Despite Fluctuation in USOC Funding, U.S. Biathletes Rely on USBA for Cash

Chelsea LittleAugust 9, 2012
USBA has a variety of ways to pay its athletes for top performances such as this one, when Susan Dunklee  finished ninth in a World Cup pursuit in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. Photo: NordicFocus/USBA.

At its highest level, biathlon is an extremely lucrative sport. After her first full year on the World Cup circuit, now-retired German star Magdalena Neuner reportedly earned 1.3 million Euros by endorsing products – and that was in 2007, before her several overall World Cup titles. By contrast, in 2010, after several seasons of World Cup racing, Petter Northug was worth just over a million dollars in total.

But regardless of the top athletes’ success in Europe, biathlon is even more of a fringe sport than cross country skiing in the U.S. With a few exceptions – such as partnerships with companies in the firearms and hunting industries – it’s unlikely that biathletes could have any more luck making money off of sponsorships and endorsements than their skiing counterparts. Nordic sports are a tough sell.

Instead, national team members rely on their own clubs (if they have one; there are fewer biathlon teams than ski teams), and on the U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA), which covers its athletes’ expenses and provides “direct athlete support” to its top performers.

That means cash, through both monthly stipends and a dollars-for-World Cup points program. Like skiers, biathletes can also win prize money from their sport’s federation, the International Biathlon Union, but only for top-ten individual or top-six relay finishes on the World Cup, or a few results on the second-tier IBU Cup.

In the past, USBA has doled out monthly stipends of up to $2,000 to its top athletes. But not everyone is flush with money, and that includes the governing body. USBA’s Form 990, a federal tax report, for the fiscal year ending in June 2011 showed revenues of $2.63 million but expenses of $2.72 million, and the organization ran a $90,000 deficit. The previous year, USBA’s $2.37 million in revenues led to a deficit of over $221,000.

The budget squeeze has led to smaller stipends, a threat to the cash-for-points program, and uncertainty for athletes. Criteria for the stipends are not decided until the summer, and have changed from year to year. They are also not tied to national team status, so a move from the “B” to the “A” team does not necessarily mean that athletes will raise their income from USBA.

“I don’t know the real breakdown,” national team athlete Annelies Cook wrote of the stipend criteria back in June, before the new round of funding was announced. “It has everything to do with how well you do racing in World Cups… I am on the ‘A’ team, for example, but maybe my results aren’t good enough to even get any money at all as a stipend. I guess I’ll find out.”

Despite the uncertainty of how it is divided up, direct athlete support isn’t likely to disappear, and Cook knows that she is lucky to have it at all. In one recent year, USBA had a budget of $125,000 for direct athlete support alone.

Waiting on the USOC

For Tim Burke, USBA cash relieves some of the pressure inherent in balancing a budget.

Direct athlete support used to be funded entirely through money from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), and that is still the main source of cash (more on that later). Because the USOC operates on a July-to-June fiscal year, that’s the way the direct athlete support program runs too. It isn’t until the summer that USBA finds out its budget for the program and begins doling out the new round of stipends.

The organization offers three levels of funding: a larger monthly stipend for its best athletes, a smaller monthly stipend for those knocking on the door, and a one-time grant for athletes who have shown a significant improvement over the last season or contributed to a top-ten relay result. For both the small and large monthly stipends, criteria provide four ways to qualify.

“It’s a mix of cumulative performance and best performance that would earn you your monthly stipend,” explained USBA President and CEO Max Cobb. “For instance, two top-three finishes in the World Cup gets you the highest level, or if you have a certain ranking in the World Cup points that qualifies you for different levels.”

For U.S. star Tim Burke, the philosophy of the program is simple.

“If you have the results, you’ll be rewarded,” he said in a phone interview last week.

Despite something of an off year in 2011 due to struggles with compartment syndrome, Burke has consistently had those results. In 2012, for example, he had top finishes of fourth and sixth and landed in 20th in the World Cup Total Score. For Burke, the stipend program is a source of stability.

“We’re never exactly sure what kind of funding the team will receive from the Olympic Committee, but I think it’s been fairly consistent in the last six years that I’ve been with the team,” he sad. “I think you can plan on it… It’s definitely a big help, something I rely on every year. And it does help take the pressure off, absolutely.”

If this year’s criteria had been the same as the 2012 criteria, seven of the eight members of the “A” team would be receiving a stipend of some size – but that does not appear to be the case.

“If the funding changes drastically, as it did last year, we have to adjust the amount of the monthly stipends to match how much money we have,” Cobb said.

Those adjustments can take two forms. For the 2012 season, Cobb said, the USOC cut some of its funding for biathlon and the size of the largest stipend number dropped from $2,000 per month to $1,600 per month. Budget reductions can also lead to changes in criteria, making it harder for athletes to receive the various stipends.

According to Cook, that’s what happened this summer. Members of a top-six World Cup relay team used to qualify for the smaller stipend, but Cook wrote in an e-mail that this year, that cutoff was changed to top-five. That meant that her result from Kontiolahti, Finland, where she finished sixth along with Jay Hakkinen, Tim Burke, and Sara Studebaker, no longer cut it. Cook reported that instead of a stipend, she would be receiving the one-time grant.

“Obviously we all want to aim for the best,” she said. “But even if you continue to improve in results it doesn’t guarantee that you will end up earning more, or anything at all… [some of us] are just far enough back that these numbers can have a huge impact, and it seems that the bar is always moving so that you don’t know what to expect or what to aim for.”

She knew there was an easy solution that would give her more confidence about her funding: become more like Burke.

“The bottom line is that I need to get faster,” Cook said.

Scoring Points, and Cash

The second part of USBA’s direct athlete support system seemed more cut and dry: athletes get rewarded for each World Cup point they score. No points? No dollars. And the program only goes up to 100 points, so the top athletes have a cap on the amount of money that they receive.

Lowell Bailey had his best season yet in 2012;  the cash-for-points program is designed to reward those performances.

“For every World Cup point you score up to a maximum of 100, you get $75,” Cobb explained. “And for every point of those that is scored at the World Championships, you get $150. You count World Championships points first.”

The program, while straightforward, requires more than just a glance at the World Cup Total Score at the end of each season. The awards are based on the points system employed by the IBU back when the program began, which hands out points up to 30th place; in today’s World Cup races, points are awarded out to 40th place on a different scale. In order to determine the amount of athletes’ payments, USBA must back-calculate points using the old system.

This program, too, is at the mercy of the USOC funding cycle. The reduced athlete support grant from the USOC that led to smaller stipends in 2012 also meant the complete elimination of the cash-for-points program. Athletes were justifiably worried about finances until an anonymous member of the USBA board stepped forward and offered to fund the program entirely out of their own pocket. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief.

“That program means a lot to some of us,” Burke said. “Quite a few of us max it out.”

And “maxing out” confers a significant amount of money. Based on FasterSkier’s calculations, the top earner through the program would have been, unsurprisingly, the most successful athlete at World Championships: Susan Dunklee, who should have received just over $11,000. Burke and Lowell Bailey would have come in around roughly $10,000, while Hakkinen also maxed out the program, but without any World Championship points, to receive $7,500. Studebaker and Russell Currier were on the payroll as well.

Assuming that the program stays funded, it is actually more reliable than the stipend system. There are no criteria, and no waiting. As the race season progresses, athletes can tell whether they are earning money, and how much.

“We rely on that kind of stuff to pay mortgages,” Burke said. “For sure, it’s really important.”

Diversified Portfolios

While Cobb would like to be able to provide more funding to his athletes, the reality of where USBA gets its money and the unreliable nature of the USOC budget cycles means that he can’t. Luckily, the organization isn’t the only source of money for biathletes. Besides sponsorship dollars, Cobb pointed out that athletes can earn prize money from the International Biathlon Union.

Annelies Cook: happy to be a biathlete. Photo: NordicFocus/USBA.

“By the time you’re maxing out those 100 World Cup points, you’re usually getting the IBU’s money as well [from World Cup finishes],” he said. “So that all adds up.”

Burke, Hakkinen, Cook, and Studebaker, for example, each received 750 Euros, or roughly $925, for their relay effort; the IBU pays out to sixth place for relays, so no other relay performances earned cash for the U.S.

In individual races, prize money is paid out to tenth place, meaning that five different Americans won Euros from the race organizers. The second-tier IBU Cup pays to sixth place, so several team members won cash from that circuit as well.

But to make any significant amount of money from World Cup races, biathletes have to be truly the best in the world: the 11,000 Euros awarded for a win drop quickly to 5,500 Euros for third place and below 3,000 for the rest of the top ten. Hakkinen should have earned 500 Euros for finishing ninth in the pursuit in Hochfilzen, Austria, which was his only top-ten of the season.

Burke and Bailey, who finished the season ranked in the top twenty in the World Cup Total Score, were the team’s top earners from the IBU. By FasterSkier’s calculations they received roughly $7,500 and $7,000 for their performances in individual races. Dunklee and Currier earned just under $4,000.

They way that the IBU divies up its prize money presents the same challenges to biathletes everywhere – it’s not just Americans who have to excel in order to win cash. Funding from the national governing bodies, however, varies widely. Cook pointed out that in the fight to earn World Cup podiums, U.S. biathletes aren’t necessarily on a level financial playing field with some their top competitors.

“It’s difficult for all of us to train like this is a full-time job, against other athletes who actually get paid like their job is full time,” Cook said. “But compared to the nordic athletes, it sounds like we get such a better deal… I know that our organization wants what is best for all of the athletes and the team overall, and they are just doing what they can with what they have.”

Burke agreed that USBA had its hands tied in terms of its ability to provide consistent funding, but he also appreciated the system.

“I think it’s a fair system, in that they reward the athletes with the best results with the best funding,” Burke said. “And in terms of it being consistent from year to year, I know that Max and Bernd [Eisenbichler, the High Performance Director] would love to sit down and write criteria for the next four years and say that they can commit funding to that, but that’s just not the way it works.”

Chelsea Little

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