US Ski Team Budget Cuts Stretch Already Thin Resources

Topher SabotAugust 30, 2011

Two rounds of cuts have hit the U.S. Ski Team’s already-reduced budget this spring and summer, increasing demands on athletes, coaches, and administrators alike.

According to U.S. Ski Team (USST) Head Coach Chris Grover, the program was directed in late June to trim nearly $60,000 from its 2012 operating budget—in addition to a $30,000 reduction that came in the spring, during the annual budgeting process.

The impact of the cuts will mostly fall on the USST’s second-tier athletes. Funding is also diminished for the domestic SuperTour race series, as well as for the American participation in the World Junior Championships. And there is no time frame for the hiring of a replacement for former Nordic Director John Farra, according to Luke Bodensteiner, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s executive vice president for athletics.

Neither Grover nor Bodensteiner would divulge the total cross-country budget, so the overall financial magnitude of the cuts is unclear.

But Grover told FasterSkier in an interview that the reductions “definitely have us a little bit stressed out,” pointing out that the team is also plagued by a weak dollar against European currencies, as well as rising fuel costs.

The team has preserved core programming and the strategic vision has remained intact, Bodensteiner said. Yet a number of areas will feel the effects of the belt tightening.

While Bodensteiner describes the budget reduction as “not that significant” in the big picture, he acknowledged that some individual athletes will experience more of a strain.

A-Team Insulated; B-Team Exposed

As has been the case over the past several years, the USST has worked to insulate its top tier of athletes from budget fluctuations.

Freeman at World Championships 2011. His medal hopes should not be hindered by recent budget cuts.

Grover has a directive to prioritize “athletes that are on a potential path to win an Olympic medal in Sochi”—the World Cup Team members like Kikkan Randall and Andy Newell.

Bodensteiner presents it simply enough— “We have one mandate and that is to win the Olympics, and that means winning more medals than any other nation,” he told FasterSkier. Funding is funneled to programs and athletes in direct support of this mission.

So the A-team skiers will see little change in their support from previous years—but they are not fully immune.

Funding for a team masseuse and physical therapist to attend several World Cup events has also been cut, a change that will mainly affect the top skiers.

Additionally, longtime World Cup Team member Kris Freeman told FasterSkier that the U.S. squad brought a “barebones” staff to its recent New Zealand camp, with just a single coach and no wax techs. That was in comparison to the Russians, who Freeman said brought six athletes and eight staff.

The reduced support down under was planned prior to the recent budget reduction, but was a result of the spring decrease and the fact that only the men’s team made the trip. With the USST sending two coaches to a women’s team camp in Alaska, Grover described the decision as “one-third financial, two-thirds logistical.”

However, members of the A-team will still have their travel expenses largely paid for. That’s in contrast to the B-team, according to Grover, which he said is being asked to shoulder “a lot of their own costs, and sometimes all of their own costs when racing in Europe.”

“We’re paying for basically travel this year,” said B-team member Simi Hamilton in an interview. “Last year, my travel to and from Europe was paid for. So that’s the biggest difference this year.”

Hamilton said that he is paying airfare to camps, as well, which is another change from last season. But he also added that in a number of cases, athletes’ clubs have stepped in to pick up the slack—something that the USST staff said they were counting on.

“In most cases, the clubs they’re involved with have come forward and helped out a bunch,” said Pete Vordenberg, the USST’s development coach.

As an example, Vordenberg pointed to the recent addition of B-team athletes Noah Hoffman and Tad Elliott to the Team Homegrown squad, where they will receive financial support from the Ski and Snowboard Club of Vail.

But according to Grover, funding for an additional staff member, either a coach or wax tech, to attend certain Europa Cup competition trips has also been cut—another blow to the non-World Cup skiers.

The B-team athletes, however, are not alone in bearing the burden. The annual World Junior/U-23 Championships trip has also seen reductions in funding, and the prize money awarded to the winners of the sprint and distance SuperTour disciplines has been completely eliminated (see article).

Jessie Diggins (USST) racing at World Junior Championships in 2010. The event is a key component of the US development strategy.

The World Junior/U-23 (WJ/U23) trip, which has become a key component in the US development pipeline, will continue, but athletes will have to pick up more of the tab.

Grover told FasterSkier that the USST contributed $22,000 to the WJ/U23 trip in 2011, and that those funds will not be available for the upcoming season. Without additional support Grover says that this will raise the cost per athlete by $1000.

The nordic combined program has faced cuts as well, after entering the season with a relatively flat budget, according to Head Coach Dave Jarrett.

“Everybody in the company took a cut in the summer, and that was a little bit harder to swallow because we had already set plans in motion,” Jarrett said. “It’s hard to go back to people and say ‘oh, by the way we’re not going to be able to do this, or if you want to do this we’re not going to be able to pay for it.’”

Like the cross-country side, Jarrett confirmed that he has been directed to “keep the World Cup program as strong as possible.” That, he says, necessitates some belt tightening on the Continental Cup side—though Jarrett, who was traveling in Europe, said he could not provide specifics.

“We’re trying to stretch everything as far as we can, without sacrificing the very elite part of it, because that’s what the mandate is from [Bodensteiner],” Jarrett said.

USST Staff: Club Partnership Crucial

Grover noted that the USST’s decision not to operate a centralized, Park City-based program allows the program to minimize the impact of budget fluctuations.

“If we pin development on the money that the ski team has, or their ability to support athletes, I think we really are shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said.

Instead, by opting for partnerships with local and regional clubs, there is a “a much wider development base, and financial support base, for the development group”—allowing the program to weather the annual fluctuations of the USSA budget.

Over the last several years, the team has shifted its focus for developing racers from domestic racing to the European circuit.

“We have these really young, talented athletes that need to get experience racing in Europe,” Grover said. “They need to get Europa Cup level racing experience. They need to have some introduction to World Cup-level racing, or more chances to race World Cup if they have had some already.”

He describes the cuts as “tying their hands” on this front, limiting the USST’s ability to provide those European opportunities.

The result has been to focus on the infrastructure of such trips – the coaching staff, wax support and logistics.

This way, says Grover, if athletes can come up with the funding to get to Europe and cover their lodging, everything else will be in place.

Still, Vordenberg, with his focus on development, said that it could be frustrating to contend with the yearly fluctuations.

The USST enjoyed a period of more freely flowing funds a few years ago, during Vordenberg’s own tenure as head coach, which he said allowed the program to “really gain some traction.” But the current tight budget, he said, makes it difficult to put “muscle” behind new initiatives like the D-team.

“While what we did can be carried forward by harder work from the clubs and stuff like that,” Vordenberg said, “it’s still frustrating to see that from our end of things, we aren’t still able to be taking those huge steps forward too.”

Despite the setbacks, however, Vordenberg remains positive, saying “We’re charging forward and it seems like the overall ski community is charging forward too.”

Tough Economy and New Sports Create Budget Pressure

The reasons for the budget cuts are twofold, according to USSA personnel.

First, the faltering economy is hurting private donations, which make up a big portion of USSA revenue, Bodensteiner said.  Second, five new sports that fall under USSA’s purview—parallel slalom snowboarding, women’s ski jumping, halfpipe skiing, slopestyle skiing, and slopestyle snowboarding—have been added to the Olympic program, and are now all in need of funding.

In fact several of the new sports have yet t have funds allocated.

The result is a smaller pie, and a need for more pieces.

Grover was not surprised with the cuts, noting that in his time with the USST, he’s contended with similar scenarios several times.

“When we do our budget planning in the spring, there is a little bit of guesswork going on with the marketing department,” Grover said. “We are creating a budget based on what those folks think is possible to bring in.”

Grover said that strong fundraising in the fall could return some money to the cross-country budget. But Bodensteiner would not confirm that.

Unexpected revenues, he said, would go to “fund the next most urgent need in any of the programs”—meaning that the nordic disciplines could be competing against alpine, snowboarding, and freestyle for the extra dollars.

The overall picture is further complicated by a weak dollar against European currencies and higher transportation costs due to rising fuel prices Grover said.

The World Cup room and board rate provided by the International Ski Federation (FIS) is set at 125 Swiss francs (CHF). Last year, this equated to approximately $120. As of August 28th the rate is $155.

Nordic Director Position Remains Open

USSA has not moved quickly to find a replacement nordic director following Farra’s resignation earlier this summer, and Grover said that funding has played a role.

“We are looking to save a little bit of money right now,” Grover said. “And by not paying salary and benefits to someone right now, we do save…money.”

Bodensteiner downplayed the financial pressures, instead focusing on his desire to take his time naming a replacement. He pointed out that during his tenure as vice president for athletics, he has never had a full complement of Program Directors.

“I like to pull the program in a little bit and help to manage it for some period of time, to really understand where the greatest needs are going to be,” Bodensteiner said.

Farra (r) and Jarrett (l) watch Billy Demong's gold medal performance at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Farra’s tasks have been divided up between existing staff, with Bodensteiner stepping in to shoulder some work.

But neither Grover nor Vordenberg said their workloads had increased drastically. And Bodensteiner, who was Farra’s own predecessor as nordic director, described the time he spends on the role as “not a lot.”

Much of the burden appears to have fallen on Toni Adams, the nordic program manager. All three men described her as stepping up her workload significantly since Farra’s departure.

On the nordic combined side, Jarrett describes Farra as putting 80 percent of his time into cross-country.

“Right now, we haven’t felt it as much as probably the cross-country program has,” Jarrett said. “But it certainly is a big loss to have him not there.”

Grover added that Farra was still on board for the team’s spring planning, and that now the program is comfortable in its training routine.

“We got through the part where we need some guidance, and the rest of the year we know what to do,” Grover said.

Bodensteiner describes his current approach as running the program with a “management team,” and made it clear that there is no time-frame for hiring Farra’s replacement. Some program director jobs have gone unstaffed for as long as two years, Bodensteiner said, and the nordic opening “could definitely be longer-term.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury to say, ‘we have an open spot,’ and then go hire somebody,” he said, “because we have a thousand demands on the dollars that I could put into that role.”

The high level of experience of current nordic staff has helped the situation as well Bodensteiner told FasterSkier.

“Those guys [Nordic coaches] for the last couple of years have been the ones setting the tone for the program and providing the leadership for the community and the athletes,” he said.

He did confirm that he has given thought to potential candidates and that if the workload became too heavy for existing staff, he could accelerate the hiring process.

— Nat Herz contributed reporting

Topher Sabot

Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.

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