Athletes who buy U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) membership and compete in National Ranking List (NRL) events throughout the season will face higher race and membership prices this winter than in previous years. Due to an increase in its own administrative and insurance costs, USSA has raised the price of some of its services, which has some coaches and regional coordinators concerned about pricing entry-level skiers out of the sport.
The head tax that race organizers must pay in order to hold a sanctioned NRL event increased by $4 per entrant across all USSA disciplines — from $4 to $8 per head in cross country, with a cap at $800 per race where the limit was once $400. Many regional organizers said they would have to pass on the rate hike to the consumer in the form of higher entry fees.
USSA’s annual cross-country competitor and club membership dues have also gone up; club membership increased from $150 to $200, individual membership (ages 13 and older) was $140 in 2011 and is now $150, and youth membership (under 13) is $60 where it was once $50.
According to USSA, the hike in the head tax is necessary to cover its own increasing costs. In the eight years since rates were last changed, there has been a 55% increase in the price the governing body pays to provide liability insurance at sanctioned events, including a 22% increase in the last year alone.
USSA is also experiencing the added costs of implementing new race administration services. It plans to add an online race registration tool to its website, a service organizers have commonly outsourced to third parties like Active.com in the past and for which competitors pay a processing fee. USSA hopes that internalizing the service will make it easier for organizers to integrate information from its member database into start lists and results, as well as divert processing fee revenue back to the governing body.
USSA Vice President of Athletics Luke Bodensteiner said that revenue from the increase in cross-country fees will go directly back to supporting cross-country membership programs, such as administration of the ranking list.
“There are costs we incur to have members, have member clubs, have member races,” Bodensteiner said. “What we try to do is make sure we are bringing in income to support the membership programs.”
Bodensteiner acknowledged that the increase in head tax would be a challenge for race organizers, who either have to absorb the extra cost or pass it along to the competitors’ entry fees. But he didn’t anticipate much of a drop in registered NRL races.
“It’s early to gauge, but so far it doesn’t look like there will be a major change in that,” he said in early June.
Any time there is an increase in fees to members, the USSA board votes on the action. The board includes athlete representatives as well as chairpersons from each of the respective sport committees, who are given the chance to gauge response to any given proposal from the stakeholders within the disciplines at the annual USSA Congress.
Some regional administrators and event organizers contacted in June for comment on the increase said they would likely not cut the number of NRL races on their respective 2012-2013 calendars, and expected to increase entry fees in order to meet the added cost. Others said they would consider holding fewer NRL events if the added cost didn’t make sense for typically smaller races.
What the regions agreed upon was a sense of disappointment in not initially being informed of the reasons for the rate hike.
“We heard about it when we went to the USSA Congress and saw the packet of information before the meeting started,” said Rocky Mountain representative Mike Elliott.
“There was outrage.”
Cross-country committee chairman Jon Engen listened to initial feedback at the USSA Congress before reporting back to the board, and sympathized with the frustration expressed by regional representatives.
“If you had a dollar increase ten years ago, and another dollar increase six years ago, maybe this wouldn’t have been an issue,” Engen said. “But that never did happen, and now with a $4 increase it’s very unpopular.”
Ultimately, he added, “the price of milk is hard to argue with.”
Once made aware of the reasons for the rate hike, coaches and program directors were understanding of the financial reality but remained unhappy with USSA’s communication regarding the change.
“We understand where they’re coming from,” said New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA) director Zach Stegeman. “We’d have liked to be a part of the conversation, but the reality is that they are increasing fees to represent some real expenses and they are intending to keep all the revenue in the nordic community, so we certainly can’t complain about that.”
While Stegeman was fairly certain that NENSA uses a separate insurance provider, clubs like the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) that also encompass alpine disciplines do rely fully on USSA’s coverage.
The root of some community members’ disappointment in a perceived exclusion from the rate hike conversation lies in the fear that raising entry fees and membership dues might price some athletes out of the sport.
“Making the sport more expensive is not a good thing in general, especially for entry level athletes,” said Central Cross Country director Yuriy Gusev. “NRL events always have great competitive atmosphere around them and high level of competition. If this change will affect the number of participants in NRL events that will be a big downside.”
SVSEF director Rick Kapala made a similar point about the increase in membership.
“The one I’m the most concerned about is the youth membership increase,” Kapala said. “Every barrier to entry you put into sport at the youngest levels, that’s not good. If you’d have had a discussion about it, which we didn’t, I’d have argued for keeping youth membership exactly the same, and increasing [membership for] J2 and older. They utilize the services more; the points, the pipeline is more geared towards them.”
For a significant base of USSA members — juniors — the value of membership and participation in NRL races lies in earning potential for USSA points. Points are awarded to USSA members based on NRL results, and USSA keeps track of each athlete’s points on a list that ranks their season-long performance against skiers from all over the country. The list is then used to seed juniors in mass starts at Junior Nationals, and provides certain regions a standard metric with which to determine its elite groups.
Cutting NRLs out of a regional calendar, therefore, would hurt athletes’ JNs seeding. In Rocky Mountain, Elliott felt the division has no choice but to accept the decision and increase their NRL race entry fees. Other regions felt the same; they would continue sanctioning the same number of NRL races, but would have no choice but to raise prices.
“I don’t imagine that we are so close to the tipping point that it will have a great effect in entries, but it might deter some people,” wrote Pete Leonard, interim Alaska representative and Fairbanks Nordic Ski Club head coach, in an email. “Hopefully our efforts to make the events…better will counteract that.”
Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.