11:51 PM EDT, June 29, 2013
— Last year, as the U.S. Olympic swimming trials drew record crowds in Omaha, the popular refrain was Michael Phelps had created a wave of general interest in the sport that would keep rolling.
Last week, as the first U.S. Championships or trials without Phelps since 1998 drew paltry crowds to the Indiana University Natatorium, the sport was back to its same old song, the one that reverberated across vacant seats in an arena with a capacity of just 3,350.
"The gift of God, Michael Phelps, that's what he did for us," said USA Swimming chief executive Chuck Wielgus. "He brought people who weren't swimming family people through the door."
Without Phelps, swimming attendance depends almost entirely on families of athletes. Without Phelps, the greatest swimmer in history, it remains an Olympic-year sport to all but its own community of athletes, coaches, officials and parents.
NBC made stars of swimmers like Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte last summer in London after having introduced them with live, prime-time telecasts of the trials. Franklin and Lochte are back and have been the big winners at this U.S. championships, selection meet for the 2013 worlds, but NBC did just one, 90-minute, early afternoon taped broadcast of the six days of competition that ended Saturday.
The only live telecasts — 41/2 hours over two days — were on Universal Sports, not available in two-thirds of cable TV homes.
Attendance for the five nights of swim nationals was 1,191, 2,500, 1,265, 1,522 and 1,230. That is barely one-third of the attendance at the previous nationals in Indianapolis in 2009, when Phelps swam five events, won three and set a world record in the 100-meter butterfly.
Ticket prices last week were reasonable: $75 for all-session reserved seats, $65 for general admission. Single-session seats were $15 reserved, $12 for adult general admission and $8 for students. Swim clubs were offered discounts.
There are plenty of such clubs in this general area: Indiana has the fourth largest membership of USA Swimming's states or areas, with bordering Illinois ranked second, behind Southern California and ahead of the San Francisco Bay Area.
"I'm a little disappointed," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. "(Everyone said) this was the golden age of U.S. swimming."
"As we get closer to the Olympics, it's better. Missy, I think, will take over that role (as a major draw). She is just beginning it."
The 2012 Olympic trials, in a much bigger venue, had average attendance of 11,136 for 15 sessions. About half that average came from sales of all-session and four-day ticket packages. The all-session package cost $1,000 for deck-side seats and from $325 to $525 for other locations.
No wonder USA Swimming has chosen Omaha as host of the Olympic trials for the third straight time. Among the losing bidders for 2016 was Indianapolis, which proposed having the event in Lucas Oil Stadium.
There were 466 swimmers at these nationals and 1,848 at the Olympic trials, a difference that obviously brought many more family members to the trials. But 38 percent of the attendance at the 2012 trials came from Omaha, which means many had to be non-swimming-related fans.
"There is not a 'pop' at this meet, not an energy," Wielgus said of the 2013 nationals. "While that certainly concerns us, I'm not worried about it over the long term."
That confidence comes from the impressive growth in USA Swimming membership since 2004, when Phelps won the first six of what would be an Olympic record 18 gold medals before leaving the pool after the London Summer Games
USA Swimming had 249,182 members in 2005, a 7 percent increase over the year before. In 2009, after Phelps won a single-Olympics record eight golds (seven in world-record times), the total swelled to 286,147, an 11 percent increase over 2008. This year, with two months left in the membership year, the increase is 13 percent to 340,000.
Those increases add significantly to the federation's bottom line. Membership revenue is expected to be $19.5 million of USA Swimming's $31.8 million budget for 2014.
But swimming remains a tough sell for live spectators, who see mainly water splashed by athletes whose faces barely are visible. It is often impossible to know the order of finish without looking at the scoreboard, even for people sitting right above the finish line. The athletes themselves usually need to look at the board to find out where they placed.
In 2009 here, ticket-buyers were turned away three of the nights, according to Julie McKenney, a member of the local organizing committee for both meets. With a 2009 venue configuration that made the capacity slightly smaller, attendance the five nights was 2,627, 3,306, 3,245, 3,301 and 3,259.
So USA Swimming officials can only hope Phelps' rumored return becomes fact.
"Michael's skills were so extraordinary that people didn't want to miss the opportunity to watch him,'' Wielgus said.
That's when making a big splash is a sight to see.
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