Before the 2015/2016 season began, the regional cross-country ski associations around America hammered out a deal with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA): they crafted “affiliation agreements” detailing the relationship between geographic divisions and the national governing body.
Until that point, regional bodies like Central Cross Country (CXC), Intermountain Division (IMD), the New England Nordic Ski Associaion (NENSA), and the Pacific Northwest Ski Association (PNSA) had been organizing much of skiing on their own. They ran USSA-sanctioned races, placed members on USSA committees, and were represented as teams at Junior Nationals. But in terms of day-to-day governance and regional racing, they were their own non-profits and to a large extent their own bosses.
15 conference calls later, the divisions are still their own nonprofits but are now legally affiliated with USSA.
Two weeks ago, the chair of the board of the High Plains division got a call from Robert Lazzaroni, the nordic domestic programs director for USSA.
“He was asking a few questions about High Plains, and just getting a better feel for how our division is laid out and what we’re made up of,” said Rebecca Watson. “How many U14s do we have coming up? How many NRL races do we have? Details like that.”
Lazzaroni was hired by USSA in August of last year, and the national governing body has been pushing to make additional partnerships with cross-country ski organizations at all levels and gain members in the nordic world.
It seemed to Watson like Lazzaroni was doing an educational fact-finding mission about a remote division. High Plains includes all of Wyoming except for Jackson Hole (which is part of Intermountain), and also serves some communities in eastern Montana and western South Dakota which are far from their designated divisions’ resources. It is a geographically large region in a sparsely populated part of the country.
Then an email arrived in Watson’s inbox.
“About four days later I got an email from Alex [Natt, USSA’s executive vice president and general counsel] saying that they had decided not to renew our affiliation agreement and that we would talk about it at Congress,” Watson said. “That was a little bit of a shock, that it wasn’t going to be renewed. It seemed like they didn’t give me much of a reason for the non-renewal.”
Since the affiliation agreement system has only been in place for a year, it’s unclear what ending the agreement will mean for Wyoming skiers and teams — other than, as Lazzaroni made clear in a later email to Watson, no High Plains team at Junior Nationals.
There’s still a chance that High Plains will be an affiliate of USSA next year, because the decision has to be voted on by USSA’s Cross Country Committee.
“At Congress, there will certainly be a continuation of the discussion on [High Plains],” USSA CEO Tiger Shaw wrote in an email. “This is a constructive and engaging discussion that is fully in flight, and as such it wouldn’t be right for me to comment on anything about it. I want the players to sort it out.”
Those in the High Plains region are perplexed, and leaders of other divisions concerned.
“Let me tell you, I have gotten an incredible amount of support from around the nation, from other team leaders and coaches,” Watson said. “It’s been really amazing. I’m just hoping that we can continue to grow the sport, and to make it accessible to everybody. That’s my biggest thing, is access.”
Like his boss, Lazzaroni did not elaborate on the reasons for the decision.
“See below the exact wording,” he wrote in an email on Tuesday. “USSA has decided not to renew the Affiliation Agreement with High Plains which would otherwise auto renew effective May 1, 2016. High Plains’ status as a USSA Affiliate will be considered at the USSA Congress later in May.”
According to another divisional leader, one of the main purposes of the affiliation agreements were to cover everyone’s legal backs.
PNSA is one of the few divisions where alpine and cross-country skiing are still integrated under one governing body. The association’s Director of Nordic Alan Watson – no relation to Rebecca – was able to watch the alpine divisions go through the same process a year earlier.
“One of the things the McKinsey study had pointed out is that there’s no legal relationship between the divisions and USSA – they weren’t really divisions, they were their own nonprofit organizations,” Alan Watson explained. “They thought it would be good to have a contract … My understanding is that one reason to have the affiliation agreements is to protect us against some sort of unfortunate legal repercussions that could happen, but for practical purposes nothing changes.”
Indeed, once the agreements went into effect, not a lot changed. One main thing, said Rebecca Watson, is that divisions could now purchase liability insurance from USSA at a lower cost.
There were also agreements about race organization fees and head taxes, the use of the USSA logo, and communication between USSA and the affiliates, for instance about education and coach and official certification. In many cases, regional races now require a USSA membership, which is more affordable thanks in part to initiatives by Shaw and also to agreements worked out by Joey Caterinichio, Lazzaroni’s predecessor who stayed on with USSA this winter despite resigning last summer.
“Through all 15 or so conference calls, I most definitely got the feel from Tiger [Shaw, the USSA CEO] that he just wanted to have a better understanding of what the divisions were doing and to help grow the sport,” Rebecca Watson said. “That was the biggest thing that he kept saying: ‘I just want to increase membership and help grow the sport and help the health of the divisions.’ ”
Shaw confirmed as much in an email, writing, “You are correct in that the goals and initiatives of USSA have not changed. We do want to grow membership, enable competition and foster all of our sports. That is core to our mission.”
FasterSkier obtained a copy of an affiliate agreement from another division, with the source requesting anonymity in order to protect ongoing relations with USSA.
The agreement had virtually no references to elite racing, results, or the development pipeline: while divisions were responsible for communicating with USSA when they wanted to schedule USSA-sanctioned races, they were also welcome to continue to host non-sanctioned races (i.e., without points) and allow non-members to enter them. Junior Nationals was never mentioned.
‘Bottom of the Ranking List’
When Rebecca Watson asked Lazzaroni for a rationale about why her affiliate agreement was being terminated, however, high performance and the development pipeline seemed to be the focus.
Watson gave FasterSkier a copy of an email Lazzaroni had sent her (after also sharing it with other divisional leaders and the Sports Committee), and it focuses mainly on junior programming and racing.
Among his concerns: the division organizes few races, and even fewer that are USSA-sanctioned National Ranking List (NRL) competitions; there are few year-round clubs, and most of the teams are high school teams; and the region finished at the “bottom of the ranking list” at 2016 Junior Nationals.
With just 584,000 people and few major population centers in Wyoming, it’s not surprising that there are a limited number of ski teams in the state. As for the matter of most of them being high school teams, Watson said that’s partially a matter of logistics.
“Because of the distances that we have to travel it would be crazy to have two separate race series,” she explained. “I think people can look at that and say that we’re just high school. But we do have both club and high school, it’s just that we try to work it out so that we can do things together.”
Watson said that High Plains is looking into hosting more NRL races, but that it’s an ongoing challenge in part because of the expense. According to USSA’s website, hosting a USSA race costs $50 dollars, plus a $3 per person head tax up to a maximum of $300 per gender. That’s potentially $650 in cash to hand over. Hosting a FIS race series carries an additional $500 fee.
Several venues in Wyoming are upgrading their race-hosting abilities, including Watson’s hometown of Laramie and, perhaps most notably, Casper — which is using donated land and pouring more than $700,000 into putting up a state-of-the-art biathlon facility.
But still, in 2016 the 22-member High Plains team was last in the Junior Nationals Alaska Cup scoring, by a wide margin. They had only one skier hit the top 30: Adam Pickett, who finished 23rd in the U16 5 k and 26th in the U16 sprint.
Mike Elliott, a head of the Rocky Mountain division and a member of the USSA Cross Country Committee, said that during the affiliation agreement negotiations, he had interpreted some of the top goals of the process to be increasing membership and gaining more non-competitive members.
The process was not as contentious as it had been for alpine, he said, and everyone seemed to be talking in good faith.
“That is why I was so surprised at USSA notifying [High Plains] that they were not renewing the affiliation agreement,” he wrote in an email on Thursday. “Judging how the conference calls were handled, I would have thought USSA would have reached out to [High Plains] to offer professional help. There was no notification to the USSA Cross Country Committee that USSA was even thinking about not renewing the affiliation agreement that I am aware of, and I am on the Cross Country Committee.”
Another issue Lazzaroni seemed to have with the division was geography: he told Watson that one-state divisions don’t make sense.
“One division should represent more than one state (High Plain represent only Wyoming, minus Jackson Hole). Club, state, division, region, national is the map. AK is clearly a unique geographical situation,” Lazzaroni wrote in the email Watson shared.
In fact, there are other divisions which represent primarily one state. Great Lakes includes Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, but almost all of its skiers hail from northern Michigan. It is considered a sub-division of Midwest, also governed by CXC.
Mid-Atlantic comprises New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. But its skiers are almost exclusively from New York.
The reason for High Plains encompassing primarily one state is partly the size of Wyoming (the organization does also include parts of Montana and South Dakota). The state is roughly 280 miles wide and 360 miles long. Cut out and put together, all of the traditional ski regions of Lazzaroni’s native France would easily fit within the borders of Wyoming.
“Before  Wyoming was split into four different divisions,” Watson explained. “It made it very dysfunctional within the state. Laramie was with Rocky Mountain, Pinedale with Intermountain, Cody went up to what was Northern, but now no longer exists.”
High Plains teams do travel to the western Super JNQs; to get to Soldier Hollow, Utah, might be a six-hour drive. Sun Valley, Idaho, is over nine hours from Casper, Wyoming.
“I was actually on that coaching crew which put forward the initial proposal for [High Plains to exist],” Watson said. “One of main reasons was, geographically, it was impossible to get to the IMD qualifiers. One skier attempted it, and was driving 21 hours in a weekend to and from a qualifier. It was just absurd.”
In his email to Watson, Lazzaroni suggested that once High Plains no longer exists, Wyoming athletes could choose between “geographically close divisions”: IMD, including Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Jackson Hole, or Rocky Mountain, which comprises Colorado and New Mexico.
This plan has not yet been sussed out.
“We have not had any discussions within IMD about what would happen to [High Plains] regarding their participation in other divisions,” IMD Competition Committee member Rick Kapala, also the Cross Country Program Director of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, wrote in an email.
Furthermore, there was confusion as to why this was surfacing now, rather than last year when several of the first conference calls were dedicated to mapping out regions and divisions.
“[A goal of the affiliation agreements was] clarification of geographic boundaries for all divisions to include states that may have a limited number of participants,” Elliott wrote. “I do not remember any discussion regarding there were issues about High Plains representing only one state.”
“Why did we go through all this stuff last summer, and why did nobody say, ‘OK, High Plains, you’re sort of a weak division, you’re on probation?’” Alan Watson asked.
There might be one other factor: Jackson Hole. The town stayed part of IMD, but recently a skier who lived in Pinedale, Wyoming, and skied with Jackson Hole as a J3 (U14) decided to compete in the High Plains junior national qualifiers instead, and thus was able to meet qualification criteria where she would have failed in IMD.
The idea that this could happen provoked strong reaction.
“What, if anything, does our non-renewal have to do with the border town issues with Jackson?” Watson asked in her email.
“We do not believe that offering a way for skiers to qualify to junior national Championship that do not require skiers to train more and to become better skier is the right way,” Lazzaroni replied.
But others, including Alan Watson, don’t see this as a major issue.
“One thing that Tiger [Shaw] clearly said is that kids in border towns should be able to choose which division they want to compete in,” the PNSA head said. “Which makes sense to me, because we want kids to want to race.”
What is clear is that if the Sports Committee follows USSA’s recommendation, there will be no more High Plains division.
That, Watson believes, would be unfortunate.
“We took [the state] and were able to join it as one division,” she said. “And it’s been huge for Wyoming skiing. The accessibility to skiing, and to skiing at the national level, has increased so dramatically.”