USA Swimming’s national ad campaign includes a 30-second commercial featuring young swimmers performing various sports and activities underwater. Photograph: USA Swimming

It may seem counterintuitive for an organization to grow its membership by encouraging participation in other sports, but USA Swimming is doing just that.

With the launch of a new membership category and ad campaign, the national governing body is urging kids to take up swimming while also participating in other activities. To make that easier, the group is offering a lower-priced flexible membership plan ($20 compared to the premium annual membership of $60) that includes an option to compete in two USA Swimming-sanctioned swim meets per year (compared to unlimited events with a premium membership). Flex members can upgrade to the premium version at any point.

Need for Change. A few years ago, USA Swimming examined several trends surrounding its membership numbers. Tom Avischious, the organization’s field services director, said that there had been a 7 percent overall decline of new members from 2014 to 2016. But what caught everyone’s attention was a 9 percent decline in the number of 10-and-under swimmers. “Our retention rates were actually going up for people who are currently in the sport, but for new kids coming in, that was a big alarm for us,” Avischious said.

After conducting further research, USA Swimming found that 58 percent of parents who were not involved in swimming said they would consider a swimming program that ran only once or twice a week. Avischious also said that many parents who were interested in having their children become more active had heard good things about swimming. “Parents wanted their children to participate on swim teams, not necessarily to be on a competitive team but to have a great fitness activity,” he said. “So that’s why we started to take a look at if we need to offer some other kind of membership category.”

Creating a new membership option that would require less of a time commitment was also a way for USA Swimming to address sports specialization. Research conducted through the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative indicates that playing only one sport can be harmful to the body and stunt athletic development. Avischious noted that USA Swimming has been involved with Project Play since the beginning to help champion the idea of developing multisport athletes. “You don’t need to make an Olympian at 10 years old,” Avischious said. “Bring the kids along gradually, and as they mature and start to take interest in the sport, that’s when you have the option on your team to offer more practices per week.”

Beyond the Pool. The new membership option was introduced with a national ad campaign that was created in-house by USA Swimming’s creative team. A 30-second commercial features four National Team athletes as well as younger swimmers performing various activities underwater. While wearing swim caps and goggles in a pool, the swimmers are shown performing ballet, painting, kicking a soccer ball, reading a physics textbook, throwing a football and playing the tuba. The idea is that kids can swim as well as participate in other sports and activities.

“It’s probably been within the last two years that USA Swimming has actually started to come out as an organization and say it’s OK for kids to play multiple sports,” Avischious said.

While there is a potential risk of losing members to other sports, USA Swimming stands behind its efforts to help kids find the right activity for them. Avischious predicts that in the first year or two of the flex membership, some athletes may choose to switch from the premium option to flex because it works better for their families. But he believes that nurturing that interest in swimming early on will help grow the organization’s membership base in the long run. “We do think that down the road in a couple of years we’ll actually surpass the numbers that we have in our current membership,” Avischious said. “So while it’s a little scary to launch something where you’re offering a reduced membership fee, we do feel that the ultimate game will be more members for USA Swimming.”