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The Fifth Lap

By Gabe Cuadra     2/20/13 6:00pm

Both Rice swimming and Rice track and field will compete in Conference USA competitions this weekend. Swimming will go in search of a seventh straight top-three team finish across town at the University of Houston, while men's and women's track will travel to Birmingham, Ala., to complete the indoor prelude to their outdoor seasons.

In many ways, track and swimming are sibling sports. They share similar strengths and struggles. They consistently produce a few global stars who compete alongside a plethora of little-known athletes. And for two weeks every fourth summer, they become the center of the sports universe before receding back to their small but dedicated core group of fans.

They are two sports that simultaneously search for the path to greater success yet these sports must at the same time vigilantly ensure they do not veer off the path of sustainability and risk losing everything.In fact, despite the current star power the sports enjoy, it has become clear during the economic recession that they are indeed vulnerable, both at a collegiate and professional level. 

For example, when Pepperdine University's athletic department needed to improve its finances in 2009, men's track and women's swimming were the two sports selected to be discontinued, though both have since been reinstated. Similarly, swimming and track both faced termination during downsizing at the University of Maryland before a mixture of fundraising and the move to the Big Ten changed the financial situation. And perhaps most painfully, the University of Richmond is poised to cut men's track, as well as men's soccer, in order to elevate lacrosse. 

These are clear signs that neither sport can sit idly as the sports landscape changes around them.

 Most conversations about the future of track and swimming begin with the Olympics. Many lament the inability to monetize the games for more athletes. Others wonder what steps need to be taken to make better use of the Olympic momentum in order to secure more of the spotlight in non-Olympic years.  

I propose, however, that the place to focus the conversation is not on the Olympics, but on the other end of the spectrum: youth participation. 

While professional track and field and swimming enjoy a very narrow limelight, each sport's youth programs have continued to rank the highest in number of participants. 

Swimming is buoyed by competitive club and less competitive summer programs which start at very young ages. According to a 2008 report by the Women's Sports Foundation, swimming/diving ranks as the second most common physical activity for girls and the fifth most common for boys. 

Meanwhile, track and field continues to be incredibly prominent at the high school level. A 2010-11 survey done by the National Federation of State High School Associations found that more girls participated in outdoor track and field than any other high school-sponsored sport, while track and field was second for boys, behind only football. 

The disconnect between the high number of youths in each sport and the small number who become lifelong fans stands as both one of the greatest shortcomings and greatest opportunities for each sport. Addressing that disconnect is the first step toward assuring that these programs remain highly valued on college campuses and allowing for the creation of broader, more sustainable professional systems.

 There are many different strategies that could be implemented to help improve this situation. But by my estimation, the best place to start is by transforming meets into exciting events that become "the thing to do" in respective communities.

Both track and swimming have the distinct, if counterintuitive, advantage of hosting few meets in any given location. They do not have to sell out a full season schedule like many other sports, but instead must only generate a lot of interest one weekend a year to create a great atmosphere. 

It is a strategy that professional golf and tennis have proven can be successful, and it has already been applied by a few track meets, such as the Penn Relays in Philadelphia and the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon. Moreover, it is a concept that Rice students prove year after year with huge attendance at one game a season for various sports and at one-time events like Beer Bike.  

Once people have a great annual live connection to a sport, they are more likely to watch it occasionally on TV, to recognize and follow athletes they have seen in person, and to truly value the sport.

For it to be most effective, it is a strategy that should not be limited to massive events, but instead utilized by college and small pro meets across the country, engaging whoever their particular community is. At Rice, it is something we do a decent job of, but there is room for improvement. 

Such a strategy will not turn track or swimming into the next multi-billion dollar mega sport like football or basketball. But frankly, I am not convinced that should be the goal anyway. 

What it will do is improve security for the sports. It will produce a more sustainable model for college and professional programs. And most importantly, it will allow them to connect, to inspire, to create memories and to launch dreams. 

In short, it will allow them to do the all the things that sports, at their core, were always intended to do.

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