Yesterday, ESPN and the University of Texas announced a partnership that will not just be a TV deal a la NBC and Notre Dame football, but create a 24 hour TV channel devoted entirely to the school’s athletic department. The full announcement can be found here.
Of course when I see this, I think of several things. I first think of the 24 hour news cycle and what it’s done to politics and analysis. I then, focus my attention to swimming, since that’s my love. This is where the debate begins… is this good or bad for NCAA swimming as a whole? What about D3 Swimming? Obviously Denison University won’t soon be announcing their partnership with Versus, but for every action… Ok, physics doesn’t apply, but you get the idea.
Let’s not pretend Texas will, however, be alone in this venture. This will be the arms race we almost had with conference realignment. Not every school will get a contract, but USC, Alabama, Florida, Michigan… the list goes on of those schools who will be next. Maybe it won’t be ESPN, but Fox Sports, Versus, maybe TNT (remember, they know drama) will get in on this and sign up different schools. Maybe some, most or all of these channels will fail within a couple years, but let’s say they don’t…
How could it be good for swimming?
If a channel devotes 24 hours to a single university’s athletic department, they will need some filler time. I hate use filler time and swim meets together, but to the average viewer, that’s what swimming would be. That being said, it does mean swimming on TV. More exposure is always a good thing for our sport, since we receive so little whenever Phelps isn’t smoking pot or winning golds. A university with this type of deal couldn’t possibly fill all of their time with just the big 2 NCAA sports, so it may save “second tier” athletic programs.
In addition to saving swimming to fill air time, this is also a huge influx of cash for the athletic department. This net positive means budget cuts won’t be necessary and therefore swimming isn’t seen just as a red line on the balance sheet. While our first example here of Texas isn’t a likely candidate for cutting anyway, considering their history and Olympic caliber program, it’s never completely off the table.
How could it be bad?
You have cash for a program so it would seem that all is good. Or is it? Once money becomes the motivating factor for decisions, if it isn’t already, the microscope comes out in full force. Football, and to a lesser extent, basketball coaches are already fired after 1-2 subpar seasons because the school is losing potential income, but this is magnified 300 million times when even more money is on the line.
I don’t think swimming coaches will ever be in jeopardy of the same change cycle football coaches are today, but their program may be if they don’t cut it. Top schools with Olympic athletes like Texas will be able to generate some viewers (like visitors of our site), but what about a school like Alabama? Sure Alabama is a decent enough swim team, but they don’t have even close to the same draw. If the network makes the athletic powers that be take a harder look at ratings, will swimming get the ax in favor of sports that can draw crowds? Or in favor of giving that money into sports already getting nice checks, but also paying the bills for everyone else? Maybe.
What about D3?
Since even Kenyon and Emory don’t compete with Texas or Auburn for recruits, the immediate impact on D3 swimming is probably non-existant. In the long term, however, that may not be true. If these networks do actually create more interest in our sport, then there is a net gain for D3 swimming… logically thinking, if there are more swimmers, not everyone can swim for Texas, so D3 would get better quality swimmers.
The issue would come up if the Eastern Michigans, St. Cloud States and UMass’s of the world, and those schools specifically, get networks. Even if they aren’t 24 hours or even if they share within their conference, if swimming is getting on TV, young swimmers will want to be seen. This may mean the schools that already get many of our recruits begin to take even more. Would D3 schools align to create similar networks? That’s a long way into the future but the possibility does exist.
I’ve taken this topic about 10 steps beyond where we are today. Maybe it will never get there. Maybe it gets there faster than we realize. All I can hope is in the end, swimming is seen as a strong sport that is positive, whether it be cash flow or not, for a school to keep around, or maybe even grow. Then again, if I get to see a bit more of Kathleen Hersey in the short term, maybe I don’t really care…