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Part III: How Does The Pro Swim Series Prize Money Measure Up?

Part III: How Does The Pro Swim Series Prize Money Measure Up?
Photo: © Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
Part I: Attention Is Building

Part II: The Art Of Scheduling The Pro Swim Series

Not everyone gets the opportunity to play sports professionally. Significantly less get that chance in swimming.

In the United States, very few competitions provide an opportunity for swimmers to earn money as a professional. The arena Pro Swim Series pays its champions, but is it enough?

On swimming's highest end, money really isn't an issue. Michael Phelps, swimming's all-time wealthiest athlete in the United States, has accumulated a net worth of $55 million. Likewise, most professional swimmers are making a living off of endorsement deals and aren't fully reliant on prize money -- the reward doesn't seem to match the expense of competing.

USA Swimming chief marketing officer Matt Farrell listed four categories as to why athletes have grown to have more interest in the Pro Swim Series. The first area he listed was prize money.

Despite USA Swimming naming prize money as important, most swimmers don't know any different from receiving small amounts of prize money. Money is obviously important, but it isn't the first thought when swimmers are entering to compete in the Pro Swim Series.

"Money wasn't a motivation at all," said Great Britain's Adam Peaty​, the 100m breaststroke world-record holder, in regard to racing in the Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis back in March. "I thought before that I could break the U.S. Open record."

Each athlete has his or her own motivations. Success at the Pro Swim Series isn't nearly enough to support someone when swimming prize money is the only source of income.

How is prize money awarded?

USA Swimming awards prize money in two separate ways. The first is by way of each individual event. An event winner receives $500. The runner-up gets $300, and the third-place swimmer takes home $100. If a swimmer places outside of the top three, he or she receives nothing.

The second, and much more valuable prize, comes at the series' end. The male and female athletes who earn the most points, which are awarded in the same manner as money, are given a $10,000 bonus.

Series champions also are given a year-long lease on a BMW. All awards are available to most athletes, excluding those who are currently competing for an NCAA institution.

What else is out there?

While the Pro Swim Series is the only show in the United States, there are international competitions to consider as well. The FINA World Cup, even though it has three more meets, distributes significantly more money to its placing swimmers.

"The money for that comes from FINA which is gets most of its money through television revenue, the Olympic Games, and the World Championships," FINA technical swimming committee chair​ ​Carol Zaleski said.

FINA directly uses the steep prize money to attract swimmers and subsequently boost the excitement surrounding the series.

Prize money is awarded to swimmers based on individual event finish, points placement in that cluster of three meets, and the overall finish in the final standings. Money is also given for world records broken and for mixed relay events.

How do they compare?

Compared to the Pro Swim Series, which gives $500 for a win, the World Cup awards $1,500 for a gold medal finish. The overall series champion receives a hefty $100,000 prize. Last year, Hungarian ​Katinka Hosszu pocketed $250,000 from just her ranking finishes alone.

For the sake of illustrating the difference, let's take a look at Kalisz​. After the Phillips 66 National Championships, he was crowned the Pro Swim Series champion with 65 points and $5,400 of prize money accumulated for individual event finishes throughout the series.* That's $5,400 plus $10,000 for being crowned the overall series winner for a total of $15,400.

On a straight comparison to the World Cup (which should be taken with a grain of salt due to the fact the World Cup has three additional meets), Kalisz would have earned $16,500 for individual event finishes throughout the series plus $100,000 for being crowned the overall series winner for a total of $116,500.

That comparison is simply made for the sake of illustration. At the end of the day, it's apples and oranges, as the money backing the Pro Swim Series is coming from a smaller pot than FINA ,which pulls from major sponsorships stemming from the Olympics and World Championships -- the two most highly visible aquatics competitions.

"The prize money comes from our sponsorship agreement," said ​Steve Ozami, the director of marketing for Arena North America. "We pay the sponsorship fee to USA Swimming, and then they allocate some of that money to the winners."

France allocates money to the top five individual performances in terms of FINA points. The first-place athlete takes 10,000 euros, which equates to around $11,000. Peaty won 7,000 euros for having the second-best swim and another 1,000 euros for breaking the Open de France record.

"The best meet I went to in terms of prize money was the French Open in Vichy last year," Peaty said.

The silver lining for USA Swimming & Pro Swim Series

Despite the other meets that offer substantial prizes, there are numerous positives to racing in USA Swimming's Pro Swim Series.

"For the professional athletes who are looking to make a living, they have to be visible," three-time Olympic gold medalist and swimming analyst ​Rowdy Gaines said. "The only way to be visible, at least right now, is to swim in the Pro Swim Series. It's the only game in town."

Athletes are weighing the visibility against the money. Ultimately for swimmers, the former should be valued more than instant cash -- especially in a sport with limited visibility to begin with.

To attract the big-name athletes, something USA Swimming desires, the incentive has to be there. Right now, from an earnings perspective, the Pro Swim Series doesn't make sense financially for the best international swimmers. It's reasonable for American athletes but difficult for the international athletes to earn back what is spent in travel expenses to compete.

The simple answer for the Pro Swim Series to make competing worthwhile is to revamp the prize money -- paying athletes more per event and raising the stakes for the champion. More money would need to be spent by USA Swimming and Arena, but all of it would benefit the swimmers who are making the event relevant.

​*Note: Chase Kalisz did not participate in two out of the six stops on the Pro Swim Series (Austin, Texas; and Indianapolis) as he was still in the middle of the NCAA season for the University of Georgia.
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