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 is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.