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Swim site conflict opens debate over sport's video rights

When USA Swimming banned the swimming Web site Floswimming’s press credential, it opened debate over its new partnership with a media company.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008 | 8:14 p.m. CDT; updated 1:58 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Garrett McCaffrey posted a video on Floswimming.org that filmed a portion of a race during the Missouri Grand Prix in February. The video led to a suspension of his press credentials.

COLUMBIA — At the Missouri Grand Prix, a swim meet held at MU in February, Garrett McCaffrey briefly panned away from an interview he was conducting on the pool deck and captured a portion of Natalie Coughlin’s race.

McCaffrey then posted the video, along with several other interviews from the weekend, to his swimming Web site, Floswimming.org.

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Two weeks later, McCaffrey received word from USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport, that his press credential would be suspended for three months.

McCaffrey’s conflict has since become a rallying cry for issues those see in the online swimming community with USA Swimming’s new partnership with Wasserman Media Group.

“It’s not a situation ideal for a governing body to be in,” McCaffrey said. “It’s an issue larger than Floswimming. It’s a pretty layered battle, and Floswimming’s just at the tip of it.”

In a deal negotiated last year, WMG will now represent USA Swimming “in the marketplace for sponsorship, events and marketing opportunities, and develop digital platforms to broaden distribution and original programming,” according to the swimming Web site Timed Finals, which was purchased by WMG. And as part of the partnership, USA Swimming and WMG will be launching a Web site of their own, dubbed SwimNetwork.com, to get more audience attention for national sponsors.

Capturing race footage, like McCaffrey did, violates USA Swimming’s broadcast guidelines, which gives that sole privilege to WMG.

One of the largest issues at stake is USA Swimming’s attempt to align itself with other sports’ media ventures. Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming executive director, said the deal was no different than “what we’re seeing happen with the NFL Network and other pro sports,” in an interview with Craig Lord of SwimNews.com.

But USA Swimming has a tax-exempt legal status that does not apply to the NFL or many of the other pro sports associations, including Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.

The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, a law passed by Congress in 1998, incorporated USA Swimming as a “not-for-profit corporation.” Some charge that USA Swimming, in establishing its SwimNetwork Web site with the for-profit WMG, is irresponsibly entering the competitive media market.

“The most apparent conflict of interest is that when a governing body owns the event and then wants to profit; to me, I think the whole concept is fundamentally flawed,” said Brent Rutemiller, publisher of Swimming World Magazine. “For a non-profit governing body to own a for-profit media venture is a conflict at its root ... The conflict is when you start entering a for-profit world, you start competing with the media not only for content but also for the advertising elements.”

Organizations like the National Football League and Major League Baseball, which run their own Web sites with exclusive video content, do not have to pass the same requirements imposed on USA Swimming.

“Pure and simple, they (other sports organizations) are not created through an act of Congress to become the governing body of an entire sport,” Rutemiller said.

USA Swimming told Rutemiller that its new Web site would allow only national sponsors as advertisers, but competition could come if they expand into other companies.

“When it comes to USA Swimming’s agreement with WMG, it can be pretty tough to separate those battles and keep it all clean — they’re partners with Wasserman, and you’ve got to defend that entity if it’s something you’re involved in,” McCaffrey said. “Based on my conversation with them and the sequence of events that led up to it, there’s no doubt in my mind that it wasn’t USA Swimming that banned our credential.”

Some are worried that USA Swimming is ultimately trying to dominate all coverage of the sport.

“They’re trying to keep, it seems like, all content in one place, to keep being the specific place for content, where you have to go,” said Merritt Johnson, who runs a blog that covers swimming and cars. “The mentality seems like they want to have complete control of media output, and I don’t think that helps promote the sport ... To get more attention, in that sense, (the partnership’s) good. But you can’t cut out the people who want to give it that attention.”

Swimming often depends on the Internet for the kind of wall-to-wall video coverage that other sports provide through television.

Rutemiller said that while he doesn’t think USA Swimming would ever admit to trying to monopolize content, its attempt to profit off the sport still poses a formidable challenge.

“Monopolizing an element of the sport has very short term gains with long term negative ramifications,” Rutemiller said. “One site could never (satisfy the community on its own). It’s an à la carte life, that’s the reality of it ... They want SwimNetwork to be all that in one, and that’s unhealthy.”

On SwimmingWorldMagazine.com, Rutemiller reported that USA Swimming’s Board of Directors was meeting to discuss issues surrounding the WMG media venture.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I think that’s the simple answer,” Rutemiller said. “Whether or not I like the rules, that’s immaterial. I think the general public is going to have to continue to voice their opinions of why the rules should change. Garrett can’t do it alone.”


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