Before Phelps, Ledecky, Manuel and the rest of the USA Olympic Swimming Team pulled off the seemingly impossible in Rio, Matt Farrell quietly attempted something arguably less likely.

Four years ago, Farrell, USA Swimming’s longtime chief marketing officer, tried convincing fierce industry competitors to collaborate on a media campaign so they could ride the Olympic wave and attract more competitive swimmers.

All for the Cause

Swim Today, the four-year, $2 million campaign launched during the Olympics to attract children toward swimming, was a collaboration among 10 companies and organizations. Here’s how it worked:

Leading up to the Olympics, Swim Today branched off into the #SwimUnited campaign, a series of patriotic-inspired sharable images with fun messages such as “With Liberty and Flip Turns for All.” Instagram posts with the #SwimUnited hashtag created an 8.5-foot-by-5.5-foot mosaic of a Swim Today poster at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. The campaign even got Disney’s big marketing guns behind it with a “Finding Dory” tie in. And just in the first two weeks of launch, more than 2,000 posts were shared.

Along with the #SwimUnited campaign were a series of commercials showing Olympic swimmers such as Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin as youth swimmers with the message, “Before we were winners, we were beginners” and an invitation to find a swim team.

The Swim United commercials went on to compete with the likes of Coke and Toyota in the USA Today Rio Ad Meter’s “Elite 8,” a bracket-style ad competition in which fans chose the winners.

The following companies and organizations collaborated on Swim Today:
° Arena USA
° Speedo USA
°TYR Sport
° American Swimming Coaches Association
° National Swimming Pool Foundation
° Swimming World magazine
° TeamUnify
° Counsilman-Hunsaker
° USA Swimming Foundation

“I’m not going to say the first meeting was rosy,” he says. “But we said, ‘We can fight over market share all day long, but if the pie doesn’t grow, who are we serving?’”

To convince reluctant partners, Farrell pointed to other major sports leagues making significant investments to grow participation. This included the NFL, NBA and MLB, which is committing $30 million to youth baseball development. Meanwhile, golf and tennis are exploring ways to make their sports more kid-friendly: For golf, it’s experimenting with shorter holes; for tennis, it’s considering a larger, slower moving ball.

USA Swimming growth, meanwhile, had plateaued at approximately 340,000 since 2013. A big reason for the stall? Research showed that nearly 80 percent of parents don’t consider swimming as a competitive sport after their kids complete swim lessons.

No longer could aquatics operators attract new swimmers merely by opening their doors, they realized. Now, they must compete with other sports that are gunning for kids, and also offer easier, cheaper alternatives. “We said, ‘We need to get ahead of this as an industry and start to fight for participation going forward,’” Farrell recalls.

Ten partners agreed to work with Farrell and USA Swimming. The result was Swim Today, a four-year, $2 million campaign launched with the Olympics. Combining social and traditional media, the program was guided by a two-pronged goal: to demonstrate why swimming is the most fun sport, and provide an invitation to join.

Early indications show the campaign worked better than even Farrell had hoped. “We found a 118-percent increase in swim team searches over 2015,” following the Olympics, Farrell said. “We’re thrilled with that.”