It had nothing to do with matching fellow U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz's Olympic record of seven gold medals, Phelps' original Olympic challenge in 2004, for which Speedo, his primary sponsor at the time, offered a $1 million bonus. It was about something bigger than him.
Such talk seemed wishful thinking. Then and now, swimming has limited intrinsic spectator appeal. It boils down to water splashing, athletes who had been rendered anonymous from 2000 through 2009 by being covered in fishlike, head-to-toe swimsuits, and, for fans in the arena, races for which only those at exactly the right angle to the finish wall know who has won.
But with the help of NBC, which turned Phelps' successful quest for a record-breaking eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics into a blend of "Entertainment Tonight," "Days of Our Lives" and live sports coverage, the U.S. swimming federation has leveraged the 27-year-old from Baltimore to give the sport proportions far larger than anyone one would have imagined.
"We bow to Michael Phelps for all he has done," said Chuck Wielgus, in his 15th year as USA Swimming's chief executive. "He always said he was going to change the sport, and he has."
Never has that been more apparent than during the 2012 U.S. Olympic swimming trials, which end an eight-day run Monday.
Over the first six days, attendance at the CenturyLink Center averaged more than 11,200 for morning preliminaries and evening finals, with three sessions (one morning) drawing sellouts at the 14,000-seat facility with its temporary pool. 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.
The swim meet has a rock concert vibe with sizzle — script cascading in green "waterfalls," flame machines alongside the pool, new Olympic team members emerging for a recognition ceremony on a rising platform — carrying a price tag of $300,000 in an $8 million operating budget underwritten by USA Swimming and the Omaha Sports Commission. An Aqua Zone expo next to the arena has drawn thousands of visitors, some to try the Michael Phelps Swim Spa challenge offered by another of his sponsors, Master Spas.
Through Friday, the swim trials were the highest-rated prime-time show twice and won their time slot all five times. The ratings ran from 4.0 to 5.0, the share steady at 8 or 9.
For all that, the sport and its athletes have the greatest swimmer in history to thank.
"He is the reason swimming is what it is today in this country," said breaststroker Brendan Hansen, 30, who qualified for his third Olympics last week. "He broke barriers and walls for us that I don't think any other athlete ever could have done.
"When he won those eight gold medals in Beijing, he put swimming in superstar status. We all, as athletes, appreciate what he has done."
Phelps hasn't done badly, either, with 14 Olympic gold medals turning into career earnings estimated to be worth an eventual $100 million from deals with sponsors including Speedo, Hilton, Subway, Visa, Proctor & Gamble, HP, Topps and Omega. He has started a foundation to promote health and swimming.
"It's pretty amazing to see the sport grow and change," Phelps said last week. "I think it can grow more, and I think it will. And even though I'll finish the competitive part of my career, hopefully I can continue to take the sport to a new level, a bigger level."
Ironically, the growth also was fueled by Phelps' failure to win seven golds in Athens (he wound up swimming eight events and had six golds). It created more and extended interest in his attempt to one-up that in Beijing.
Also thanks to Phelps:
•Sixteen cities are interested in bidding for the 2016 Olympic swimming trials, no matter that it will be nearly impossible to top the job Omaha has done in 2008 and 2012 in terms of organization, passion and glitz. Only six cities were interested in bidding for 2008, when Omaha did so well as organizer that USA Swimming just handed it the host role again.
That Omaha is topping itself owes partly to Phelps' even greater post-Beijing appeal, no matter that USA Swimming suspended him three months in 2009 over pictures of him smoking a bong. (Or because, since it enlarged his GenY appeal?)