When the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team Foundation (USSTF) Board of Trustees, the nonprofit fundraising arm of the U.S. Ski Team, met on July 24, Billy Demong had something to say.
A guest at the annual meeting, the five-time Olympian and current U.S. Nordic Combined Team skier had been given the floor to speak on behalf of his sport and its sustainability in the U.S. What he said was moving enough that it persuaded the board to give U.S. NoCo $150,000 dollars for the next two years, amending its July 31 defunding deadline — in which the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) initially planned to cease team funding for nordic combined.
Demong could not be reached for comment and U.S. Nordic Combined Head Coach Dave Jarrett wasn’t at the meeting in Park City, Utah, but the outcome was a big deal, Jarrett explained on the phone last week.
“I think they realized that they made a perhaps a hasty decision,” Jarrett said. “… It sounded like all the trustees were not necessarily aware of the way the decision was made and the actual facts involved. They were really ill-informed with what we have in the pipeline…”
He added that, at the end of last season, USSA did not ask him to prepare a presentation or explain where his team stood for the next four years.
“They didn’t give us a chance to show that we have this many U16s and U18s and U20s in our pipeline and that our sport is alive … and on a per-capita basis we’re doing a lot with our athletes,” Jarrett said. “… To be honest, even if we won a medal in Sochi, this same thing would’ve happened. I think it was done before Sochi and they just looked at it, that Bill was probably going to be finished and Todd [Lodwick] was finished … and they just classified us as nothing. I don’t know that for a fact; that was just my gut feeling that was going to happen.”
On Aug. 12, USSA CEO Tiger Shaw sent an email to nordic-combined stakeholders regarding the outcome of the trustees’ annual meeting. He signed it, along with USSTF Vice President Trisha Worthington and another trustee, Greg Boester.
“This spring we had to make many tough funding decisions as we evaluated our sport allocation along the guidelines of the 2010 Strategic Planning Committee adopted following the 2010 Games in Vancouver,” the email began. “This resulted in our decision to reduce funding for the nordic combined national team to a level far below that of the 2014 Olympic season, despite the previous success of that team four years ago…”
Jarrett said he would challenge every program under USSA’s umbrella to prove they have the depth to continue performing at the USSA’s ‘Best in the World,’ medal-potential standards, should they lose a couple athletes to retirement, injury or something of that nature.
“Almost every program within USSA isn’t as deep as you think,” he said.
“… We have been seeking ways to help bridge this sudden gap in funding and to help the nordic combined community with an alternative funding model,” the email continued. “To further this effort, the USSA and its foundation have agreed with Billy Demong, his teammates and the nordic combined community to forge a partnership.”
That involved USSA fronting the team $150,000 for this season (and committing to the same amount next year) in exchange for 15 Gold Passes, valued at $10,000 apiece. USSA aims to sell 450 of these passes by the end of the fiscal year (April 30, 2015) to go toward its general fund. The passes are fully transferable and provide lift access to more than 250 U.S. ski resorts, and 85 percent of their total cost is tax deductible.
U.S. Nordic Combined must sell its 15 passes by next spring to donors the foundation hasn’t previously reached out to. So instead of just asking for money, like it has been, U.S. NoCo will have something big to offer supporters in return.
“As far as I know, this is the first opportunity where [USSA has] allocated a certain number of Gold Passes to a program,” Jarrett said. “… We’ll see if it works. In light of everything that’s happened, the whole fundraising-revenue paradigm at USSA is perhaps going to be different and probably change for a good thing, but I think there will be some growing pains involved in that. This is certainly a great opportunity for us in light of our situation.”
As of Aug. 29, Jarrett wasn’t sure how many Gold Passes his program had sold — maybe one, he said. Mostly parents in nordic-combined’s core community were heading up the effort.
If they sell more than 15 passes, the remaining funds go to USSA’s general fund. Jarrett wasn’t sure if they could revisit the agreement next year and seek more than $150,000 if they exceed USSA’s fundraising expectations.
“It’s generous for USSA to provide us with this opportunity if they have 450 [passes] to sell,” Jarrett explained. “…That’s taking money out of the general fundraising.”
In terms of what kind of difference those dollars will make, Jarrett said it’s huge. His position had already been secured, but the extra money from USSA ensured that the team could keep coach Greg Poirier and hire a Continental Cup coach and service technicians for the coming season.
“It was a real shot in the arm at the very last minute because Greg’s salary was set to end on July 31, so it was a big deal right then,” Jarrett said. “Really, when you’re starting at zero, $150,000 is a big jump on it to get things going.”
“It was a real shot in the arm at the very last minute. … Really, when you’re starting at zero, $150,000 is a big jump on it to get things going.” — Dave Jarrett, U.S. Nordic Combined Head Coach on USSA’s recent two-year financial agreement with his team
At the same time, it doesn’t come close to matching U.S. NoCo’s roughly $600,000-dollar annual budget. By now, Jarrett needs to have plane tickets booked and travel logistics locked down for his team, which starts its international season in November.
“The question that we’re all struggling with now is, what kind of risk are we willing to assume to get things going?” he said. “If we wait until we get it in the bank, it’s going to be two months too late.”
The money from USSA will cover the team’s entire staff salaries and some travel expenses, minimizing the risk factor, he added. The rest of its budget will have to be self-raised, which the team and its community are working on. U.S. NoCo partnered with USA Ski Jumping this summer in an effort to collaborate on fundraising and sponsorships, but the partnership is new and funds remain separate.
In mid-October, after U.S. Nordic Combined Championships from Oct. 11-12 in Lake Placid, N.Y., 17 athletes and four coaches with the team will travel to Europe for their first overseas camp of the season. First, they’ll first compete at Swiss nationals and later train on the jumps in Oberstdorf, Germany. Most of the athletes will be paying their own way.
“It’s really only the ‘A’ team that’s 100-percent fully covered,” Jarrett said. “There’s definitely self funding going on, almost from the top down.”
He explained they asked most of their athletes to put down the money they’ll need to cover their individual costs for the season. If fundraising goes as planned, they’re hoping to give as much of that back to them as possible.
But $10,000-dollar ski passes, with additional incentives like invites to work out with Olympians and a VIP tour of the Center of Excellence, can be a tough sell.
“At first it sounded like these were going to sell like hotcakes,” Jarrett said. “… But not everybody can afford to do that.”
He pointed to the USA Ski Jumping website as a means of donating any amount (as of now, all donations go to a general fund for USA Ski Jumping & Nordic Combined) and USSA’s website to find out more about the Gold Pass.
“No amount is too small,” he said. “We want people to donate with the thought, what can I do every year for the next four years? … like an annual giving to nordic combined.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.