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The Blog swears it heard one hand clapping as it tuned into the women's Olympic volleyball competition. Breathtaking as the action has been, it was impossible not to notice the backdrop: vast pastures of empty seats and ushers, as idle as Maytag repairmen, with their backs to the court. When play stopped, you could hear the unique sound of a smattering of applause echoing through an empty arena. Say this about the 14,000-seat Peace and Friendship Stadium which could not have been more than 10 percent filled for the competition: They sure got the "peace" part down. "It was eerie," a journalist friend on site reported. "There was all this intensity on the floor and absolutely none in the stands."
We're trying to imagine this from the perspective of an Olympic volleyball star. You devote four years of your life and invest huge amounts of psychic energy to competing in the Olympics. For years, you envision reaching the Acropolis of your sport. And when you finally get there, it plays out in front of fewer people than watch John McEnroe's new show.
And it wasn't as if the volleyball competition was an exception. If you've watched gymnastics -- usually a big-ticket event -- you could be excused for thinking that someone had padlocked the stadium doors. The venue for beach volleyball, a trendy sport we always hear is growing globally, has been about as bustling as a brie concession stand at a NASCAR event. The USA women's basketball team has played before crowds that make WNBA games seem like SRO affairs. Last weekend 3,500 fans crammed into a tennis facility in Kalamazoo, Mich., to watch the finals of the national boys 18-and-under championships. Compare that to the Olympic tennis stadium in Athens where 500 spectators max dotted the 8,600-person bowl to watch Venus Williams play her first match.
We're told that 2.9 million of 5.3 million tickets have been sold, a figure that strains credulity if you sit down and do the math. Even so, it pales in comparison to the seven million tickets sold in Sydney and more than eight million in Atlanta. Most athletes have been mum on the subject, but as tennis player Marat Safin told a reporter, "We have eyes, and we see that not many people are interested in the sports."
If nothing else, it underscores the value of crowds. Athletes often say they would be happy to compete without the adulation -- how did that old Michael Jordan commercial go? If no one watched, he'd still play. While the sentiment is admirable, it misses the point. When the fans are going bananas and a roar crashes over the place like a wave and players compete knowing that all those eyeballs are spearing them in the back -- that's what gives sports some of its heft and meaning, what distinguishes games from practice. Athletes' ability to insulate themselves from the moment, or to feed off the crowd's frenzy, that's a big part of why we watch. When feats play out before a backdrop of empty metallic chairs and noises that resound through an empty arena, there is a hollow ring to it all. Conversely, when Ian Thorpe wins the swimming competition before a raucous and packed house, it feels momentous.
We've also learned that lousy crowds make for lousy television. NBC has generally done a terrific job with the coverage -- scaling back the maudlin profiles, farming out events to other partner networks, refraining from calling American athletes "we" -- but as events play out in empty stadiums, the viewer is left with a gnawing feeling: If no one wants to be there in person, why I should want to watch on television?
To their credit, the announcers have addressed the issue, offering a multiple choice test of explanations for the sparse attendance:
a) Greeks, like most Europeans, go on vacation in August.
b) Terrorism fears have driven away fans.
c) The holiday of Assumption coincided with last weekend's events.
d) Greeks, all 11 million of them, tend to leave things to the last minute.
e) Ticket prices are prohibitively high.
f) All of the above.
The good news: we're being told that ticket sales are picking up some momentum, and the authorities are considering handing out free ducats for some events next week. More important, if "bad attendance" remains one of the few negative features of these Games, we'll gladly take it over some of the other, far more serious alternatives.
But all those empty seats should serve as a cautionary tale for future bids. Though ticket sales aren't a huge source of revenue for host cities, they are vital for aura. And promises to devote billions to constructing venues doesn't ensure filling them. Now we know the truth: "Build it and they ... might skip town for the beach."
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.