COLUMBIA – After the capacity crowds at last year’s Missouri Grand Prix swimming event, this year the stands seemed rather empty.
Diane Dahlmann, director of MU recreation services and facilities, said that this past weekend about half as many spectators as last year turned out at the MU Student Recreation Complex to see the Missouri Grand Prix event
The drop in numbers wasn’t isolated to Missouri. Ronald Souder, the aquatic supervisor of the Belmont Plaza Pool in Long Beach, Calif., which hosted the second leg of the series last year and this year, said he estimated about 500 fewer people attended this year.
While Michael Phelps’ suspension from swimming has received much attention, neither Souder nor Dahlmann is sold on the idea that Phelps’ absence was the cause of the lower numbers.
“It’s really not about Michael Phelps attending or not, we had other things in play,” Dahlmann said.
Those other things mentioned include this year not being an Olympic year, which is something she stressed.
“We know that the closer you get to the actual Olympics, the more energy and excitement builds,” Dahlmann said.
Last year, the stands were full for every session, which is what MU officials expected. But when the stands were not crowded for each session this year, Dahlmann said she wasn’t disappointed.
“The first year after the Olympics is sort of a slow year,” she said.
Dahlmann said the other primary reason for the drop in attendance was Valentine’s Day.
“With Valentine’s Day falling on a Saturday, we had fewer people in town,” she said.
Not all officials were fully convinced that Phelps’ absence had nothing to do with the drop in numbers, though.
“When Michael’s in a meet, you get a lot of people who aren’t swimming fans, but they wanna see this swimming phenomenon,” said Duane Proell, associate director for recreational sports at the University of Minnesota, which was the first stop for the Grand Prix.
Contrary to California and Missouri, Minnesota actually saw a rise in attendance. But Proell explained that was due to better planning.
Proell said the university didn’t know it would host the event for the first time in November until a very late date in 2007. Proell said in 2008 the university knew it would host the event for the entire year, allowing much more time to organize and advertise.
Still, Proell said attendance wasn’t as high as the Minnesota staff might have hoped.
“We still think our athlete numbers and spectator numbers were a little down because the Olympic team wasn’t here swimming after the Olympics,” he said.
Proell said he anticipates attendance numbers to increase significantly in November when the university hosts the event once again.
If everything goes his way, the big names will be there competing in Minnesota.
“We’re certainly hoping Michael (Phelps) will come to our meet next fall,” Proell said.
Dahlmann also said she expects numbers will rise next year and will continue to rise through 2012, as MU is scheduled to host the event annually until then.