The National Sports Festival has been a triumph of good will but a disappointment at the gate for the capital city of Louisiana, according to local officials.
The 34-sport Festival, which has become known as a domestic Olympics by the 3,500 athletes here, has been hurt by inconsistent ticket sales and unexpectedly low attendance that might result in a financial loss for the city, which invested $2.5 million in the U.S. Olympic Committee event.
The Baton Rouge State Times newspaper estimated Friday that if the current attendance trend continued, the city would absorb a minimum of a $180,000 loss in ticket sales. Local organizing committee officials respond that it is too early to tell whether the Festival will turn out to be a financial loss, but admit that attendance has not lived up to expectations.
The local organizing committee executive director, Dr. Bill Bankhead, called the State Times' estimates of financial losses "a guess," but acknowledged that attendance has been disappointing. The city is relying on ticket sales to pay for its $1.8 million part of the $2.5 million budget. The remainder of the money came from local contributions.
"Obviously if there have been shortcomings, they have been in attendance," Bankhead said. "We're disappointed the public has not come out. But you can't drag them out."
There are still several events remaining, and much of the temporary equipment purchased for the Festival will be resold in the upcoming weeks, probably to the organizing committee that already is preparing for next year's Festival in Houston, to help pay costs.
"Any figure we come up short will be divided among the population of Baton Rouge," Bankhead said. "That's 400,000 people, and when you divide it up it's not that much."
Any financial loss, however, is liable to be unpopular in Louisiana, which is still smarting over the bath New Orleans took from hosting last year's World's Fair. A total of $100 million was lost in that fiasco. In addition, the city of Baton Rouge is financially strapped at the moment. It is undertaking an expensive project to rework its sewage system, the yearly police academy was recently canceled as part of cutbacks, and the local police union last week rejected a contract proposal because it did not include any pay raises or plans for replacement of equipment.
According to figures released by the local organizing committee before the Festival, it needed to sell 326,180 tickets at an average price of $5.56 to break even.
As of Friday, the estimated attendance of 178,160 was 38,555 short of 216,715 projected for that point in the Festival, according to the State Times. The local organizing committee has been reluctant to release attendance figures.
NSF marketing and business operations director Tom Willingham could not confirm the State Times' figures, but did acknowledge that the attendance was not meeting the expected standards.
"We're running behind," he said. "We've had some nice crowds at some bigger events, but it appears some less well known events aren't even doing minimal figures. It's hard to put your finger on."
USOC officials said today they did not have any attendance figures.
The opening ceremonies last Friday were one particularly visible example of subpar attendance. The NSF, in its official magazine, initially estimated a crowd of more than 70,000 would attend. That later was lowered to 65,000. It was obvious that the crowd in Louisiana State's Tiger Stadium was not nearly that large, although the figure was cited as somewhere near 60,000.
On Friday, Mayor Pat Screen confirmed that paid attendance was actually 52,200, leaving about 13,000 expected fans who did not attend, which works out to a $65,000 loss at $5 a ticket.
The largest area of concern was the track and field competition, which featured the largest gathering of former Olympians among the events. A crowd of between 18,000 and 20,000 was expected for the two-day schedule at Southern University's A.W. Mumford Stadium. Instead, a little over 5,000 attended the first day, which was interrupted by a thunderstorm, and the two-day total was about 12,500, according to the State Times and one USOC official. Screen placed it at between 15,000 and 17,000.
Some officials, including Screen, have partly attributed the unexpectedly low attendance figures to ESPN's 40 hours of live television coverage. But the ratings also have been mediocre for an event of this size: the opening ceremonies drew a 0.8 rating, about 292,000 homes. Overall, the ratings for 10 days have been an even 1.0, or 365,000 homes.
Screen contends that the exposure for Baton Rouge was worth any potential losses, and that the work done on facilities at LSU and Southern would also make up for any costs to the city. He cited a new $3 million Natatorium built at LSU for the swimming and diving events, although that was already in the planning stages through a grant from the state legislature. A velodrome for cycling worth $500,000 was constructed through local fund raising, and $100,000 of work was done on Southern's track stadium, $50,000 of which was raised locally.
"The budget is the city's obligation," Screen acknowledged. "But even assuming a dime wasn't raised, the bottom line is that in terms of brick and mortar and good will, the Festival has been a tremendous investment."
The record attendance for a Sports Festival was set in 1983 in Indianapolis, when 250,000 attended. Last year in Colorado Springs, a crowd of 200,000 attended. The Baton Rouge Festival could reach that mark. The women's gymnastics events last Saturday night drew a record crowd of 9,300.
A number of sports have surpassed expectations. Figure skating drew 24,000, compared to a projection of 22,000. Rowing was estimated at 2,700, compared to 1,125 expected. Volleyball drew 15,256 fans, just over the 15,000 expected.
The problem then, might simply have been one of exceedingly high hopes by the local organizing committee, which was perhaps unfamiliar with attendance patterns at large events. A total of 756,300 seats was available at the Southern and LSU facilities, which is another reason why the stadiums might have looked so empty.
"It's absolutely not poorly attended," Walker said. "Relative to some of the hopes and goals of the local organizing committee, maybe it was. But otherwise Baton Rouge has been doing a good job of attending. Trying to keep all those stadiums filled might have been a little more difficult than the local committee expected."