Charlotte Ultraswim: What a Grand Prix Should Be

Charlotte Ultraswim: What a Grand Prix Should Be

If you’ve never been to the Charlotte UltraSwim, you need to — if you can get a ticket. How many other Grand Prix swim meets can you say that about? In my opinion (yes I’m a little biased because it’s my hometown), it’s is THE best grand prix meet, not only for athletes, but for fans as well.

I recently caught up with Jeff Gaeckle, UltraSwim’s Meet Manager, and asked how he and his team put on such a great event. I wanted to find out how we can take what they do with UltraSwim, and carry it over to other Grand Prix meets. The UltraSwim isn’t just a swim meet, it’s an event, and that’s what makes it so popular and exciting. Gaeckle credits a lot of things that make UltraSwim great, including the fact it’s in Charlotte, “It isn’t a huge city like Chicago or L.A. It’s small enough that you can really create a buzz, but big enough that you can make it a big deal.” He estimates UltraSwim has an economic impact of at least $1.5 million to the city of Charlotte. That’s incredible!

Duke Energy Buildling lit up Orange and Blue for Charlotte Ultraswim

The city of Charlotte really embraces swimming, and SwimMAC, in particular. Something that caught my eye during the meet on Saturday night, was the Duke Energy building — it was actually lit up orange and blue! I think that’s amazing and goes to show how much SwimMAC and swimming mean to Charlotte.

While Charlotte provides great support, the meet’s run by some tremendously hard-working people. The management crew doesn’t get any help from USA Swimming, so they’re all on their own. Gaeckle says, “Our organization really comes together for this meet. It is our celebration.”

Another thing that makes UltraSwim different is it has more local sponsors than I’ve ever seen at a meet. SwimMAC has built a relationship with a number of partners over the years and those partners WANT to be part of UltraSwim. Sponsors come to UltraSwim knowing they’re going to get very good exposure for their investment — with almost 1,500 fans, nearly 900 swimmers (including the Midday meet) and news outlets from all around the world. Seriously: Search “Charlotte UltraSwim” on Google and see how many countries covered the meet.

For the swimmers, SwimMAC put a lot of effort into the “Athlete Zone.” They provided a gigantic tent with comfy couches, three big TV screens, Xbox’s, Wii’s, access to good snacks and national team athletes had access to a lot of extra resources. One of the partners, Presbyterian Sports Medicine, was on hand the entire meet to help out with chiropractors, massage therapists, ice baths, and doctors. Johnson and Wales University, known for their culinary arts in Charlotte, and a new partner for the meet this year, sent 30 of their students each day to prepare food and made-to-order omelettes in hospitality.

Another special thing UltraSwim does is VIP seating — the seats directly behind the starting blocks. Fans in that section were able to have up-close interaction with the fastest swimmers in the world, free refreshments, and comfy seats. They also had access to the Gold Medal VIP trailer outside the complex, where they had access food and drinks. While the VIP seats offer great perks, the general admission seats gave an “intimate” feeling to the Aquatic Center. Fans were able to have very cool interactions with swimmers, and were seen giving high-fives or receiving autographs from their favorite swimmers. Gaeckle says the intimate setting creates more excitement for everyone, ”We have the worst facility on the grand prix circuit, and host the best event.”

Because a video is better than me writing about it, here is a video SwimSwam put together of a quick walkthrough of the venue in Charlotte — the Athlete Zone, hospitality and VIP Gold Medal area.

USA Swimming has done a phenomenal job with the Olympic Trials, Nationals, and Duel in the Pool. Those are some of the biggest meets for USA Swimming and they’ve turned them into great events. But what about the Grand Prix circuit? Think about SwimMAC’s relationship with businesses and sponsors, and how they’re able to build the venue that you saw in the video. How do we turn other Grand Prix meets into an event like the UltraSwim?

First things first: Something needs to come from the athletes themselves. PGA Tour events have a number of activities players go to, such as a VIP functions with sponsors, or a Pro-Am. At a U.S. Ski and Snowboard Grand Prix event I went to, they had VIP functions every night during the competition, with athletes meeting and greeting with fans and sponsors. During the event itself, there was special seating, where sponsors and other VIPs could eat, drink and watch. Why can’t swimming do that?

Well, Charlotte UltraSwim has started —  This year they rented out the NASCAR Hall of Fame for a VIP function the day before the meet started hundred people showed up for drinks, food and to meet some of the elite athletes. It was something I haven’t seen at a swim meet before, and I think that’s mainly because some swimmers don’t want to do something the day before a competition. But as athletes, the more we engage, the more we can we can build a bigger following and attract more sponsors.

I think most swimmers are already great at engaging and really do embrace the fans. I probably signed a couple hundred autographs at UltraSwim, and each kid’s shirt I signed had at least another 20 from

other national team members. Most swimmers are truly happy to engage with fans, but I think swim meet hosts need to allow us to do it more often.

So if most of the swimmers are on board, how can we improve the Grand Prix meets? Should locations be changed to cities that would embrace having world-class swimmers in their city? Should we try to find more “intimate” venues, like the Aquatic Center in Charlotte, and get away from huge complexes like Ohio State and Minnesota? Those are incredible facilities, but athletes like to have fans packed in the stands and not see them empty. What if all the USA Swimming sponsors each sponsored a Grand Prix, or each meet host was required to do some sort of promotional event before the start of the meet? These are just a few of my ideas and I’m going way too long with this post already.

Our sport comes into the public eye once every four years, although recently, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have put swimming in the headlines more often. These Grand Prix meets need to get more visibility and more media exposure so that swimming isn’t just on most sports fan’s minds once every four years.

What are your thoughts on some changes that could benefit Grand Prix meets and help swimming continue to grow?