CEO Interview World Aquatics

Meet the Member: “The days of Olympic sports sitting back and thinking the world owes them something are gone”

March 22, 2023

With just under 500 days to go until the Paris Olympic Games gets underway we caught up with the CEO of World Aquatics, Brent Nowicki. We spoke about his journey to becoming CEO of one of the biggest international federations, the change from FINA to World Aquatics and Paris 2024.

So Brent, to start if you could just take us through your journey in sport?

I started my recreational sport journey as a swimmer believe it or not. I think that some of the attributes that have served me well are ones that have come from swimming including commitment, being punctual and certainly getting up early. 

In my teen years I transitioned to playing a lot of Lacrosse. I played it through university and then for various teams before coming over here to play for Switzerland. I started as an assistant coach of the national team and then ended up joining as a player. 

In terms of my professional involvement in sport, that started around 2007. My early career was spent as a lawyer in New York, the way I got involved in sport was by representing athletes in commercial matters and anti-doping cases. I slowly got pulled into more contractual and player engagement work, before I found myself in Lausanne in 2012 working for the Court of Arbitration for Sport. That was when I realised that this is the sort of thing I should be doing, it made me want to get up in the morning and that is such a great feeling to have.

You have been at World Aquatics for nearly two years, what has surprised you about leading one of the biggest international federations?

It hasn’t been a surprise but I would say what is underappreciated from those outside the federation is the amazing commitment of the aquatics community. They are really underappreciated, like every International Federation they are essential to all the work we do. Despite some of the public opinion these people aren’t flying around everywhere first class, they don’t get massive per diems. They are doing it through their love of the sport.  

We have obviously seen a change in branding since you have been in charge, what was the thought behind the move from FINA to World Aquatics?

We went through a reform process at a very early stage in the President’s term. One of the first things we did was take a look at every aspect of the business and question whether or not it was fit for purpose? Does it represent who we really are and does it represent what we are trying to achieve?

We looked at the name for what it was and that is a French acronym for an amateur swimming federation, which we aren’t anymore. We are also now not predominantly a swimming federation, because we have added a lot of the other water-based disciplines over the years. 

We went through a very exhaustive process, looking at different options. Should it be global or world, water or aquatic. Eventually after listening to our community and sort of realising what we were aiming for, we landed on World Aquatics. It was important that it felt inclusive to all the sports we have and also that it was in a language we all understood. In the end we are really pleased with what we have ended up with.

World Aquatics must be close to rivalling FIFA in terms of participation levels, there is obviously a bit of gap in terms of commercial revenue. How are you planning on increasing the commercial revenue of the international federation?

Do more people play football than swim? That is a really interesting question that I haven’t thought a great deal about to be honest. I see so many different statistics about how many people swim around the world and none of them seem to be within millions of the other. Either way it is definitely a lot of people.

I don’t know the commercial revenue figures for FIFA, but I follow your logic because they definitely have a different commercial model to the one we have. I think we have a different social obligation to that of FIFA really. For our President it isn’t really about maximising revenue streams it is more about working out how to use the revenue we have in the most effective way possible. 

Not subscribed to our weekly newsletter? Click here to sign up and receive more content like this to your inbox every week.

I really think what our President has done in terms of making sure we are spending money on sustainability and water safety has been fantastic. We have to make sure that our athletes have clean water ways, make sure that when a pool closes an alternative is put in place and we need to give families and children the opportunity to be able to learn to swim. 

We can compare commercial revenues with FIFA, but I don’t see their goal as being the same as our goal. We have to make sure that the infrastructure is there for the child who is inspired after watching the athlete win the gold medal. There is a local pool where they can be taught how to swim and become an Olympic swimmer in the future. If an individual does not know how to play soccer, he or she will not die.  But if that same child can’t swim, the risk of death is much greater.  Preventing that occurrence is one of our main goals.

This is your first Olympic cycle, how are preparations for Paris 2024 going?

The President and I took up our positions just six weeks out from Tokyo, so we were really thrust into those Games because of that. The special nature of those Games meant it was tough to build any sort of experience from that. 

It has been really nice to have a full cycle with Paris 2024 and preparations have gone very smoothly so far. We been very lucky with our Aquatics Manager in Paris, so things are going really smoothly. Our leadership team has been working really well with theirs since day one and we have got the opportunity to know them both personally and professionally. 

I think we are also going to be able to showcase our events around France in the build up to Paris, there is also a lot of energy around the city about the hopes that the France team will achieve great things in their home waters. Hopefully that is a great legacy for the Games.

Interest in the sport obviously peaks after an Olympic Games, what plans do you have in place to try and keep as much of that audience as captive as possible and convert those viewers into participants?

Yes the peaks and troughs of Olympic sports, it is unavoidable really. We think that as long as you are always progressing in an upwards trajectory, and you are doing what you can to keep the gap between the peaks and troughs as small as possible, then you are doing the right things. 

One of the things we have done is work with our athletes more to get them brought into what we are trying to achieve. I think the days of International Federations being able to sit back and think that just because they’re an Olympic sport the world owes them something are gone. That might have been the case at one point in time but today I can honestly say nobody owes us anything, we actually owe our athletes everything.

The more we engage and work with our athletes and get them to work with us in trying to keep audiences inspired and captive then I think we can try and keep our sport going in an upwards trajectory in terms of interest and participation numbers. 

I don’t think people come to our events just to see people take part in swimming or diving, they come to see the stars of the sport. They come to see the Olympians, the Olympic champions. In swimming, the retirement age is a bit later than in other sports, so we need to work on building that bond between the younger and older generations. 

You have recently announced that Singapore will be hosting the World Aquatics Championships, tell us a bit about that and what it will be like taking the Championships to that part of the world?

We are extremely excited about it, Singapore is such a great place to have a World Championships. We always use World Championships to introduce new technology and this is going to be no exception. We are adding Esports and wearable technology this time and Singapore is such a great place to be doing this, the people there are so forward thinking technologically. 

I also think Asia as a whole is so interesting for us, it really is ripe with aquatic talent with China and Japan providing some of the best young swimmers and divers in the world. I think for us to take an event out there and be able to see the growth of the sports in those markets is going to be really interesting for us as a federation and potentially very exciting for the future.

CEO Interview World Aquatics