Community Interview: Andrew Gemmel on the future of collegiate swimming, NIL and more:
We asked a real expert about what's coming next for swimmers, and perhaps other Olympic sport athletes:
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Our interview guest today is Andrew Gemmel, a former swimmer for Team USA and the University of Georgia, and an active commentator on swimming issues at multiple levels in the United States. His comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity below.
Reader Greg asks:
Does the math actually work out for young Olympians to not take sponsor money to preserve college eligibility? Does it make sense with scholarship amount v. using sponsor income to pay for school, or is it more just more opportunities to do the sport at a high level?
Gemmel: With the current model, the math only works out in a very few cases, although swimming is still growing and there are increasingly more ways to monetize success in the sport. There are still probably only two or three people every four years (read: Olympic cycles) that would come out on top. Because swimming is an individual sport at the international level, you have pretty much free reign to compete wherever you want (unless it conflicts with the NCAA schedule, which USA swimming makes sure to avoid). The math is a little different if you're an international athlete.
Reader Craig asks:
My niece is a D-I swimmer and I have noticed how fluidly her school's men's and women teams operate as essentially one unit. Are there pros or cons of that approach that could be applied to other sports in the college realm, or is it just the nature of swimming?
Gemmel: I would say the sport is trending towards combined programs, but some still operate separately. UGA was combined - the guys were a top 10 program, the girls won two titles when I was there (and finished 2nd the other years). The feedback from the guys was mixed, but a lot of the top women swimmers really liked being combined. For the best girls (think top eight in the country), keeping up with the men was a level of competition in practice that they might not have gotten on a single-gender team. I think it can also make more sense from a financial perspective (save on facilities, travel, etc). I don't see why you couldn't do it in any individual sport (track, cross country, gymnastics, golf, etc), I think it's just more a cultural norm in swimming for whatever reason.
Reader Brett asks:
I’d love to know if Andrew anticipates that the ongoing pandemic-related (or -excused?) shake-out will result in more lower-tier D1 swimming programs trying to keep a varsity team, but making it a non-scholarship sport, or even trying to split their entire Athletics Department and compete down in D3 like JHU does in swimming/track/XC/etc while reserving scholarships for their prestige sports?
Gemmel: I spent a year as a grad assistant at Georgetown, and most of the schools we competed against already either were scholarship free or very limited in what they provided. By far the biggest expense in swimming is going to be the capital expense of building and/or maintaining a pool. After that, swim teams are generally pretty large (25ish per gender) and can do a lot of good from an enrollment perspective at schools that are struggling. As for the split division issue, I don't think I have a good read on that.
Reader Carter asks:
Are you disappointed to see significant programs, such as the University of Iowa and Michigan State University, dropping their programs? Did it seem inevitable to even the athletes that some of these olympic sports would be sacrificed for the TV sport programs?
Gemmel: I don't want to sound like I'm echoing Matt too much here, but swimming programs need to do a better job promoting the value they provide back to the school in non direct revenue ways. Whether that is additional enrollment, alumni involvement, how active they are in the community, GPA - it all needs to be articulated (and accounted for) better.
Reader Carter also asks:
Should USA Swimming be trying to intervene or developing an alternative plan to address the potential gap in development?
Gemmel: One area that is a huge concern of mine (and I know others in USA Swimming share it) is what happens if NCAA swimming goes away. One thing I don't think the general public realizes is how much the NCAA system subsidizes Olympic success (which is really all USA swimming cares about from an elite perspective). USA Swimming might be the most dominant sports team of the last 50 years - period. They've won something like 40% of all available Gold medals, which is absurd for a sport that is as international as swimming is. And basically, every single one of those people interacted with the NCAA system in some way...even Michael Phelps trained with Michigan in the lead up to his famous 2008 run.
Most current medalists stay training either at or with a college long after they graduate. One thing I've had to deal with, personally, is that swimming (a sport with a very complicated past and current history with race) is subsidized in large part by the unpaid labor or football and basketball players. Ideally, to me, more funding would come directly from the government, which is how most European countries do it, in some form. But if all the money from football & basketball dried up with no replacement, USA swimming would be in a world of hurt.
Reader Carter also askes:
How did you find yourself getting attention with college coaches? Swimming does not draw the recruiting boards or viral video clips like basketball or football does, so were there additional ways to capture coach interest on a larger scale?
Gemmel: Recruiting in swimming is really easy for the most part. Getting noticed in swimming starts with your times - how fast you are is completely objective. After that, a coach might want to talk to your home coach about attitude, see your parents to figure out if you're gonna get taller, etc. Personally, I was lucky enough to have a pretty successful junior year and have coaches reach out to me that way. The easiest way is just to swim faster (helpful answer, I know). But I can't imagine the headaches those in sports who have to watch film go through.
Reader Laine asks:
One of the things I'd be really curious to know is what he thinks of the upcoming NIL reform and whether that will substantially affect swimmers. Obviously, they're not big campus superstars, but I imagine that there would be a huge market for learn to swim programs wanting to affiliate with top talent the same way they currently do with pros. And if NIL brings more money to the sport and athletes are able to continue swimming post -rad thanks to more opportunities like the International Swim League, it's possible that the demographic of pro swimmers shifts a bit.
Gemmel: There is definitely a market for NIL in swimming, and bigger than I think most people would realize at first. One of the biggest benefits is that it would let some of the top athletes enjoy a full college career. You have two recent examples in Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin who chose to end their college careers two years early to sign multi-million dollar apparel deals (and gave up a ton of money just to swim those two years).
On the other end, and at a level that would affect a lot more people, the average D-1 swimmer could probably make a respectable amount doing lessons or camps in the summer (at the high end, a lot stay on campus to train anyway) if they were allowed to leverage their position at the school. This would also be another way to help integrate the team into the surrounding campus community.
Swimming post-college is a completely different financial problem, and might actually be more difficult if some of the licensing and apparel money was allowed to be spent on current NCAA athletes. Countering that, relaxing NCAA regulation might provide more training locations for postgrads - currently, different schools' compliance offices have different interpretations of NCAA rules on what/how/when postgraduates can train with current college teams.
Right now, the best coaches and training groups in the US are all located on college campuses, and keeping better access to those resources might allow swimmers to stay around longer.
Reader Jack asks:
How is it that schools like Maryland and Iowa invest in brand new aquatic facilities only to cut their swim teams just a few years later?
Gemmel: I spent the last 3 years of my career frequenting the UMD pool and it honestly is a little baffling to me how little a pool that nice is used (the Iowa pool is even newer and was set to host NCAAs soon). My instinct is that there has to be some conflict between sport - athletic association - university (who often own the pool, not the AA) that drove costs way up or made the situation untenable. But I would guess each situation is unique. It makes much more sense when a school like MSU cuts their program, because they are dealing with an old pool and probably need to invest tens of millions to have a nice enough facility to be competitive.
Reader Matt Brown asks:
Do you think college swimming needs to make changes to become a more fan or consumer-friendly product? What changes might you recommend?
Gemmel: I think this is a "swimming" problem more than a "college problem". I've had dual meets against Florida or Auburn where we filled out the natatorium, not just with parents, but you'd get other students, the Athens community, etc, to show up. I'd guess that you were looking at around 1-1.5k people? And NCAAs are actually a difficult ticket to get most years. Swimming just struggles to be a commercial (TV) draw outside the Olympics, and there are a lot of people way smarter than me who are trying to figure out why that's the case or what they can do to make it more popular in off years.
There are efforts to shorten the program and make it more an "event" that I think have seen some success. Over the fall the second season of the International Swim League competed in a bubble in Budapest, and most of it was shown on CBSSN with the final on the main network, which is more than most Non-Olympic/Non World Championship competitions get.
Reader Matt Brown asks:
I've heard a few consultants speculate that swim programs could elect to hold "virtual" meets to save money on travel. How much would not having an opposing swimmer in the lane next to you matter, as a competitor? Is that a practical idea?
Gemmel: On paper, it works because in swimming there isn't an offense/defense, you're just competing in times. USA Swimming actually just hosted its winter national championships in a virtual format this November because of COVID. But I think you lose the main fun in the competition and having that motivating factor right next to you. It always really helped me when things started to really hurt to have that external motivation. So personally, I would have hated it, but if your options are "have virtual meets" or "don't have a team", the answer is obvious.
Reader Matt Brown asks:
What’s the worst thing you ever had to eat for training?
Gemmel: There is a lot of research that's come out in the last ~6-8 years about the benefits of beet juice and the positive cardiorespiratory effects it has. Beet juice itself isn't bad, but it's very expensive. Apparently, it takes a TON of beets to make a decent amount of juice. The cheaper alternative (while still providing most of the same benefits) it's this beet powder stuff you mix with water. That stuff was truly awful, and I've never really been able to eat beets again.
Editor’s note: Ew.
And finally, let’s end with this question, from Matt Brown:
What’s the #1 thing you think college athletic fans misunderstand or don't appreciate about collegiate swimming?
Gemmel: At the elite levels (let's say qualifying for NCAAs, which is ~250 athletes per gender in D1), swimming is a full year sport. That’s partly because it's a sport that is so rooted in cardiovascular fitness, partly because a lot of good NCAA swimmers also have international aspirations (which layers in competition over the summer, while NCAA competition is winter/fall), and probably for a few other factors as well.
In practice, this means top swimmers might get a week off after NCAAs in late March and maybe two or three weeks in early August. Some back of the envelope math tells me I swam ~8000 miles, just during my college career. It's a lot.
So while swimming isn't always the most outwardly impressive sport - I've always wished I could do something cool like dunk or hit a baseball - it's an incredible mix of both skill, physical discipline, and athleticism.
I guess what I am saying is we need to support Spencer Hall's suggestion to add in one normal person to every competition, just for a reference point.
I love that idea. I sure as hell won’t be doing it…my Twitter followers know I don’t have a great history with competitive swimming. But I’d love to see some random dad half-assing the Butterfly while getting absolutely smoked by college swimmers. Maybe THAT’S the move to make swimming more attractive for TV.
Thanks again to Andrew for chatting with us, and for you for being a part of the Extra Points community. Additional story ideas, business inquiries, comments, feedback and more can be sent to MattBrownOhio@Gmail.com, or to @MattBrownEP on Twitter.
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