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Swimming championships hardly make a splash

Kai Ryssdal Mar 29, 2007
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KAI RYSSDAL: Michael Phelps is 4 for 4 at the swimming world championships that’re being held in Melbourne, Australia this week. He won his fourth gold medal today and he set three world records so far.

Not that you’d reasonably be expected to know any of that, with March Madness going on and baseball’s Opening Day just around the corner. Swimmers get plenty of attention during the Olympics. But otherwise, the sport suffers from four-year dry spells. Our business of sports analyst Diana Nyad’s covering the coverage. Hey, Diana.

DIANA NYAD: Kai, how’s it going?

RYSSDAL: I’m all right. You know, you feel bad for these swimmers. I mean, it’s the world championships, and yet almost nobody’s paying attention.

NYAD: Well you know, it’s true. And it’s been true forever, hasn’t it? It’s very similar to track and field at the Olympic games. Every summer Olympic games, the first half of the games, swimming is the jewel. Second half of the games, track and field is the jewel. But in this country, those sports basically fly off the map. And I think you and I could take microphones and go around to every city and town in America, and ask a hundred people at every single city and town in America, name . . . just name me one American swimmer. Just name me one. And they’ll say Mark Spitz

. Well see, no no no, we mean a swimmer from today. And they can’t come up with probably the greatest swimmer who’s ever lived, greater than Mark Spitz, who’s Michael Phelps. But we just don’t track swimming.

RYSSDAL: Forget about the microphones and you and me taking them around. Is anybody taking television cameras down to the world?

NYAD: I’ll give you an example: NBC is gonna cover an event that’s gonna happen right after the Worlds. It’s called, you know, “The Duel in the Pool.” OK, and it takes the greatest Australian swimmers, the greatest American swimmers, who are the two superpowers in swimming today. They’re going to capture that event on April 3, which happens right after the World Championships is over. And they’re gonna telecast it on April 21 and 22. Now, I used to work for the Wide World of Sports back in the day. And that’s when we did the World Table Tennis Championships and the World Wrist-Wrestling Championships and nobody cared if they happened six weeks before, cause it was just a . . . you know, a televised event. But in this day in age, of the Internet, live sports are the only way we follow sports. So, it doesn’t bode well for an event to air three weeks after it happens, as if nobody followed it in the first place and nobody cares. And believe me, nobody is watching the World Swimming Championships on television. The king of sports, ESPN, for instance, on day three of the event this week, three world records went down. But you listen to ESPN, five seconds. I counted it, five seconds of coverage.

RYSSDAL: So you take a five-second thing on ESPN, you add it to a three-week tape delay, and I think what you get on the other side of the equation is probably zero dollars from corporate sponsorships.

NYAD: Well, you know, you would think that because it’s not a very big piece of the pie in this country. But on the other hand, it takes a slice. I mean, there are some 100 million people who swim regularly, Kai. If a hundred million people are heading out to do some laps in the pool, take a dip in the ocean, Speedo and Nike and Reebok and all the swimsuit makers want to make sure that they’re wearing their suits. So, you know, Nike for instance gave Cullen Jones

— he’s the first African American ever to hold a world record in swimming, he’s doing very well down in Melbourne as well — they gave Cullen Jones last August, Nike did, $2 million over seven years. Now, when we, you know, talk about NFL players, you know, that would be just a laughable contract, wouldn’t it? But for a swimmer, 2 million bucks over seven years is something. So there is, as they say, a sliver of the pie to be divided up. And there are a few corporate sponsors who want in for the sport of swimming.

RYSSDAL: Diana Nyad knows a whole lot about swimming herself. If you don’t believe me, just check the record book. She does the business of sports for us. Diana, thanks a lot.

NYAD: Kai, thank you.

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