Miss America Swimsuit Competition

So, by now I’m pretty sure you heard about Miss America’s big announcement. They’re dropping the swimsuit portion of the competition. Plus, they’re making changes to the evening gown competition and increasing their focus on interview and personal platform. MAO also announced that Miss America is no longer a “pageant”, it’s a “competition.”

The changes are effective September 9th, which is the broadcast date for this year’s national pageant. State pageants held over the summer will use the “old” structure for competition categories and scoring.

Okay, so that’s what we know. But there’s a lot we don’t know.

The announcement indicated that evening gown would change to an “interactive interview with the judges” where contestants can choose to wear “evening attire” that makes them feel confident. So, if you feel most confident in your sweatpants and t-shirt evening attire, will that be okay? Probably not.

And what exactly is an “interactive interview?” The judges interact with you during your personal interview and ask questions about your platform and goals. Will your interactive interview just be a stage version of your personal interview?

How will the changes impact the current scoring structure? By eliminating swimsuit and adding an in-depth stage interview, your combined interview score may outweigh other scored categories, such as your talent score. But we don’t know that for sure.

So, that leaves contestants feeling a bit unsure of what the future holds. Nobody likes that feeling – especially when they’re investing time and energy developing the skills necessary to win.

Under these circumstances, it’s tempting to respond emotionally because you’re confused by the changes and feel like it doesn’t make sense. You’re reacting based on what you heard in Gretchen Carlson’s interview, media coverage, and the things you’ve read on the Internet. But what if there’s something you don’t know?

For example, did you know that contestant participation at the local level was 80,000+ per year in the 1980’s and 1990’s and it’s dropped to 4,000 in the last few years? Every contestant who competes brings in revenue from ticket sales, ad sales, program book sales, and cash donations. And every young woman who chooses not to compete represents lost revenue to operate the pageant. Additionally, it’s easier to attract big sponsors when you have 80,000 participants than when you have 4,000 in your program.

Which leads us to the obvious question, “Why are fewer young women competing today?” Each potential contestant who decides not to compete could base that decision on a variety of factors. But, the most common reason eligible young women give for not competing in the pageant is “the swimsuit competition.” So, eligible young women often choose to skip pageants completely or enter a non-swimsuit pageant if they want to compete.

And did you know that in the last 10 years the fastest growing pageants are pageants that don’t include a swimsuit/fitness competition? All across the pageant community swimsuit pageant participation has declined, but that’s not the case for non-swimsuit pageants. Contestants who understand the value of developing the life skills and interviewing skills that come from pageant competition are choosing to develop those skills in pageants that won’t make them vulnerable to body shaming on social media.

Did you also know that back in the day, big corporations like Kraft and Proctor and Gamble used to make large donations to the pageant so they could say they were an official sponsor of Miss America? They purchased ads during the pageant broadcast and listed their “official sponsor” status in their marketing materials. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when several organizations starting protesting outside the auditorium on Finals night because they felt the competition demeaned women, the sponsor money and support dried up. Businesses do not want to be affiliated with organizations that may cause negative publicity. It would be nice if those sponsors had stood behind the pageant, but most businesses are focused on maximizing profits.

And did you know that MAO has been experiencing financial issues since at least 2012? The lost sponsors, decline in contestant participation, and spending decisions made under Sam Haskel’s leadership have left MAO short on operating funds. In 2013, MAO requested an advance (temporary loan) of $250,000 from the Atlantic City Casino Reinvestment Development Authority because MAO couldn’t pay its bills. You may have even noticed a decline in scholarships and awards. MAO needs to bring in more money to sustain their current operation, not to mention funding for their new, expanded vision of the program.

So, what should they do? How can they increase contestant participation, attract sponsors, and remain relevant for today’s young woman? And how can they work within the new #metoo culture and its impact on corporate donations and advertising decisions?

What do I think of the recent announcement? I don’t have an opinion. It’s not hard to see why based on societal trends and the need for funding the leadership team made this decision. I also understand why many contestants are upset and feel betrayed.

Do I think it’s a good idea? I don’t know. Will viewers tune into the broadcast? I don’t know. Do I think the decision will work and more contestants will sign-up and more companies will become sponsors? I don’t know.

What I do know is that every member of the leadership team has a track record of success. Many of them in high-visibility positions and careers. They have experience running programs, soliciting donations, and they know what it’s like to compete in a pageant. Some of them have successfully branded themselves and others have branded companies. This is a group of smart, motivated, business-savvy women. I respect their intelligence, dedication, and willingness to make what may turn out to be an unpopular decision.

What would you do if you were running MAO? What if you knew that you had to engage sponsors, sells broadcast commercials, and increase contestant participation. And if you knew that the #1 concern of potential sponsors is the swimsuit competition and the #1 concern of potential contestants is the swimsuit competition, what would you do? If you could make a decision that you believed would improve the organization’s finances, award more scholarships to more women and eliminate the stereotype that pageants are primarily about how you look, not what you’ve accomplished, what would you do?

Everyone gets to decide how to respond to this decision. You can choose to be upset because a beloved American icon is changing and will never be the same. Totally understandable.

You can engage in social media posts supporting one side or the other and contribute to the emotional contagion. Sometimes it’s hard not to vent.

Or you can decide to support a group of women who are trying to strengthen a program that has positively impacted many and might impact even more.

I’ll be in the last group, with my fingers crossed, hoping that it works.