Economic woes force cuts to USSA, U.S. Ski Team programs

Nathaniel HerzAugust 31, 200916

As the sports world gears up for the Vancouver Olympics in February, the faltering economy has forced the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) to make cuts to its programs and staff.

According to USSA Nordic Director John Farra, the American athletes with a chance at medaling at the Olympics have been insulated from the cuts. But both employees of the organization and some of the athletes who depend on it for financial backing have felt the sting in the past year.

In January, USSA announced an across-the-board pay cut for all of its employees, as well as a round of lay-offs. Around that time, Farra was also informed that he would have to make further cuts to his operating budget, which resulted in the non-payment of some $12,000 in prize money that was planned to be paid to SuperTour Series winners at the end of the season.

This year, USSA maintained the pay cuts for its staff, and additional reductions have meant less support for the athletes on the team without a shot at an Olympic medal.

“Going into the Olympics, you wouldn’t have predicted those programs were going to take a significant hit like that,” Farra said. “It’s been a tough haul for sure-we’ve lost some of the ground that we’ve gained over the last couple of years.”

Trouble on the SuperTour

The first problems came during the U.S. National Championships last January, when Farra was informed that he would have to cut ten percent out of his programs’ budgets by the end of the fiscal year in late March. By that time, though, Farra said that his money was “mostly already spent.”

One of the few places where funds could be found was in the $3,000 bonuses that were to be paid to the male and female champions of the sprint and distance SuperTour Series, an elite national race circuit organized by USSA.

“There was nothing left-there was no other option,” Farra said. “This was the only thing in my budget that [hadn’t] been spent.”

Farra said he did his best to inform all of the top athletes and coaches that the bonuses would not be paid, although he did end up missing a few skiers.

APU’s James Southam, the winner of the SuperTour distance title, hadn’t been high in the standings at the beginning of the season. He said that he never got a message from Farra, and wasn’t sure whether he was going to get his bonus until he didn’t get a check.

XC Oregon’s Kristina Strandberg found out about the cuts around the time of National Championships. She said she’d had the option to ski on the World Cup circuit in the early winter, but chose to stay in the U.S. to race instead.

Strandberg said she made the decision mainly because she hadn’t felt ready to race on the World Cup, but that the potential for winning the SuperTour overall titles was an added incentive. Because she won both the sprint and distance disciplines, she ended up missing out on $6,000.

“We’re in a sport where you don’t come by money that easily. $6,000 could definitely be the difference between making it and just not making it,” she said. “I think that’s an important thing for the ski community as a whole to realize that we do need money to get to the races…It was a huge disappointment for me, of course.”

At the same time, Strandberg said that she didn’t blame Farra for the cuts, and that he and the USST staff had been very helpful to her.

“It’s important to separate the issue and the people, because they’re two different things,” she said.

Strandberg also added that the money available at each individual SuperTour event over the last few years-$875 for a win-had been “fantastic.”

Colin Rodgers, who was the SuperTour sprint champion, said that one of his big goals last year was to win that title so that he’d have some money to help finance his summer training.

He said he was especially disappointed to not get the money after the bonuses had been outlined in the USSA’s competition guide for the SuperTour.

According to Farra, some of the skiers had made the argument that since the bonuses were published in the guide, they constituted a contract, but he said that wasn’t the case.

“It wasn’t a contract-it was a plan,” Farra said. “I would have loved nothing more than to give out that money to some very deserving athletes. That was an embarrassment for us.”

For this coming year, Farra said that he found money to reinstate the bonuses, though they now are $2,000 instead of $3,000.

Minimum prize money for individual SuperTour events (which is mandated by USSA, but paid by event organizers) will also be slightly less-a total of $7,800 per weekend instead of $9,100.

Farra said that this was in response to organizers’ concerns that they would have difficulty coming up with the prize money, given the economic downturn.

“I’m not proud of [the reductions],” Farra said, “but I feel that that was a responsible and appropriate response for the organizers who are so critical to putting these on.”

Insulating the A-team

In addition to the elimination of the SuperTour bonuses, Farra said that the salaries of all USSA employees and USST staff were also cut at around the same time, in January. The Seattle Times reported that the reductions were ten percent.

The cuts were maintained for this coming year, as well, with nobody getting their typical performance increases, Farra said.

Those affected are administrators like Farra himself, but also include anyone employed by the USST, like coaches and wax technicians.

For a staff that could already be making much more money working on the NCAA circuit, it’s “pretty tough” to be taking pay cuts when they are already working hard, USST member Kris Freeman said.

“They’re putting their whole being into their job, and you have to respect that,” Freeman said.

Despite the cuts, though, USST Head Coach Pete Vordenberg said that his staff hadn’t been phased.

“Nobody’s really dropped their heads,” he said. “The drive is the same and the goal is the same.”

Both Farra and Vordenberg said that their objective has been to protect the best athletes from the volatility of the rest of the organization.

For the A-team, Farra said, “our goal is to give them everything they need to be successful, without the economy affecting them a bit.”

In order to maintain the funding for the A-team for this coming year, Farra said that there would be less support for skiers on the B-team, and for athletes and coaches to travel to events like OPA Cups (races in Europe a step down from the World Cup), and the U-23 and Junior World Championships.

Also, in May, the team size was reduced from 18 to 11. While at the time the team’s staff maintained that those cuts were solely performance-related, Farra said that economics did have an impact.

“What we don’t want is to have a large team that is completely under-supported,” he said.

Freeman, a solid medal hope for the Vancouver Olympics, said that the team had indeed done “a good job of insulating us.”

Freeman said that the effects that he had noticed were “little tiny things.”

“Instead of the per diem being inadequate, it’s almost a joke sometimes,” he said.

According to John Estle, who coached the USST in the early 1990s, the current team has done a good job making its development program efficient, which frees up resources for its best hopes in international competitions.

When he was coaching, Estle said that his goal was to create a preparation program that would be sustainable at the lowest possible cost, so that the team could funnel as high a percentage of funding as possible into a competition program.

“I think that the U.S. team has been pretty good about doing that,” he said. “The fact that they are able to keep a lot of the skiers in the same location as the coaching staff for big chunks of the preparation period I think is the only effective way.”

Estle cautioned, though, that things could get worse if the economy stays on its current course.

Sponsors of Olympic sports, he said, generally sign multi-year contracts that end after an Olympic year, so that they can evaluate if their needs have been met.

In general, Estle said, “it’s highly likely that the year after an Olympics there is going to be some belt-tightening.”

And if the economy remains on its current course, he added, the 2010-2011 season “could be a very tight year.”

For Farra and Vordenberg, both said that one thing that they still could rely on was that USSA’s higher ups were still supporting their work.

“Internally, the organization is really behind us, way more than when I started as one of the assistant coaches,” Vordenberg said. “If the economy and the budget weren’t working together, then we’d have to go out there and kick some ass internally. But the higher organization is taking a big hit, so everyone is trying to get the job done with what we have. That’s just realistic.”

Farra said that this kind of unpredictability comes with the territory of working for an organization funded by sponsors and donations.

“We understand that it’s a tough time, and that our company is a non-profit that is dependent on the graciousness of our sponsors to be willing to fund our endeavors,” he said. “Everyone’s having a tough time opening their wallet. I think we’ve dealt with it the best we can.”

Nathaniel Herz

Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.

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  • Mike Trecker

    August 31, 2009 at 8:08 am

    I’d like to see the numbers on CEO Bill Marolt’s pay cut.

  • Tim Kelley

    August 31, 2009 at 11:12 am

    It seems like if the original plan last year was to pay out 3K bonuses, then that plan should be honored the best it can before promising more bonuses this year. If bonuses are to be two thousand this year, that would indicate the USSA has the money. So – why not cut the bonuses this year to $1000 dollars and pay the winners of last year’s bonuses $1000. $1000 is not as good as $3000, but it’s a lot better than nothing. And doing this would be a lot better than the USSA telling skiers they are going to get money, and then not paying them anything.

  • Mike Trecker

    August 31, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    I like that idea Tim. Also, I’m not sure a lawyer would agree that published prizes are a “plan” and not a “contract”. Gene, any comments here?

  • Jamey Holstein

    August 31, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    1) What is an athlete with “a shot” at a medal? Is it the same definition given skiers from other countries?

    2)Colin and Kristina have a valid and very winnable civil case – you guys were promised a #, spent your time and money to perform in reliance the offer, so pay up. You guys should get a lawyer. The money is there in insurance and bonuses promised some of the executives. Look me up if you need a good referral of somebody who is likly to help because they care about the sport and not the money. If the Super Tour is all North America can muster for its premier event, and only pays a few $k to win an event and only around $10k-$20k for a season overall victory, we are in trouble. Barley covers travel/lodgign/food – is it worth it the effort?

    3)This just illustrates the lameness of our sport at its very roots…nordic sports in the USA are relying upon money and funding form an organization who could give a crap about nordic sports because we bring in no money to them. Nordic sport are marketed like crap (that includes how events are presented, shown/aired, sold and packaged). Jumping, and small circut x-c and biathlon are hugely exciting, but it is all in how it is packaged – throw in a reality show on athlete life and trianing and you are in business (oh, did I just give the genious marketer Tom Kelly an idea – sorry, “best in the world” to ya).Let the regioal associations take over development/amateur nordic sports, and let the free market and professioanl “players associations “dictate/sponsor/support athletes/races/teams at the highest level. Better to fail on our own than continue this stupid path. Skiing is the last hold-out from professioal organiztions and leagues, and this is the result.

    Stop the nonsense!

  • jmeserve

    September 1, 2009 at 8:11 am

    Sad state of affairs for our sport at its highest level. There are literally hundreds of local foot races across this country that pay as much or more to mid level runners.
    By the time everyone has purchased all the equipment they need, all the fluorinated wax they think they need, paid dues and entries, sprung for travel and hotel, is it really a surprise that people have nothing left to contribute. As long as the sport continues to bleed its most faithful dry, there will be no moving forward. Perhaps it is time to take measures into our own hands as has USA Biathlon. Any move in this direction would struggle as well unless there are sincere efforts made to level the playing field. Create equal opportunity for all and the funding will come.

  • bozo001

    September 2, 2009 at 7:03 am

    The nordic program can’t be sustained by contributions from individuals. US Luge association had a lucrative sponsorship from Verizon for years. How do you attract mainstream big businesses and sell them on 6 or 7 figure sponsorships?

    — Peter Minde

  • Mike Trecker

    September 2, 2009 at 8:07 am

    I’m with Jeremy on this one. USSA is by and large a ruse. The Alpine ski team did not garner success and “shots” at a medal by spending less funds. Alpine had to expand for broad success while holding the other “less monied” sports down. When you give one entity money that is more than the other entities, that is “holding them down”.

    USST and USSA are corporations with specific interests and cross country, biathlon, jumping and combined do nothing for them. Let’s be realistic, those financial interests that are backing USSA have much more to gain with success on the Alpine side, however, if there was huge success on the Nordic side, that could potentially pull money away from the “lifts” and the sports those resorts offer and ultimately damage the financial interests of the very supporters of USSA. Why do you think snowboarding, aerials, moguls etc. get the support? Not just because they are popular, because all of those sports use lifts at alpine resorts. We are the neglected step children living under the stairs, and that is exactly where they want us.

    We need to start getting the municipalities that benefit from cross country more involved. Places like Aspen, Minneapolis, Anchorage, Bend, Ketchum all benefit from the sport of cross country skiing and racing in some form or another. These municipalities need to be hit up for some funding. We’re never going to get the funding we need from USSA, can’t get water from a stone. And we can’t form a new NGB as stated several times in the past. That of course would be the best solution but the FIS is not USSA and cross country does benefit the FIS quite a bit, so, no we won’t be able to form a new NGB either. We have to start digging some new wells.

  • Erik_hendrickson

    September 2, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    @Mike Trecker. Why exactly can’t we form a new NGB?

  • Cloxxki

    September 2, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    @Jamey, the reality show with athletes is a really good one. And not just because I’ve posed it elsewhere before, to promote our non-existent sport in the snow-poor country I’m from.

    I would actually propose the reality show to be focused at non-skiing athletes, giving it their all to become fast skiers. A rivallinh biathlon relay team would really impress the people, I think. That’s what I want for my country, a biathlon relay team that exists, and doesn’t sukk.
    As the reality athletes are selected for speed, endurance and inherent balance/technique talent, the viewers will learn all there is to know about skiing. The candidates receive masterclasses from the likes of current Olympians, which get a chance to raise their PR game this way. Prime time TV minutes, baby!
    In Belgian, the natonal sport is Cyclo-Cross. A successful reality show saw non-cyclists from Zimbabwe be turned from “just athletically inclined youngsters” to World Championship contestents. And they didn’t sukk. OK, they were dealing with a national sport, but still. The folklore of the sport really shone there.
    A Dutch saying goes : He who is not strong, will need to be smart. US skiers seem to do fine, but there’s always a way to raise your game. Not the national #1 sport? Compare bobsleighing in Jamaica…

  • Mike Trecker

    September 2, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    It is my understanding that the International Olympic Committee some years ago arbitrarily deemed that they would recognize no more “new” governing bodies. Unless of course it was a new sport to the Olympic program, in which case, as part of the application process, the most prominent existing governing body would be submitting the application on that sports behalf. For instance, the PGA is the internationally recognized governing body for Golf, which is currently in the process of getting approved for the summer games.

  • triguy

    September 2, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    It would be interesting to know what the money coming in looks like for the USSA. If a vast majority of the funding is coming in through Alpine/Snowboard sponsors, it makes sense that those programs get the vast majority of program funding. How much is Nordic bringing to the table in terms of sponsor and government funding??

  • lahti

    September 2, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    The honest truth is Nordic Ski Racing is a pay-to-play sport in the US. There is only barely enough money in the SuperTour to support 1 Male and 1 Female athlete, provided they continue winning every race. Free housing and entry for the top few is nice, but having to fly/drive all over the states is a no-win money-losing proposition. Athletes who don’t have parents paying their way will not be successful. One would need to at least have 2 – 3rd place finishes every weekend just to break even.

    I have a hard time believing the USST is making much effort on cutting back. Year after year heading down to NZ to ski? No wonder the USST 2nd tier athletes have to pay their own way to camps and races, including World Championships. It’s a troubling sign that the USST can’t even afford to fly the full team to World Champs. Most of the qualifying athletes are left alone to foot the bill themselves, again pay-to-play.

    The future of nordic skiing in the US rests on the shoulders of financially well-off parents contributing to their children’s athletic career. It’s an expensive sport, and without real support we lose the faster, stronger athletes who don’t have the financial opportunity to continue development at the elite end of the spectrum.

  • Erik_hendrickson

    September 2, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    $3,000 for the top domestic racers in the country is too much

    but a $22.5 million center of excellence is no problem….WTF?

  • Jamey Holstein

    September 3, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Nice gym USSA/USST built eh”? One machine could have funded the women jumpers for a year or 2. Maybe the stone collums out front would fund the woman for another year! I suggest the womens jumping team partner with the x-c ski team and steal some of the shit from the gym and sell it to fund their training this year. That should get some good press.

    I guess the Canadian X-C community is just better/smarter/wealthier than we are here in the US. They seem to be doing just fine with x-c skiers working for their own sport, indepent of the Alpine/Snowboard team.

    US Nordic sports (jumping and biathlon included) need their own autonmous NGB, with most focus on development and promoting the sports. Running successful top level teams will come when you have a large gene pool of endurance freaks to choose from. Perhaps letting USBA take control of all nordic sports would work well, with NGB/USOC funding given to the 5 Families for the running of recruitment and soprt promotion.

    Best in the World to Ya’ll!

  • FlintHillsXC

    September 4, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    Actually, the mention of golf suggests how complicated this governing body stuff gets (wow — a chance to comment on my two favorite sports at once). The PGA is not the internationally recognized governing body for golf — that distinction is shared by the USGA in North America and the Royal and Ancient almost everywhere else. As far as I understand it, the push to make golf an Olympic sport has been spearheaded by the International Golf Federation, an obscure group formed in the 1950s. The IGA includes members from the USGA, PGA, etc. But anyway, I think going our own way in terms of a governing body is something to really think about. Can’t we find one billionaire to fund us for a generation?

  • Jamey Holstein

    September 5, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    The whole problem with skiing is it is one of the last hold out sports with an international “high profile” (i.e. press and contracts even in non-Oly years) that is NOT professional. All so ironic as it was during Bill Marolts years as an athete that guys like Spyder Sabich and Billy Kidd left the amatuer tour to make a few shekles (in a tuss over personal sponsorship), the press from which paved the way for guys like Prefontaine, and even Billy Jean King, to make statements.

    Using golf as an example, the USGA is most concerned with recruitment, and the resulting increased membership -that is what an amateur association should do. They are the “NGB” and are not concerned with (also) trying to control/field teams at the highest level – that is the job of the free market and Professional leagues. The amateur teams fielded by USGA at international competitions are the athletes waiting to make the jump to the Pro ranks, as it should be.

    USGA does a FANTASTIC job of recruiting (getting new people to take up the sport) which in turn results in the sport finding the genetically gifted athletes who will go on to be the best pros in the world. The problem is we do not have an organization in the U.S. (NGB) who’s only goal and financial focus is to find creative ways to get more people (and kids) to try racing.

    The PGA/LPGA is a professional orgainzation which puts on some events (some in conjuctions with the USGA) but is mostly concered with representing the athletes interests at the highest level, and promoting the same, so everybody enjoys the sport and the best are rewarded accordingly. Same in tennis, cycling, hockey, running, Super Cross, car racing, baseball, football, soccer, you name it.

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