Arena Grand Prix – Mesa Day One Finals Notebook: Has Michael Phelps Really Changed the Sport?

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Commentary by Jeff Commings

MESA, Arizona, April 24. JUDGING by the amount of media in attendance at the Arena Grand Prix in Mesa, Ariz., and the sold-out spectator attendance, the general public is excited about swimming in 2014. Tickets to every session of the meet were sold out, and throngs of children waited eagerly for any autograph they could possibly get today at the Skyline Aquatic Center.

On the surface, it would appear that we’re seeing a level of enthusiasm for the sport that has not been seen in many, many years. But not so fast. If Michael Phelps was still in retirement, this week’s meet might be an afterthought for 95 percent of the journalists on hand. Heck, most of them probably did not know this meet existed before Phelps picked it to stage his comeback.

Phelps has said many times that he wanted to change the sport, and I would like to believe he has. But after what I observed tonight, I’m not so sure.

Would many of the 1,200-plus spectators in the facility have skipped work, taken their kids out of school and rearranged their Thursday evening if The Greatest of All Time was not racing at this in-season meet? Doubtful.

With the exception of the men’s 100 fly final, not many people were interested in the proceedings tonight. The level of applause for the winners of the other events was just a notch higher than what you’d hear on a golf course. Many were appreciative of what they saw, but only once the swimmer finished. Very few people were cheering for a particular athlete to swim fast or hold up signs saying “Swim Fast (Add Name Here).”

And then the men’s 100 fly championship finalists walked to the starting area. Half the spectators were on their feet. Kids were yelling “Go Michael!” and “Go Ryan!” as the other six swimmers in the field — all just as talented, though not as famous — tried to feed on the energy. Journalists stopped pre-writing their newspaper articles under the media tent to watch The Race and have some color to add to their writing.

Once the race was over, the energy blew away with the moderate breeze blowing through Mesa. That was it. Yes, it was the last championship final of the night, but it felt like it came to a screeching halt instead of a slow descent.

I shudder to think what would have happened if the 100 butterfly had been the first event of the night. Would half the spectator area be cleared out after the 100 fly because those people saw what they came to see?

Phelps has said he wanted to change the sport. I don’t think it’s changed. People came to see Michael Phelps and they happened to see him at a swim meet where other people happened to be racing. I felt most of the crowd treated the other events tonight as the warm-up act at a concert. Yeah, the music’s OK, they’re thinking, but I didn’t pay fo

It’s still a once-every-four-years sport, and nothing Ryan Lochte or Missy Franklin or USA Swimming has done in Phelps’ absence since London has really changed that. Universal Sports is airing all the Arena Grand Prix meets on television, but that’s on a station that many people can’t find on their TVs.

I wish I had the solution. I want swimming to be as popular as basketball. I fear that might not be possible. And maybe that’s the curse of being an Olympic sport. Gymnastics is still one of the most-watched sports of the Olympics, but does anyone watch the national championships?

I am glad Phelps is back, if only to give the media reasons to follow swimming in the United States in the next two years. But the powers that be need to figure out how to get this kind of interest to spread from just one man to the entire sport. We won’t have Phelps around much longer.

Overheard: “I didn’t think that was possible!” — Spectator after Ryan Lochte beat Michael Phelps in the 100 fly final.

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Author: Jeff Commings

Jeff Commings is the Senior Writer for and Swimming World Magazine. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism and was a nine-time NCAA All-American.

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