Professional team sports are known for their incredibly high-paid stars. Just look at the money thrown at the top names in the big team sports, such as soccer, baseball, football, basketball, hockey and cycling. And not just for the top tier leagues. Many good players in lower leagues can make decent money.
There are only a few individual sports that can claim the same status – boxing, tennis and golf being the main ones. But track & field and swimming are slowly climbing the ranks. Grand Prix prize money, endorsement deals and even appearance money for the stars are starting to grab attention. In fact, quite a few of the swimming elite are estimate to be making a million or more a year.
This money isn’t just affecting those athletes either; it’s slowly transforming our sport. As the elite now have a compelling reason to stay on the top for longer, their names are in front of the public for longer. This brand awareness raises their visibility, and keeps swimming in the sports news. This in turn, helps draw more talented younger athletes into swimming when they might have pursued other professional sports. The result of all this is that swimming at all ages continues to get faster, which puts it in the news again.
After all, we have to remember that the sport of swimming competes against other sports for attention and dollars. And the more people hear about our sport, and watch our sport, the more popular it will be.
But like anything else, there are negatives as well. Recently, Patrick Murphy wrote an article in Swimming World, The Effects of Professional Swimming: Are Male Swimmers Staying in the Sport Too Long? about the some of the impacts of Professional swimming. He pointed out that as US male elite swimmers stay in the sport into their 30s, fast college swimmers no longer get the international experience they use to get. This could cause a serious transitional problem when the older swimmers retire and swimmers with far less international exposure take the leaderships roles.
It was an interesting article with a controversial title. But what intrigued me about the article was that it left out two very big negatives attached to professional sports in general.
Performance Enhancing Drugs
As we have all seen too often, big money not only draws talented athletes, it often draws the use of PEDs. After all, even without a financial reward, amateur athletes have been doping for decades. Add big money and you get a dangerous incentive to get that little advantage over competitors (or in some minds, to stay on the same level as competitors).
You don’t have to look any farther than professional team sports such as baseball or cycling to see this. During the Lance Armstrong years, some experts were stating that virtually every cyclist on the top Tour de France teams were doping. The most common excuse given was that it was necessary just to stay competitive. Baseball also had its problems, with experts pegging the percentage of MLB players using PEDs at between 25% and 50%. While swimming has it’s cheaters now, it would be naive of us to think that it won’t get much worse as the amount of professional money rises.
In an interview with Bob Nightengale of USA Today, Cleveland Indians President Mark Shapiro summarized it nicely, “In any free-market system, the greater the reward, the higher the propensity for violation. It happens on Wall Street, right?”
I probably don’t have to go into the long-term health effects of PEDs. They’re pretty well known, and they’re serious. But in case you need a reminder, see my uncomfortable post, The Sad Legacy of East German Doping.
This negative isn’t nearly as well known or visible, but equally serious. We’ve all heard about the obscene amounts of money made by the superstars of sports. But what is rarely mentioned are the multitudes of marginal athletes who chase the dream of being a professional athlete. For every Floyd Mayweather or Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James, there are tens of thousands of lesser athletes who dedicate many years to this dream. These are the ones who count themselves incredibly lucky to continue their sport while just eking out a living. I remember reading an article about marginal golfers and tennis players – they called these athletes the rabbits. They hop from one weekend tournament to the next, 4 or more to a vehicle, 4 or more to a hotel room, hoping that one of them makes enough money that week to make life easier for the next week. They can never save money as they barely have enough money to buy food.
This phenomena happens with professional team sport as well, as players will sign on to some small regional team on the other side of the world just to play. They’re certainly not getting rich on those contracts.
So what, you say. What’s wrong with that? They’re doing what they love to do. But the flip side of this is the cost of chasing their dream. During that decade or more the rest of the world have started to develop their long-term careers. Building their personal skills, networking, gaining experience. Basically developing an ability to feed themselves and their families for the rest of their lives. These rabbits have postponed their real lives to pursue what some would call an indulgent dream.
There’s no dispute that the continued rise of Professional Swimming is a very good thing. The added visibility of the sport and its stars can only help make swimming faster and appeal to more athletes. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the problems of professional sports won’t sprout up as well.
Looks like the sport of swimming is coming of age.