While sports like basketball, football, baseball and soccer pull in billions of dollars and hundreds of millions of TV viewers, swimming doesn’t even come close.
Why is it that swimmers have millions of fans cheering for them at the Olympics, but are left hung out to dry between Olympic competitions?
Why aren’t all those bandwagon fans becoming REAL swimming fanatics? And why does it seem like Michael Phelps is the only swimmer to ever break out into mainstream media?
But even with such a big name at the forefront of the sport, swimming just isn’t as popular as other sports. Football fans are a cult while swim fans are practically non-existent.
Thankfully, this isn’t a lost cause. But first, let’s dive into why no one cares about swimming.
5 Reasons Swimming Isn’t a Popular Sport
1. Sponsorship Revenue
The first reason why swimming isn’t as popular comes down to cold hard cash.
Big sports like football, soccer and basketball have astronomical budgets, and pull in hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars in revenue every year. Swimming doesn’t even come close!
In 2022, swimming’s global governing body, World Aquatics, brought in just over $13 million in sponsorship and broadcast revenue according to their 2022 financial report. That’s pretty good right?
Well, when you compare that $13 million to the United States’ National Basketball Association’s whopping $1.4 billion in sponsorship revenue for the 2022-2023 season, swimming is a small fish in a huge pond.
So, why is revenue so low? It comes down to a few things:
First is the amount of competitions. In swimming, there aren’t as many high profile competitions as there are in other sports. The NBA Playoffs and finals happen every year and last over a month, while swimming World Championships are only about two weeks long, and they only happen every two years. That means there are fewer opportunities for big time sponsorships!
Plus, brands are more likely to sponsor mid-season competitions for larger sports, which brings in more money. Swim meets still have sponsors, but not at the scale that we see with other sports. This is due, in part, to the fact that attendance at a typical swim meet isn’t anywhere close to that of a basketball, baseball or football game.
More money means there are more resources to support teams, pay athletes and grow the sport in general. And swimming just doesn’t have enough in the bank to make big moves.
2. TV Airtime
And as with most things, more money results in better treatment. Big-budget sports get better TV time slots and they have bigger marketing budgets, which helps create more awareness about the sport in the general public.
Reason number two why people don’t care about swimming? It doesn’t get much TV airtime.
Sunday Night Football is a weekly event in many households in the US! Millions of people gather around the TV to watch the game every week, without fail.
In fact, the 2023 Super Bowl drew in 155 million viewers from around the world. And for our true “football” fans, the UEFA Champions League Final received an estimated 450 million viewers.
Those are massive numbers that swimming just doesn’t stack up to. But that doesn’t mean swimming is never on TV.
While NBC has not released official numbers, they have said that swimming, gymnastics and track and field are the most popular sports during the Olympics.
At the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, 32.7 million people tuned in to watch Michael Phelps swim the final race of his career. While that’s certainly a lot of people, it’s pretty measly compared to the nearly half a billion viewers that UEFA gets.
Beyond the Olympics, you can occasionally catch other large swimming competitions on TV, like World Championships or US National Championships. But two things are for sure: It won’t always be in the prime time slot and it won’t have hundreds of millions of viewers!
A highlight program featuring the best moments from the 2022 US National Championships received just 572,000 viewers, according to Nielsen ratings. That’s about 0.3% of the Super Bowl’s viewers and 0.12% of the Champions League final viewers.
All of this comes down to who gets in front of the public the most. If swimming was on TV more often, more people would become fans. But, the networks want to stick with what works…and that’s the tried-and-true big ticket sports.
3. Swimming is Boring to Watch
If you’re reading this, you probably like swimming and maybe even enjoy watching races on TV. But unfortunately, you’re in the minority.
That brings us to reason number three: A lot of people don’t care about swimming because it’s boring. To the majority of people, swimming just isn’t fun to watch. And before you disagree, hear us out!
Swimming is not a contact sport. Swimmers have to stay in their lanes and swim back and forth, sometimes for five minutes or longer. There’s no drama, no crazy fouls or tense, in-your-face moments like there are in other sports. Swimmers just step on the blocks, dive in, and swim.
After a while, people start to lose interest. It only gets exciting in the last 25 meters, when we get to see who will touch the wall first. There are only a couple races that match the intensity and excitement of other sports.
At most, we might get something like Michael Phelps’ epic staredown in Rio in 2016. And there’s always the emotional post-race celebrations, but compared to the non-stop excitement of basketball or even hockey, swimming is pretty low key.
Plus, swim meets are long. Most people won’t commit to watching hours of repetitive heats of the same event. In the Olympics, there are 37 total swimming events, but only finals – and maybe semifinals – make it on TV every day.
No matter how much YOU like to watch swimming, you have to acknowledge that swimming is just not as exciting. But, for the most part, that’s just the nature of the sport. As hard as we try to make it exciting, swimming will never be as fast paced as other sports.
4. It’s An Individual Sport…Or Is It?
The fourth reason no one cares about swimming is because it’s an individual sport.
Think about how many people you know who are die-hard fans of a specific sports TEAM. Sure, they might have a few favorite players, but they could end up supporting the same team for decades!
In swimming, most people follow one athlete. And when that athlete retires, it’s easy to stop watching.
When you watch swimming, you don’t get to see a team work together to achieve a goal. You don’t get to watch their strategy or see the teamwork, except in relays.
Related: Why Swimming Tech Suits Were Banned
Despite all of that, one thing that most non-swimmers don’t realize is that swimming actually is a team sport! It’s just not as straightforward as football or basketball.
In a typical swim meet, swimmers compete in individual events as part of a team. The place a swimmer finishes in can score points, which contributes to their team’s overall score.
Swimmers earn points based on their place in each of their events, with first place getting the most points. Depending on the swim meet, swimmers as far as 16th place could score.
Long story short, everyone’s performance matters, and swimming isn’t just about medals for the top three finishers.
However, each individual swimmer is still working toward their own goals, such as hitting a specific time standard, beating the person in the lane next to them, or finishing in the top three.
But, as you can tell, it’s not a very simple system. You can’t just score a goal and get a point.
Plus, most swim meets don’t show team scores on a scoreboard at the pool, so only the true swim nerds will be paying attention to which team is winning.
5. Swimming is a Niche Sport
Swimming is a seasonally niche sport, which has had a huge impact on how popular it is around the world.
This niche status is due to a few things…the first being some of what we’ve already talked about: Limited TV airtime, not a lot of public awareness and a snooze-inducing format for competitions.
But accessibility is also a major factor. Depending on where you grew up, you may not have had easy access to a swimming pool, let alone a coach or a swim team. Swimming on a team or taking lessons can also be expensive, while playing basketball with friends at school or at the park is basically free.
This niche status becomes even more apparent when we look at enrollment numbers for US sports organizations.
Talk to most people in the United States, and there’s a good chance that they have at least attempted playing baseball, basketball, or football, even if it was just for fun or as part of a school program.
Swim team, on the other hand, is unlikely to be in a school curriculum, and is pretty difficult to just pick up on your own. As a result, people just don’t know much about it. Or maybe they’ve never even tried swimming laps!
So, to answer the question we posed earlier: Why is swimming only popular every four years?
Swimming’s limited popularity is the result of a variety of different factors coming together to create the perfect storm. Almost no money and TV airtime play a role, but so do boring event formats and the accessibility of the sport to people around the world. It’s not a simple answer with a simple solution, but I don’t think swimming will never grow in popularity.
To make real change and bring swimming to a global audience, we need to show the world that swimming is worth watching, worth doing and worth supporting beyond the Olympics.
That means we need to watch more swimming, encourage our friends, family, and children to try swimming, and continue sharing the lifetime benefits of this amazing sport.
Let us know what you think in the comments…what do you think swimming is missing?