#Story: On Deck to on ESPN

Joe Auer is currently a swim coach for the Blue Dolfins of Winter Park. His team trains competitive swimmers ranging from 5 years old through college age swimmers year round. But it wasn’t too long ago that he was a a minor media celebrity known as “SwimmerJoe.

What’s a Webcast?

Years ago Joe’s wife Bess was bored sitting poolside and so he suggested they “webcast” a swim meet—this was before live streaming was even a term. So, they went to Best Buy and bought an “eyeball webcam” and set up poolside. Coaches on deck asked what they were doing— Er, what’s a webcast?—and Joe gave them the then Justin.TV website, which the coaches and parents then texted to friends and family to tune in. 

To Joe’s surprise, there were over 300 unique viewers of that first meet webcast, and it was about as poor quality of a live stream as you could get! He figured with a few improvements in video and audio, they might have a business idea. So in 2011 Florida Swim Network (FSN) was born in the form of a WordPress blog site that reported on competitive swimming in the state of Florida. 

 
SwimmerJoe on deck doing an interview

SwimmerJoe on deck doing an interview

 

Florida has over 100 clubs that compete year-round—any given weekend there are two to three swim meets which need reporting on or live streaming. Add in the 12 or so collegiate swim programs in the state as well as the number of potential Olympic level swimmers, and Florida was the perfect place to create this type of website. And, since nobody else was reporting on these swimmers and swim clubs, FSN was filling a need. 

Blog Growth

Word spread quickly as the new website worked to cover these young athletes, listing swim meet results, showcasing photos and video interviews. On Facebook, FSN organically gained an average of 200 new fans per day in the months leading up to the 2012 Olympic Trials as the entire swim community was gearing up for the London Olympics.

Truly becoming a community, coaches, swimmers, and parents became part of the FSN recipe, sending in photos, stories, and even offering to commentate, do interviews, or man a camera when needed. 

 
Parents Dave Van Buskirk and Michael Kennedy volunteered their time to commentate a swim meet and man the chat room.

Parents Dave Van Buskirk and Michael Kennedy volunteered their time to commentate a swim meet and man the chat room.

 

FSN then began to upgrade cameras and audio and with the help of Concrete Lion Pictures, a production team in Orlando, and their live stream broadcasts became professional enough for the University of Florida to ask them to come live stream the university’s swim meets. And as the face of FSN, Joe was known as “SwimmerJoe” and he was often stopped on deck by swimmers and parents for them to get a selfie 

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Interactive Experience

FSN never treated their broadcasts like TV. Instead they approached their live streams as an interactive experience, utilizing a chat room where viewers interacted with the commentators. Viewers could ask questions or request a “shout out” for their swimmers competing in the pool.

Then the swimmers would rush home after the meets to watch themselves swim and listen to the commentary and “shout outs.” It all added up to huge numbers: 30,000+ unique viewers (not total views but unique viewers!) was a common occurrence for a weekend meet. (The biggest broadcast was a national meet set in Clearwater that had over 160,000 unique viewers!)

Viewership from FSN’s broadcasts

Viewership from FSN’s broadcasts

Broadcasting on ESPN

Soon, FSN was broadcasting collegiate swim meets for ESPN and the SEC Network and covering national and international swim meets. They even created a “College Swim Day” for ESPN which was similar to the network’s “College Game Day” for football.

 
College Swim Day at the University of Florida broadcast on ESPN

College Swim Day at the University of Florida broadcast on ESPN

 

When Joe couldn’t travel to international meets due to budget constraints, there were always swimmers from Florida offering to be “athlete reporters” using their phones to do interviews with each other to send back and be posted on FSN. Oftentimes a coach from the state of Florida, who was part of the official travel delegation, would also pitch in to send photos and stories. 

Most importantly, FSN stayed true to its mission of focusing on the swimmers from the state of Florida, rather than only the superstars of the meet, like Michael Phelps. All the other news outlets were reporting on Michael Phelps, but only FSN was reporting on the swimmers from Florida who got 5th, 6th, and 7th. This added up to over 100k blog readers monthly.

Fortunately, Florida has plenty of superstar swimmers like Ryan Lochte, Elizabeth Beisel, Ryan Murphy, and Caeleb Dressel, all of whom are Olympic Gold Medalists!

TV and Apple TV

Continuing to focus on local swimmers, FSN then started a weekly swim show covering the high school swimming called “On Deck with Florida Swim Network” which was broadcast on Brighthouse Networks each fall during high school season.

FSN also developed Your Swim Channel, the first-ever channel to focus solely on the sport of swimming. As a channel on Apple TV, you could watch hundreds of swim-oriented on-demand videos (training, coaching, vintage films, interviews, day in the life, etc.) as well as tune in for FSN’s live broadcasts.

OTT channels (Over the Top Television) have a specific type of technology and need developers all their own so they are adaptable to every screen (think Netflix, Amazon Fire, Google Chrome, etc.). They also must continually be monitored with the operating system updates and adjust to the fluidity of the technology, so this was a major undertaking.

Crowdfunded Travel to the 2016 Olympics

For the 2016 Olympic Trials, the state of Florida had over 150 swimmers vying for the US Olympic Team. Six swimmers made Team USA to compete in Rio, but in addition to those, the state of Florida had over 50 other swimmers representing 26 different countries at the Olympics. 

So, the swim clubs across the state of Florida donated money to allow Joe and his FSN crew to travel to Rio de Janeiro to cover #TeamFlorida at the 2016 Olympics.

Fun fact: If #TeamFlorida were a country, they would have placed 3rd in the medal count for aquatic sports (swimming and diving) with 8 gold, 3 silver, and 1 bronze medal. As credentialed press, Joe and crew did interviews with all the coaches and swimmers from Florida and provided a glimpse into the Olympic experience.

 
Joe with Coach Sid Cassidy going live right before the swimming finals in Rio.

Joe with Coach Sid Cassidy going live right before the swimming finals in Rio.

 

End of an Era

In 2017, just after the Olympics, FSN was divided up and acquired—the live stream and OTT technology going to one entity while blog/website portion was bought by another.

Why? FSN had become a monster and Joe was ready to return to full-time club coaching. He was also asked to coach his alma mater Winter Park High school to restore their former swim glory as a powerhouse in the state (14 x state champions).

But FSN was an experience of a lifetime. It provided Joe the chance to interview and talk with countless Olympic swimmers and coaches at the top of the sport. It also gave him the perspective of the “long game” having watched firsthand swimmers go from tiny age-group swimmers rising up through the ranks and then achieving Olympic gold.

Joe occasionally still live streams on the SwimmerJoe Show, a syndicated Facebook Live show which goes out to an audience of over half a million thanks to the outlets that carry it. Still eager to learn, Joe talked with coaches such as Michael Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman earlier this year as well as Eddie Reese, University of Texas coach who has won more NCAA titles than any college coach in any sport.

Joe is a perfect example of someone who not only used his blogging to create some awesome opportunities but to also enrich his own education and coaching. You can follow his current coaching journey on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @SwimmerJoe.


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