SBJ/October 3-9, 2011/Olympics

USOC funding strategy worries small NGBs

The performance of U.S. athletes in London will be worth more than just gold, silver and bronze medals for national governing bodies. The U.S. Olympic Committee plans to base financial aid to national governing bodies on performance, expanding on a strategy that started in the early 2000s and underscoring the importance it places on Team USA’s medal count.

The approach has created unease among the NGB leaders, which collectively received $43.5 million from the USOC in 2010. The general sense is that the approach will benefit large NGBs like USA Track & Field and U.S. Ski & Snowboard but hurt smaller ones like USA Team Handball and US Biathlon.

“We’ve been informed this is the philosophy and we’ve accepted it,” said Rich Bender, USA Wrestling’s executive director and the chairman of the NGB Council, which represents all 36 NGBs. “To a number we believe the USOC is trying to do the right thing. Do we get all the resources we think we should get? Certainly not … but we’re not supported by a huge governmental organization throwing money at sport.”

USOC Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun said the approach represents an evolution in the organization’s strategy, not a “sea change.” He added that many NGBs that have received funding in the past to support their Olympic programs haven’t succeeded at the Olympics.

“We want to support all of our Olympic NGBs,” Blackmun said. “The question is: How do we best support them? Some are functioning at a high level and really need our support in high performance so they can maximize the likelihood their athletes show up in London. The others that don’t have the opportunities from a performance standpoint need help in other ways.”

The revised system will see the USOC split NGBs into three categories. NGBs characterized as “foundation” organizations will get funding priority. Those NGBs are ones like USA Track & Field or U.S. Ski & Snowboard, which can be depended upon to generate the most medals at an Olympics.

NGBs described as “medal opportunities” will be second in line for funds. Those NGBs are ones that have a chance to win a medal in a coming Olympics with financial support. An NGB like USA Fencing, which won six medals in Beijing, would likely fall in that category.

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NGBs such as USA Track & Field that are sure to generate medals will get funding priority.
A final set of NGBs will be defined as “development” organizations. Those NGBs aren’t expected to medal and are unlikely to receive aid for their Olympic teams from the USOC. Instead, they will receive support from the USOC’s NGB organizational development division, a group designed to offer smaller NGBs with administrative support in areas like marketing and governance.

The USOC will allocate funds across those three categories after reviewing each NGB’s high-performance plan, which outlines what programs an NGB plans to run for its elite athletes and how many medals it believes it’s capable of winning at a future Olympics. That process will begin for summer sports organizations in the next two months.

Blackmun said the USOC won’t base funding on the size of the NGB but on its ability to deliver medals and other factors. Ultimately, the USOC looks at every sport individually, the medals available to it, the sport’s relevancy to the American public and the resources the NGB claims it needs before making final funding decisions.

“We’re going to look at what programs they’d run if they get the money,” Blackmun said. “We could easily shift the money to a much smaller NGB if they have a program we want to support in 2013 or 2014.”

Several smaller NGB leaders expressed concern about how the new approach would affect their organizations. Steve Pastorino, USA Team Handball general manager, said his organization is bracing for cuts. The organization last year received $335,552 from the USOC, which is roughly a third of its annual budget. He expects that to be cut by a minimum of 20 percent and as much as 50 percent next year.

“That’s a full-time staff member, one or two trips to Europe to compete for a week,” Pastorino said. “It’s tangible. It’s measurable. We may even be told they’re not going to fund Team Handball, which would have dire consequences.”

US Biathlon President and CEO Max Cobb said that the USOC has been transparent about the potential cuts and that’s allowed NGBs to begin planning for them. He said his organization will turn to the USOC for support in enhancing its fundraising efforts and adding to its membership.

“Philosophically, we’re getting our arms around the fact that the USOC isn’t going to be able to give us all the resources we need for long-term success,” Cobb said. “We have to get very serious about finding our own [revenue] sources.”

After the funding allocations are made, Pastorino said he expects a debate to emerge among NGBs and the USOC about whether USOC funds should go to support elite athletes who win medals or sports that encourage participation and competition.

“I give credit to the USOC and Scott Blackmun because it’s a lot more clear where the USOC plans to go than it was in previous years,” Pastorino said. “I would just like to have a substantial conversation about what the Olympic movement is all about. Is it really just medal count?”

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