One of the biggest sports in each Olympic Summer Games is swimming, which has been part of the Olympic program since 1896. But what casual fans of swimming may not realize is that the sport’s international governing body, World Aquatics, also oversees water polo, diving, artistic swimming, open water swimming and high diving throughout the world. The international federation has been around for decades but recently underwent a dramatic rebranding from FINA to World Aquatics.
One of the leaders of the federation is American Brent Nowicki, who has been executive director at World Aquatics since June 2021 after spending more than eight years at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. SportsTravel Managing Editor Matt Traub talked with Nowicki recently about the organization’s rebranding, the international scene especially in a time of turmoil in the Ukraine, the importance of the U.S. market five years out from the Los Angeles Games and how growing up in Buffalo has shaped his work ethic as an international sports executive based in Switzerland.
Among the topics discussed in this episode:
- Why rebrand to World Aquatics and the process in coming up with a new style (2:15): ” … We wanted to change that to ensure that everybody that was in our community had a voice that was reflective in the identity and the branding of the company itself, or the federation itself, which represented the community. And so that was something that we had looked at quite significantly as to how we could do that within the confines of the name FINA and whether that was possible to maintain or whether we had to look outside the box and say, it’s time to respect the past, but look into the future. And that was sort of the why. … We retained a company, the Martin Group, out of the U.S. to help guide us down that road. We met and worked with the Martin Group for almost nine months until just this December when we were able to reveal the new name and the new branding.”
- The response been to a new brand and input from athletes, national federations and sponsors (6:13): “We had a multitude of focus groups and work groups that helped us not only in the naming side, but the rebranding side. The naming side … you start to piece those words together in different formations as it concerns water sports, and we look at aquatics, we look at water, and we play with these words. And so you have sort of a board of different varying words and you’re kind of drawing lines between them to see whether it should fit or doesn’t fit. And then you’ve got the assistance of experts who can say, well, it should be two words, not three. How will it look on an article of clothing, how it’ll look on an email, how it’ll look on a website. And so you kind of really kind of get a feel of what you want it to look like and feel like.”And you do that with collaborations with not only experts, but the people who are ultimately gonna use the name. Does the name reflect what you want it to be? … I think at the end of the day, what the exercise told me was I wasn’t paying a team of experts to tell me what name I should use. I was paying a team of experts to tell me what name I shouldn’t use. Because we could have gotten very creative and we could have tried to go outside the box, but at the end of the day, we didn’t need to. We were already making a big shift from where we started in 1908. So ultimately where we end up was a bit of a safer play, but it was the right play. And we knew that because we went through the exercise of not picking the wrong names and, and testing out some other names, which we would’ve thought to be wrong names.”
- What part of the rebranding was even bigger than imagined (10:10): “The one thing that has been the most pleasant surprise of all is that we really did something unique in that we have attributed 209 variations of our logo so that each one of our member federations has their own color coded version of our logo based on their flag. We designed 209 versions of our logo and we’ve given one to each of the National Federation so that they feel a part of our federation. And that has been taken on so warmly … We’re working through making sure our branding guidelines are up to date with respect to their usage of that individualized logo for them and ensuring proper usage and registrations and things of that nature. … Certainly one that we didn’t expect to have so much fanfare over was the individualized use of the logos.”
- Participation trends among the six disciplines that World Aquatics oversees (13:05): “It’s a tough question to answer because you gotta look at it globally and in some markets you’re gonna always have a constant, and in some markets you’re gonna always have increases and in some markets you’re gonna have decreases. … frankly speaking, the one discipline that’s probably the most undertapped is artistic swimming. The beauty of the sport in the movements of the sport combined with the athleticism of the sport are really unparalleled. It’s something that we have to do a better job of getting to market. It’s a beautiful sport. It’s an elegant sport. It’s a romantic sport and it shares a class of its own at the elite level because there really isn’t many other sports like that that share those characteristics of athleticism, the beauty and glamor … artistic is an area that I would say warrants a lot more time and investment from us, but certainly is one that’s getting a lot more traction.”We just saw the United States and the Super Bowl, artistic swimming was featured in the halftime for a hair care product. That’s a nice little piece for us. And I know they’ll be soon coming up with a Netflix series involving artistic swimming. So that’s gonna be a nice little piece as well for that. I think water polo is a mainstay in Europe, but I think it needs improvement, it needs enhancements. It’s very much the old style of the sport, which needs progression. It needs enhancements on the sport presentation side. It needs new and exciting cities to bring life to it. It needs new timeframes, a broadcast to bring energy in life from people at home to watch online or from their sofas. So I think that’s a great team sport that needs some finessing and movement, but certainly has a lot of potential and growth opportunities there as well. High diving is another thing. … I think that’s an area where you’ll see some continued improvement now, especially in Fort Lauderdale with the development center there that they’ve build in the permanent high dive structure. I think that’s going to get a lot of people interested in the high dive movement and at least in the United States.”
- Moving World Championship events out of Russia and adjusting to international sanctions recommended by the IOC (16:48): “For better or worse, I think what 2020 to 2022 have taught us is that we need to be able to pivot … we’ve been nimble and experienced enough to be able to put on world championships in four months in Budapest. We’ve been able to reschedule a number of our world championship or World Cup events over those two year periods to keep our athletes competing. … I think in some respects we had built up the ability to pivot in the light of turmoil beyond our control. The war broke out and decisions needed to be taken. It was almost like we had been already prepared for things of this nature because we had been doing it already for two years. So our approach really didn’t change much. Of course the circumstances of the approach did. We were talking about a war, not a pandemic, but the ability to move on our feet, be able to shift and pivot quickly away from an event and into a new event and find a great host to have a fabulous event was something that for better or worse we were used to doing. … I feel like everything we’ve done has been off of a pivot and in a short timeframe. … all I know is having no time.”
- Determining the eligibility of Russian and Belarussian athletes ahead of the 2024 Olympic Summer Games in Paris (19:19): “We’re obviously very cognizant of the impact it has both on Russian and Belarussian athletes. We’re cognizant on how it impacts Ukrainian athletes. We’re cognizant on how it impacts all 209 federations and the athletes and the federations and the governments that support them. We’ve been quite clear from the beginning in our approach and we haven’t moved from it. We continue to follow the situation closely. We continue to stay in close contact with the IOC. We do have regular, routine communications with them. We are following their lead on this and we’ll continue to do that. I don’t anticipate a decision to be made tomorrow, but I think when and if a decision is made, we’ll certainly be very clear and transparent about it.”In the meantime, we’re following the IOC’s plan and we’ll continue to work closely with other international federations who are similarly situated. And ensure that our position is clear and unwavering. I can appreciate that decisions that we take don’t always sit well with one side or the other, and that’s the way it is. But we want to make the decision right. We want to make sure it’s clear and we want to make sure that athletes know if and when they’re gonna compete and how they’re gonna compete. And we’ll do it as fast as we possibly can. But right now we don’t have a decision to take and we haven’t taken one of anything different than we’ve already taken.”
- The importance of the U.S. market for World Aquatics ahead of LA28 (21:06): “Just generally speaking, the U.S. is an important market for us. … Some of the greatest interests we have in participating in the U.S. market doesn’t come from the U.S. athletes, but it comes from the Europeans who want to go to the U.S. and train and travel and compete. It comes from the Africans who want to train and travel and compete in the United States. It comes from the Asians and comes from the Australians. … it’s a desirable aquatics nation. It’s got great facilities, it’s got great training opportunities. It’s got great tribal opportunities. And so when you’re talking about bringing in a couple thousand athletes and their entourages and teams, it becomes extremely exciting for everybody to get there. So it’s a huge market for us that we’re just starting to get some inroads in and we hope to continue to do that — the Fort Lauderdale Complex, it presents a great opportunity for the world to really get into Fort Lauderdale and to really be able to do any kind of elite aquatics discipline in one venue.”
- The ability to have events in unique venues such as the 2024 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis (23:34): “The majority of our championship venues are not held in fixed pools. So the majority of our championship venues are actually temporary builds. We’ve got a great partner in Myrtha Pools, who is likely the world leader in elite and recreational pool builds. … we conduct many of our events in temporary pool builds in football stadiums throughout the world. … The Paris Olympic Games will be a temporary build that’s going to be inside the rugby stadium within Paris and that’ll be a rugby stadium conversion into a 50-meter Olympic swimming pool. … The technology of today really enables us to drop in a pool anywhere at the highest level of competition to bring aquatic sport right to the door of any city in the US or in another market. Really exciting technology which is allowing us access to venues that we would not was be able to be in. Lucas Oil Stadium, it’s super exciting to be there. I was there just recently, we did a World Cup swimming leg in Indianapolis and I toured the Lucas Oil Stadium and had a first look at where the pool structure would be. It’s excellent.”
- One thing about his job that people don’t know (26:04): “How few full-time staff we have. I think we have the hardest working staff of any international federation in the movement. I think we’re probably understaffed by about 30 to 40%. I think this team — every individual in this building probably works for two and a half people. And I don’t think people appreciate how hard and understand how hard the team in this building work to service aquatic sport globally. And I wish I only had budget to hire 30% more people to give my staff a little bit of a break that they deserve. But I think if people saw how hard they worked, they’d be surprised knowing that the team here really eats, breathes and sleeps aquatic sport and does it at a pace that amazes me.”
- What growing up in Buffalo was like compared to current life in Lausanne, Switzerland (27:10): “I’ve lived here for 10 years, so I’ve been acclimatized for a while now. Buffalo, it’s an amazing place. It’s a special place. And really if you didn’t grow up there, if you haven’t lived a substantial period of time there, you never clearly quite appreciate the quality of the life that you’ve experienced. … we outwork anybody. We may not be smarter than you. We may not have more money than you, but we’re gonna outwork you. And I think that’s the mentality of many Buffalonians. And I think that’s really kind of what has enabled me to come here and say, look, I may not know as much as you, I may not have been an Olympian myself, but I’m gonna outwork you. And I think that’s really what it’s been able to teach me is coming into this market has been able to really have a sense of work ethic and been able to roll up my sleeves and put in the extra hours when I’ve been tired and make sure that I review that document one more time and make sure I made that one more call before I went home. It’s the mentality of having to wake up at five in the morning and shovel your car out of the snow. It’s the mentality of having to help your neighbor. I gave this example once, and I think it’s probably the best example of people from Buffalo … How many times in the winter have you woken up to a snowstorm or come home from work to a snowstorm and you barely get your car in the driveway? And you’ve got your clothes on and you walk in your house and you’re wet up to your knees and you put your snow stuff on and you go in your garage and you get your snowblower out. And after you painstaking plow your driveway, you get done.”And as easy as it would be to put your snowblower back in your garage and go in, you say, you know what? I’m gonna hit the sidewalk. And then you snow blow the sidewalk. And then you get to your neighbor’s driveway and you realize he hasn’t gotten home from work yet, and you say, you know what — I’m gonna do him a solid, I’m gonna hit his driveway for him. And you do it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s that mentality of just going a little bit further and being a good neighbor and helping him out. I think that’s something, that analogy is kind of always how I’ve always looked at my job is I could go home now, but I could always just do one more thing and help someone else out and and kill that sidewalk. And I could get to the end of that sidewalk and I know I’m tired and I want to go home, but if I just do this, I can really make your day that much easier. And I’ll just kill your driveway right now too. And then I’ll go home and I’ll feel good and you’ll feel good. And then tomorrow’s a new day. And I think that sort of logic — I can visualize myself doing that over and over as a kid, shoveling my driveway, then looking at the sidewalk and saying, OK, I’ll do the sidewalk and I’ll clear my neighbors. Growing up is reflective in the work that we do and I do now, which is OK, I want to go home, but I’m gonna just do one more. One more sidewalk. One more driveway.”
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