You don't have to look very hard to find out why swimming is not a popular spectator sport. Go to a local club meet and scan the crowd. You will see bored parents, mostly, reading their phones. Oh sure, they're engaged for 58.1 seconds it takes Mia to swim here 100 butterfly. "Nice job honey, you qualified for sectionals, another meet which I can waste a ton of time coming only to see you swim for a few moments" they will think to themselves.
Meanwhile, there exists a form of swimming competition that is universally regarded as fun for both the competitors and spectators that exists nevertheless on the fringes of the sport. I'm talking about the dual meet.
Want to see screaming, engaged fans? Go to a competition between two rival country club teams. You'll find a better atmosphere than many national level USA Swimming events. I think I swam a meet in a pond once that had more spectator noise than a typical US Open.
Swimming has never had a chance to go mainstream because of it's insistence on strangling all the fun for everyone involved with terrible competitions. Now, you may counter with the fact that many college dual meets, the top end of this type of competition, are poorly attended. But should we expect that fans suddenly appear out of nowhere?
Imagine what March Madness in NCAA basketball would look like if the biggest form of competition at the youth and high school level consisted of six hour long days in a gym where even the best players only touched the ball for minutes at a time. Would there still be a lot of basketball fans out there? Or basketball players?
Now, I will acknowledge that there are some times when the dual meet format just doesn't cut it. Olympic Trials can stay, although the prelims could use some serious improvement. Likewise, college league championships can stay as well, the accrued goodwill from a season of dual meets often mean these meets have a great atmosphere. Club teams will have to form some leagues of their own, find competitive match-ups and emulate the college model.
Why won't this happen? Because change is hard in swimming. The business model of club swimming is built in some part on the horrible competitions, all the way up to the national level. We're conceding ahead of time that our sport is "boring" and therefore we might as well find a different way to make money from it than having entertaining competitions and charging money for them.
What a shame.