As soon as U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO Tiger Shaw started getting email replies to the Fall Quarterly Update he had sent out to all USSA members, he knew he had made a mistake.
“I got probably 30 responses,” he told FasterSkier. “They varied the gamut from ‘this is great, thank you for all the info, you’re going a great job,’ and then five or six ‘what the hell? Where’s the information about cross-country?’”
And it was true: in the lengthy update, the nordic disciplines were only mentioned once or twice, primarily in relation to a directed-giving campaign aimed to help them raise money from supporters. Alpine and freestyle disciplines were featured in camp and team updates, or as having already started their seasons.
“They were very fair in their criticism,” Shaw said of the nordic commenters. “Frankly, it was just a pure oversight, and my entire staff, we’re all guilty of it. Maybe it’s partly because the cross-country team was right here [in Park City] under our noses.”
(The update came out the Tuesday after the opening Frozen Thunder races late last month in Canmore, but Shaw said the message had been drafted the previous week and that’s why it didn’t include a mention of the results.)
Shaw tried to reply to all the emails, in several cases having lengthy phone conversations with USSA members. And that’s something he wants: Shaw is doing an unprecedented amount of communication with the skiing public ever since taking over from longtime CEO Bill Marolt at the end of last season.
“I fully intend to keep going with it,” he said of the detailed updates on everything from marketing to training facilities updates. “The results, everybody following the sport knows that, so it’s not about that. It’s to be a little more insightful on how things have been going, where people have been, what they’ve been doing … It’s a nice thing to hear from the leadership of USSA on a routine basis about how it’s going. And I like doing it.”
Shaw worried there are many more who are dissatisfied, but didn’t bother to contact USSA.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there going, ‘Well, more of the same, an alpine guy who doesn’t even acknowledge us’,” he said. “That’s not the case, but I think I’ve made my own nest there on that one, accidentally. Guilty on omission.”
Comparing the blunder to that of other executives who say something careless at a cocktail party and then see that comment spread on twitter, he says that the last few months have been rich in on-the-job learning about how to be a CEO.
“You learn that, once you get in a position like this you just have to be really thoughtful and careful that you think about all aspects of everything that you do,” he said.
Shaw pointed to his close relationship with the cross-country team, saying that “most people probably don’t realize how well I know them.” He cited Sophie Caldwell’s elbow injury as a blow to the U.S. Ski Team at the same level as Ted Ligety’s broken hand (and much more often), and said that he will be spending three days in Davos, Switzerland, in December with the team during the World Cup competition weekend there. And it’s not a tack-on trip, either.
“The next one will probably include a lot of information about Davos and my experience in Davos, because I’m there for three nights – it’s the sole purpose of the trip,” he said of the continuing member updates.
About That Membership…
The periodic updates from the CEO’s office are just one symptom of how Shaw sees USSA membership evolving towards something more meaningful, and more fun. Among other things, he wants to move the organization toward using “standard, modern social media” to keep fans in touch with their favorite sports and athletes, something he doesn’t think USSA has done a good job of in the past.
With a long history in the sport, from junior racing in Stowe, Vt., through an NCAA Championship at Dartmouth College, two Olympic Games, and then a slot on the board of the Ford Sayre Ski Council in Hanover, New Hampshire, Shaw knows that for the last decade or longer, a USSA membership hasn’t been doing much for those who have to pony up and buy it.
“Currently, our membership base in all of our sports are what it is mainly because they have to join,” he said. “I can’t find a single alpine skier or cross country skier who is a member who would say, I joined because I wanted to and I wanted to be a part of USSA. They’ll all tell you, I joined because I must if I want to compete if in the event I want to compete in.”
That’s a problem, and Shaw knows it.
“What’s so important is the fact that [everyone] participating, they are providing the pathway and the system for the elite teams to make it to the top, while everybody who doesn’t is pursuing their passion and having a lot of fun, and being part of the entire family,” he said. “We just haven’t looked at it that way in the past. We’ve been focused on the athletes at the very top without frankly paying a lot of attention to how they got there and why they got there, and thanking and engaging all of the people who helped it happen. Every single participant in every single sport ultimately has an impact.”
Shaw anticipates rolling out a new membership structure with different payment options and more benefits in the spring. To do so, he has convened a committee for each discipline, comprised of members from industry through coaching staff, to meet at least once a month and in the end deliver him a report on what membership should look like for each sport individually.
“How do people get into the sport?” he asked. “How do we lose them out of the sport? What is the role of parents? What is the role of clubs? Which varies widely, by the way – snowboarding is not as club-based as nordic and alpine are. But also the trends, are any of those things changing. And the participation and membership situation in general. How many participants are in the sport, where are they, what are they doing, and what organizations are they a part of?”
USSA debuted a new “club participant” membership this season, which costs $25 and does not confer a racing license for USSA-sanctioned races, but does include all the other benefits of USSA membership, for instance liability and accident insurance, discounts from suppliers and other partners, and educational materials.
“We don’t do a good job of describing this, but if you’re a USSA member you get Global Rescue benefits, domestically and worldwide, and paramedics available 24 hours on the phone who you can call with any medical question while you’re traveling,” he explained. “That’s included. We’ve done such a poor job of marketing that that people don’t know it.”
(Shaw formerly worked as the senior director of response services for Global Rescue.)
Currently, for both alpine and nordic skiing, there are roughly three or four times as many participant athletes around the country who are not USSA members, compared to the number who do hold a membership.
“The idea is that, what I would love to see is that every participant in all of our sports in this country is a USSA member,” he said. “But to do that, we have to develop affordable, lower cost (especially to lower ages) membership that include significant benefits so that people want to be a member.”
That doesn’t exactly square with the increased cost of a competitor license fee to $150 this season, but Shaw is working on it. Among other things, he plans to “carefully” partner with regional organizations like NENSA and CXC.
“It’s not really a membership organization where everybody feels that they want to be part of it,” he lamented. “And they should. We’re the mother organization of the whole country. I want everybody to be part of that, including fans. There should be memberships that are free. There should be memberships that cost nine dollars, or 19, or 29, or whatever is appropriate. And they should have real benefits to them.”
Once Shaw’s committees finish their reports and his initiatives get some steam, he anticipates USSA being more involved with the types of grassroots efforts that he saw in his time with Ford Sayre.
“I just watched family after family in the Upper Valley say, ‘I’ve heard this is the thing to do, so we do it,’ ” he described. “Their kids become great athletes and skiers and snowboarders, and even if the parents weren’t, the kid gets exposed to a whole ‘nother sport which is a lifetime skill. This would be the success of USSA as a mothership organization, besides Kikkan winning the sprint and Ted [Ligety] winning the GS. It’s also the number of kids’ lives which are impacted by our sport. And we can help that.”
Shaw also discussed the restricted giving programs that USSA is setting up for individual disciplines – one of the only places in his Quarterly Update where he actually mentioned cross country and nordic combined.
The effort is headed by Liz Arky, the Washington, D.C.-based Managing Director of Global Government Relations for Accenture. For each discipline, the effort is typically spearheaded by a major donor who wants to make a directed difference.
“When somebody becomes interested in helping a part of the team, the foundation staff get involved and handle and work very closely with this donor so that we don’t accidentally turn our coaches into fundraisers,” Shaw explained.
“That is not the intent. The intent is to add the organizational horsepower of the foundation staff and the organizational gifts officers, who are trained to do this, for them to be able to handle the workload. Whereas the coaches are free to continue to enhance the relationship, but don’t have to deal with all the logistics and technicalities. It works out really well.”
While cross-country and nordic combined are some of the highlights of the program’s success – Shaw said that Arky has worked with U.S. Ski Team coaches Chris Grover and Matt Whitcomb to already accomplish several projects – he believed that every USSA discipline is currently taking advantage of the opportunity.
“The things that they do and fund are directed by the head coaches of those sports,” he said. “They tend to be things that they wanted to do, but were beyond the budget or scope of that year. So it might allow them to have a camp, or do a research project on human physiology, or whatever the project is that is next on the list, so to speak. It’s not random. It’s highly coordinated between our development team, Trish Worthington’s team, and the coaches themselves.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.