturally, this is an opportunity for us really to kind of under promise and over deliver. People who will go to Omaha in 2008 are going to be blown away by what they see. We are going to be in a venue at the Quest Center that seats 22,000. For swimming, it will seat between 14 and 15,000. I will predict that virtually every session is going to be sold out – Prelims and Finals – over eight days.
Right next to the Quest Center is a convention center where we are going to have a large fan experience Aqua Zone area. In that area, we are going to have a 50 meter pool that will have everything from open swim sessions to clinics and contests and activities going on throughout the day. People are going to come to that Trials site and spend the whole day there. They are going to be able to walk to their hotel, walk to restaurants, walk to shopping. People will not need a rental car. It will be the greatest swimming celebration that we have ever had in this country. That is what I mean by enhancing a property asset: taking something that is very good, making it bigger, and having it attract a wider audience.
Omaha is not known for its swim fan community, but there are going to be swimming fans in Omaha in September of 2008 that we didn’t have in July of 2008. That is marketing our sport to a bigger, broader, wider audience.

[Block]: So if that is enhancing an asset, then is our issue creating more assets? When I look out, I see that we have NCAA’s; we have Conference Championships; we have Grand Prix meets; we have Nationals… And then I hear you say that we don’t own those, and we don’t control them. How do we grow more assets that you can then enhance?

[Wielgus]: Well, that is another problem for us. It is a big problem, quite frankly. When we talk to national TV partners, we are really at a disadvantage because we are dealing with “one-of’’s.” We don’t have a 40 week schedule of golf tournaments, or an 82 game schedule of basketball games, or 162 game schedule of baseball games that give those broadcast partners a real platform, and that give advertisers and corporate sponsors real platforms to work with. We end up with National Championships, or a Duel in the Pool, or an Olympic Trials. These are events that occur infrequently and at different times of the year. So, we end up trying to find a sliver of space in a television programming schedule; and we end up trying to cover our costs in what is called the “scatter market.” We try to pick up the leftovers that have been left on the table by the major sports that have these broad platforms to work with. We really have to work hard to compensate for that.

[Block]: At the front end, sort of like NASCAR, we have to buy all our spots and pay all our production costs for a number of years. That is a huge upfront outlay. Then I hear you mention the 40 week golf schedule, 82 basketball games, and I don’t know what NASCAR is up to now in terms of its numbers. Is there a magic number where you hit a break point?

[Wielgus]: I don’t know if there is a magic number, but there is probably a number at which you have a more compelling case to make. if we are able to go to a potential broadcast partner with 40-50 hours of annual television coverage that is built around 6-10 event properties that we own, then we are in a much better position than if we have got one event that is going to be our National Championships next August and that is all we are talking about.

[Block]: How do we get there? If there is Duel in the Pool and Dash for Cash – you can only think of so many things that rhyme –how do we get there?

[Wielgus]: That really becomes problematic for us for a couple of reasons. Take Olympic Trials, for example. With our Olympic Trials, we have two goals: we want to run a technically flawless competition; and we want to put on a great show. We say that the most important part is a technically flawless competition because we have so much respect for the technical and traditional aspects of our sport. But those aspects – quite frankly – hold us back. To the extent that we are able to take some of those technical and traditional sacred cows and find ways where there is flexibility, that will give us the room in which to bring more marketing, promotion, and entertainment value to the sport…

[Block, interrupting]: Just pretend like you are talking to 500 coaches here. Pick one sacred cow that you would like to move in Olympic Trials. One sacred cow, one sacred cow that you would like to put into hamburger?

[Wielgus]: Our National Championships. One year, like this past summer [2006], our National Championship is an incredible event because so much was at stake, because it was a selection event for so many things for the next year. But next year[2007], our National Championships might not be as important an event as I would like to see it be. That makes it difficult for us to market and promote that event, not only to corporate sponsors, but also to the media and to television.
Let’s take a look at an event that is going on right now, the US Open Tennis Championships. It is held every single year over this two week period of time; it is on television every single year; the best players in the world come to it every single year; and there are compelling stories every year. Even if you are not a tennis fan, if you are a sports fan, you are aware that this is when the US Tennis Open Championships are going on, and you are somewhat aware of what is happening with that event.
We do not have that with our National Championships. Our dates sometimes move; the importance of the event goes up and down… We need an event, such as Nationals, that takes place at the same time every year; ideally, it is even at the same location every year. When we move that event around, what happens is that we spend all of our energy trying to get the operational pieces worked out — because we are always focused on the technical things first and foremost. And then we never really have time to market and promote the event. Our Nationals in Irvine this summer[2006] was the second year in a row in Irvine. And it was a much bigger, better event — mostly because it was such an important event, but also because we had the opportunity to focus a little bit more on marketing and promoting it, since we already had the operational things worked out.
So, by having a designated event that is our most important event, by ensuring that all of our top athletes are going to be there, and by keeping it in the same location … those are things that would really be advantageous to us to enhance the property value of our Nationals.

[Block]:– That would enhance Nationals. What would you want to change about Olympic Trials that are sacred cows?

[Wielgus]: Well, I think Olympic Trials is a pretty sweet property right now.

[Block]: What about Duel in the Pool?

[Wielgus]: The Duel in the Pool is conceived to be something of a signature event, and I do not really think that it has become that. Part of the reason is that it doesn’t take place at the same time. We are doing it every other year now. The Australians quite frankly have not fully committed to it.
Any time we sit down with a television programmer and we talk about a swimming event, the very first question, after they maybe have identified that we might have a window of time to work with is: “Is Michael Phelps going to be there? Is Ian Thorpe going to be there?” If the answer is “Yes,” the conversation continues. But if the answer is “No,” they are not interested.

[Block]: Speaking of Michael Phelps, I was sort of taken aback to hear that the media felt like that Michael Phelps and the American athletes were not available to them in Athens. Sitting here, the coverage looked spectacular. They came across as who they really are. I think it seemed wonderful, but I was hearing negative things from the media.

[Wielgus]: Well, quite frankly, with the media, we have a reputation of being overly protective and controlling with our athletes. In part I think that is part of our culture.

[Block]: They want Terrell Owens?

[Wielgus]: Well, it is one of the reasons why Gary Hall is so popular with so many media people: because he is so different; because he has a point of view; because he is somewhat controversial. But a lot of it has to do with access, due to the nature of our sport. You know how it is. An athlete swims. The coaches want that athlete warming down afterwards, but the media want to talk them right away.
We have actually had some progress in that area. If you watched the Pan-Pacific Championships on NBC last weekend, you actually and for one of the first times, saw some lengthy interviews with athletes while they were still trying to get their breath, after having come out of the pool. That is the sort of access that the media wants. The problem we face is that it not just what do we have for television, but there are also all these other media outlets: the secondary television broadcasters from other countries; news print; and the magazine writers who want that same access to athletes. There is only so much that you can do, but we do have a reputation of being very controlling and protective of our athletes.

[Block]: The NBA seems to have fixed it. They don’t interview somebody when they come off the court. They have an access time after they take a shower and it seems like there is a neutral point we can come to between access and no access.

[Wielgus]: Absolutely, there is. I think the last thing an NBA coach or college coach wants to do coming off the court at halftime when they are down 8 points is to talk to a reporter, but that is part of the compromise that has been made. They understand that in order to keep marketing and selling their sport, the public wants to hear what that coach is thinking before he goes in the locker room, or what he is thinking after he has come out of the locker room, after talking to his team. So, I think those are the sorts of things that we need to evolve within our own sport. And I think utilizing our coaches’ expertise and insight is an important part of that.
I do not think that we have done a very good job of presenting our coaches to the media and I think that is something we will probably focus on more in the future.

[Block]: Talk about coaches. What role should coaches have, or should we have any, in making us more media friendly, developing new events, coming up with ideas for properties, trying things out locally? How do we make this thing work at a grassroots level?

[Wielgus]: I think there are two things, maybe two points I want to make, George. The first is that we really have to understand and appreciate all of the good things that have happened in the past. When we look at what is happening with track and field, and when we look at what happened with the winter sports, such as with Bodie Miller and some of the negative things that came out of that, and when we compare that with what is going on in swimming, then we are really … we are held up as the Gold Standard. Our athletes fulfill this American ideal — and we have to, I think, continue to nurture and protect that.
We have talked about media training in our office, and about how we really want to kind of get away from media training so that our athletes become more…so that more of their personality comes out. Mark Schubert has used a great expression, which he calls: “tradition training.” We want to spend more time – and this starts at the grassroots level – having our athletes understand what the opportunities are, and what it means when they are in front of a camera or being interviewed. When American swimmers, when an American relay team stands on the podium and puts their hands over their hearts and they look to the flag and they have tears in their eyes and they mouth the words… that sends out so much positive energy for our sport. And it contrasts so sharply with some of the images we see in other sports. That resonates — not only with an American audience, but it resonates with the media. It resonates with existing corporate partners and potential future corporate partners who might want to associate with us. So I think that is the first part that is very important.
The second thing I think coaches can really do is let us know how far we can push the limits — and we will always, at least as long as I am here, we will always look to our National Team leadership to see how far we can go. From the time we conceived the idea of the Duel in the Pool with Australia, it took us three years to actually find a window of time when we could, and when our National team would let us, do it. We can come up with all of the ideas and promotions and marketing issues we want, but until our national team leadership gives us the blessing, we are not going to force it. So coaches can talk about that among themselves, and communicate that up through the ranks, and get that information to Mark Schubert about what will you let us do. There are a lot of places that we would like to go, but we are not going to go unless you want us to go there.

[Block]: I think that one thing that might be helpful is getting as many specifics out to the coaching community as possible about where you want to go. Right now, I am sitting here knowing that you want to push on the box that we are in as coaches, but I do not have a feel for any specific advances that you would like to make. Maybe you can help us the other way: in retrospect. With what you have done at Nationals in Irvine two years in a row and the changes you have made in the format, what push back did you get from us?

[Wielgus]: I think what we have gotten really is, more than anything else, positive encouragement. Last year [2005] in Irvine, when we had a National Championship that was immediately followed by the “Duel in the Pool,” one of our technical leaders came up to me at the completion of the Meet and said: “If you guys put as much effort into building up and promoting our National Championships, as you did to that Duel in the Pool, we could make that National Championships a much more high profile and better event.” So that is what we did this year. We took that as a challenge to raise the profile of our National Championships.
In many ways though, we are still talking to ourselves. Our event formats are incredibly difficult for someone outside of swimming to understand. You know, it doesn’t make sense to us, for instance, to conceive of a meet, where we have all the stroke events and we have all the relays, but everything is done at 100 yards. There is not a 50; there is not a 200; there is not a 1500 or 400; and it is a one hour event. It is everything swum at 100 yards, and it is men’s back, women’s back. It’s men’s free, women’s free. That is something that the golf fan, and the baseball fan, the football fan, and the NASCAR fan, sports fans who are not swimming fans can follow and understand. I don’t know if that is a good idea or not, but I think that is the way we need to be thinking.

[Block]: Are you thinking for a National Championship? Or for a made for TV type event?

[Wielgus]: Championships. The technical format. I think that is one of those sacred cows that we will not turn into sacred hamburger.

[Block]: So, should we be trying some of these experimental ideas out in the market place, not yet on TV? You think about the X-Games, and what they are now. But the X-Games started out as just a bunch of dudes. You know, it wasn’t the X-Games when it started out. But it is one of the fastest growing areas of activity for kids today.

[Wielgus]: The fastest growing sport is lacrosse. The X Games, Extreme Sports, they still remain recreational activities — until you start turning them into events. When you create the X-Games, then all of a sudden…just look at what has happened over the last eight years with Extreme Sports … even during the Olympic Games now, particularly in the Winter Olympics. They are attracting sponsorship dollars and television hours way beyond anything that we are doing. We have to work pretty hard to over-achieve, and we do kind of anchor ourselves with these technical and traditional events.

[Block]: So, should we be experimenting at a lower level? Trying some things, trying a skins meet someplace? Or…Not trying to put the National Team in it, or not trying to put it on TV … just see if it catches fire like the X-Games did?

[Wielgus]: I think some of those things are worth trying to see if you can kind of work out the technical pieces. But again, getting back to, what legitimizes, what will legitimize the Duel in the Pool… when we first talked to NBC about it, we guaranteed them that we were going to have our best athletes there, and that the Australians were going to have their best athletes there. That made it a legitimate event. It was not a tricked up event, just made for television. It was the real deal.

[Block]: There is nothing more real than the Olympics. That is what this whole room is about. It is what our whole sport is really about, and now the Olympics have a dichotomy. The money in the Olympics is bringing drugs into the sport. Our reliance on the USOC seems sometimes to compromise our program integrity. And you, I think you alone among NGB’s, are saying that we have got to get financial independence. Is that even doable?

[Wielgus]: I think that not only is it doable, I think it is essential that we do it. We, right now, receive about 15% of our annual funding support from the US Olympic Committee. That money funds 50-60% of our National Team Program. I have always been frustrated with our relationship with the U S Olympic Committee because I think they have missed the boat in the relationship that I think they should have with USA Swimming. I will apologize for this analogy, but if you are a college basketball fan, unless you go to school or are a graduate of that school in Chapel Hill, you look at Duke University as an iconic program.

[Block]: They are a bit like Notre Dame in football.

[Wielgus]: Sort of like Notre Dame in football. What I have always tried to get the USOC to consider is having a relationship with USA Swimming that is not dissimilar to what Duke University has with its men’s basketball program. You have got a great school that stands for great things. It has great student athletes. It has a great image and reputation. It seemingly does things the right way. It has the best coaching leadership it could possibly have. And it is consistently at or near the top of the college basketball game. But the US Olympic Committee just doesn’t seem to look at it that same way. They look at, for instance, the US Tennis Association and they say: “Well, they [tennis] have got more money than we have, why should we give them any money?” They [USOC] look at USA Basketball and they say: “Well, you have the NBA helping you market your sport, why should we give you as much money as you have had in the past?” And they [USOC] look at USA Swimming and they say: “Well, you guys are being successful in the marketplace; you are getting things on television; you are increasing your membership dues; you have got new sponsors signing up; you have got your own insurance company; you are launching this foundation; and when we look at your balance sheet, you guys do not need to be helped out.”
I take just the opposite view. I say: “You know what? You [USOC] need us more than we need you, and these are the ways that we can help you. You have got all these problems going on with your winter sport issues, and with your track doping issues… why don’t you put us out in front?” So we are trying to find that balance, and, thankfully, I think that we are turning a little bit of the corner. I think, with Mark Schubert on our team now, our relationship is starting to change with the US Olympic Committee, but it is a long way from where it could be.

[Block]: When we think about financial independence… We started our foundation. Is that a realistic deal? It almost seems like that is another part of the media aspect rather than the fundraising. I have a hard time picturing USA Swimming competing against March of Dimes.

[Wielgus]: Oh, I think we can. I think we can and we should. With The Foundation, what we have to understand about fund raising is that we have to start with a compelling case. If I am asking you for money, you are going to ask me: “Well, what are you going to do with my money?” More than likely what you don’t want to hear is that the money is going to go to help my salary, or to fund our National Team, or to buy new uniforms. While some people might want to give for those things, that is not what most people are going to want to give for.
When we first seated our first Board of Directors almost two years ago for the Foundation – and these are all Type A, high end, strong personalities, very successful industrialists — they came to the first meeting and their question to me was: “What do you want us to do?” I said: “Well, obviously, I want you to help us raise money, but let’s find a way to make a difference.”
And that is where we had them. They all just got up on the edge of their seats. They could almost visually see it, and they said: “Yeah, that is what we want to do.” Day in and day out, what they are doing is making money, or they are making other people money. They want to go home at night and feel they are making a difference in the world in another way. So the mission of the Foundation is to find a way to use the sport of swimming as a vehicle to make communities better. The three areas that we starting to focus on are: fighting youth obesity by promoting swimming as a lifetime fitness activity; by water safety (learn to swim, drowning prevention – a very important message); and by increasing the diversity of our sport, by sharing our sport with a much more diverse audience than we have in this room or in our membership today.
We started to test those three areas of youth obesity, diversity, and water safety. What we have found is those things are resonating with potential major donors, and with potential corporate donors, and with other foundations. This is a long journey that we are on, but over the next year or two, you are going to start to see us talking an awful lot about this message. I believe that this message will be the platform from which we will, over the next five to ten years, raise a significant amount of money to help support our sport. And, it will make swimming much more relevant in communities all across the country.
I think that is the way that we have to be thinking. We are always thinking about, you know, winning medals and swimming fast and world records. But it is this other piece that talks to a wider audience, and that will not have us become marginalized as a niche sport. With this piece, swimming can take on a real relevancy in American society.

[Block]: When you say diversity, when you say youth obesity, when you talk about those kinds of issues, it sounds like a whole new set of programs for USA Swimming and not really financial independence.

[Wielgus]: I think those programs will be the things that will lead us to financial independence. A quick little example. We have about 300,000 members in USA Swimming. It sounds like a lot, but if you are a marketer, a mass marketer of a product, that is a pretty small number. But for every member of USA Swimming, there are estimated to be three other kids who are participating on summer league teams, country club teams, rec. league teams. Every time that we talk to a marketer, we are asked: “Well, how do I reach those? I would love to get your 300,000, but I want those 3 million.” And we haven’t figured out how to reach them yet. If we can ever figure out how to reach them, our value to marketers goes up exponentially.
So when we talk within our business development division at work, and when we talk about member services, we also talk about customers. There is a difference. Our members are our customers, yes, but there is a much broader audience of potential customers who might never be our members, but to whom we are marketing programs and services and selling products and capturing their information. It could be, for example, that we find a way to reach every kid in this country who learns to swim, through partnerships with American Red Cross, Swim America, etc. Now, all of a sudden, we are growing our playground, and our importance, and our ability to reach and touch and talk to a much broader audience than just our small membership.

[Block]: A minute ago you said “diversity.” I almost threw the cliché flag on you. So now I am giving you a chance before I throw that flag. Is diversity a cliché in USA Swimming or is there some meat behind it?

[Wielgus]: I think it has been a cliché for a long time quite frankly. I mean no disrespect to any of us who have used it in the past. We had well-intentioned, unfocused, minimal efforts. But we are now at the point where it is time to get serious about it: 13% of this country’s population is Hispanic; 13% is African-American; and yet less than 2% of our membership falls into those categories. Those demographics are continuing to change while we are staying straight. If we don’t find a way to start turning our membership numbers up to try to match what is going on in our country, we are going to become less relevant, and we are going to become marginalized.
There is also – it is more than just doing the right thing for the right reasons – I think there are also performance factors here. Unless we get into this diversity game and take it seriously and try to attack it, it is going to become increasingly difficult for us to be competitive in the international market place. Every time a kid chooses basketball over swimming, football over swimming, volleyball over swimming, you pick the sport… that is one less athlete that could potentially be winning a medal for us at the World Championships or Olympic Games. So there is a real practical reason, a performance reason to increase our diversity, but there is also a relevancy reason.
There is a gentleman on our staff who I think is here: John Cruzat – John, if you are here …stand up, John, so we can all see you. John has just joined our staff recently as a diversity specialist. So we are starting to put our money where our mouth is. What we have said to John is: “You come in to work every day and you challenge us. You push us.” We are not going to look for a big change in six months or twelve months or eighteen months, this is a long-term deal. Without having the volume take place at the local level with clubs or local swim committees, it is not going to work, but we have got to start finding ways to reach out.
We are looking now to start to partner up with cities and their under-utilized or dormant facilities. How can we activate those facilities? How can we put programs in place that are teaching kids in the inner-city to swim? And then, how can we bridge them into competitive swim programs? That is the kind of real hard blocking and tackling that we have to do to make a difference over the long haul. It won’t happen quickly, but we are starting down that road. We have talked about it for years. I have told John that he is just the first person we are going to have on staff doing this. I think in time we will have many more people working on this. I think our Foundation is embracing this as one of their causes, and I think that is just the kind of work that we have to do to secure our future.

[Block]: I think that you might have to hire an economist on your staff. You are talking in terms of ethnic diversity. America is 15% being Hispanic, and that is doubling in the next forty years; and you mention X% being African-American versus the angle of population remaining static. BUT, our sport really isn’t divided ethnically. It is divided socio-economically: it costs X-dollars per month to be in a club; it costs X-dollars to enter a meet; it costs X-dollars if you are going to swim in college. Even on a scholarship, you are still paying X-dollars to continue the sport at a higher level. I mean: our issue isn’t ethnic; it is socio-economic. We need whole new models if we are going to make progress in this.

[Wielgus]: I understand that to an extent, George, but I think that is something of a crutch that many people within swimming have used for a long, long time. I have a daughter who is in a very good gymnastics club, and I am spending a lot more for her gymnastic monthly dues, travel expenses, ballet lessons and all the things to go with it than I would be spending if she was on a local swim team. No one at that gymnastic club has ever apologized to me for how much money they are asking me to spend with them.
I think we should understand that there is a value to what we are doing in our sport, and we shouldn’t be afraid to put a price tag on that. Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t find ways to have scholarships and have support programs, but I don’t think for a minute that we should be apologizing for the fact that this is an activity that requires some investments: investments of time; investments of money; investments of other resources. I think that – we should not shy away from that.

[Block]: Before we finish this … When we opened, your last phrase was: “Or we could become marginalized as a niche sport.” That made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and I have a pretty hairy neck – really. Tell me about becoming “marginalized as a niche sport” – and almost everything except the BIG 3 are niche sports, right?

[Wielgus]: You have got to be realistic. However, who would have thought 25 or 30 years ago that stock car racing would be pushing to be one of the BIG 3? And in fact, within the last three or four days, there was an article in USA Today in which Darrell Waltrip was saying that the NFL is “looking over their shoulder at us. We are knocking down the television hours. We are knocking down the ratings. We are knocking down the corporate sponsorship hours. We are knocking down the prize purses.” NASCAR – it is no longer the BIG 3; it is the BIG 4; and NASCAR is one of those BIG 4. I don’t know if swimming is ever going to get to that point, to challenge there. However, I don’t think for a minute that we should undersell what our value is with communities all across this country. We should not undersell what learning how to swim, and what the competitive swimming experience can mean for the life of an individual. My nightmare is that we are perceived as a “rich white kid sport” that only matters once every four years. Unless we attack that mindset by saying that we have got to make the sport more diverse, and that we have got to become relevant to a wider audience more than once every four years, then that is what we are going to become. That is my theory.

[Block]: My hunch, knowing you, is you didn’t say: “marginalized as a niche sport” as an off the top of your head remark. You probably see data or tracks on numbers. What numbers do you track? What data do you look at? What is your nightmare scenario?

[Wielgus]: My nightmare scenario is really just what I described … But the numbers we track…The Sporting and Manufacturer’s Association routinely puts out numbers that relate to participation in youth sports. When I mentioned earlier that lacrosse is the fastest growing youth sport in this country and has been over the last two to three years…just look what has happened with the NCAA Lacrosse Championships. Just a few years ago, that was an event that was interesting to some people in Long Island and Baltimore, Maryland, and Upstate New York. Now, it is played before tens of thousands of people and it is on television getting great ratings. The sport is growing like wildfire.
The Sporting Manufacturer’s Association is not only tracking participation, but also product sales and the industry that is building up around those sales. Swimming actually always scores very high in those participation numbers; but, I think that those numbers are deceptive because they are counting people who go to the beach 25 times a year as swimmers. Those are not who we would count as swimmers.
So, participation numbers is certainly one thing that we look at, and we can see what sports are going up and what sports are going down. We also look at our own membership numbers which, except in the post-Olympic year, are as flat as can be. We also would look at what is playing on television – television hours for all sports and the ratings of television programming. We look at how corporate advertisers and sponsors are allocating their dollars within professional sports, within Olympic sports, and how many of those dollars are moving to us, compared to other sports? So, those are the sorts of numbers that we would track.

[Block]: It sounds like you have a frog in your electronics. I am going to give you sort of a softball here. You started out by talking about the challenges in increasing our property assets, enhancing them, and gaining financial independence. You mentioned the strides you are making there by trying to do something significant as opposed to clichéd with diversity so as not to become a niche sport. There is some light, but there is a lot of darkness out there too. We have charted where you have taken us in ten years, which is fantastic. What are the next ten?

[Wielgus]: Well, I think we are … we are at a very interesting juncture. We have secured I think, for ourselves — and this has not occurred over the last ten years, but really this has occurred over the last 30 or 40 years – we have secured for ourselves a place as the pre-eminent Olympic sport. When people think of the Olympics, what is the flagship program in the Olympics? I think swimming has taken that mantle. I think it used to be track and field. I do not think that it is track and field anymore. I think after the Beijing Olympics, we will have secured that position. However, it is always a lot more fun to be the one climbing the mountain. It is a lot harder to be the one who is on top of the mountain, trying to hold your ground.
I think that the most important thing we have to do for our future is keep pushing – keep challenging ourselves to grow and not be complacent. I know that I am starting to get into the clichés here, and you are going to call me on it, George, but we have got to find a way to create more platforms for our sport. Our National Championships is a place to start. I think we need to make that Meet our pre-eminent major showcase event every year. What we did this past year ought to be just a first step – not a last step.
I think we ought to be looking for ways to find other events that we can either create or work in partnership with others. Maybe it is the NCAA Championships; maybe it is the Grand Prix series; but we have got to find ways to elevate those properties so that they are legitimate platforms that speak to an audience beyond just the swimming community.
I think we absolutely have to be successful in this diversity initiative. I say initiative and again, stressing that this is a long-term, forever, infinity effort. It is not a two-year initiative. I think that is the kind of really hard work that we need to do to continue to keep ourselves from being marginalized and to become increasing relevant – and — I think we are going to do it. I absolutely think we are going to do it.
There are so many good passionate people involved in this sport, and there are others who are not involved (and we are seeing this with our foundation) who once they see what this sport is about and what the potential is, want to get involved. We have just got to invite them in, and find ways to get them as excited as we are.

[Block]: And also you have got to do that in a political environment that rivals this city. Thank you for your time.

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