USAT's evolving mission

Below are items voted on, and approved, at the November 14/15 USA Triathlon's board meeting (you can read the board meeting minutes by downloading them off of USAT's website). USA Triathlon is the "national governing body" for triathlon in the United States.

U.S. Elite Race Series: $200,000 approved for the series: $150,000 for prize money and $50,000 for transportation of signage. This, for 2011. USAT announced this USA Triathlon Elite Race Series last week. The line item above represents the funding for it.

Elite Compensation: $240,000 to direct athlete camp and support. This is incremental money spent on Olympic elites above what was spent this past year. This is not a new budget line item per se. Rather, the USOC adopts a funding posture not unlike the Department of Education's Race to the Top, where those who do well get funded and those who don't don't. USA has not done well recently in Olympic and World Championship racing, so, its funding was cut. This $240,000 largely patches a shortfall in USOC money cut from USAT's program. Still, it's a diversion of money raised mostly by RDs and AGers toward Olympic development.

Up to $1,000,000 allocated for 2012 to be spent on a WCS race on U.S. soil: The board meeting minutes reference this proposed race, " be funded at a minimum of 150,000 up to 1,000,000 with the goal of raising funds. Board discussed and agreed that the intention of funding is to spend up to 1,000,000 if a criterion is met. Jeff Dyrek [National Events Director] will contact ITU to let them know the commitment USAT is making."

For those who don't know, the ITU Olympic-format world championship is not contested at one location, rather such title is earned through accumulating points at several WCS races (WCS = World Championship Series). This resolution proposes to bring such an event to American soil.

In toto, this represents $440,000 in new spending for Olympic racers in 2011, with an additional up-to-$1 million spent in 2012. These are breathtaking sums relative to historic spending by the federation on Olympic-format elite athletes and events.

The federation has been spending roughly $500,000 in recent years toward Olympic development. These are the hard dollars, and don't include the soft costs, such as dual-role staff (marketing/communications and events staff, key executives), and the offices and building in which they sit.

To put this in perspective, for 2011 USAT may be doubling its spending on Olympic development from $500,000 to upwards of $1 million, and then perhaps doubling it again to $2 million in calendar 2012, should all the money in the approved resolutions be spent.

This is my assessment based simply on the budget items approved during the November board meeting. I can identify no offsetting income. For example, maybe the USOC, or a sponsor, said to the federation, "Here's an incremental $200,000 for prize money for a draft-legal race series, but it can be used only for that purpose." Were this the case, yes, the item approved by the board would be incremental, but it would be offset by income specific for it. I can identify no such offsetting income for these budget items approved.

These proposed expenditures are set against a backdrop of a federation on a very sound financial footing: USAT will probably earn about $12 million in revenues in 2011, and it's sitting on close to $7 million in cash. The above represents, to the best of my ability to ferret out the facts, the situation as the federation rolls into 2011.

It's also true that there may be sponsors that do look at what the federation has proposed to spend toward Olympic medals—sponsors impressed by the federation's zeal and efforts who may as a result step up and indemnify USAT's expenses toward certain of these efforts. Still, I don't see anything in the minutes that tells me that these amounts to be paid out of the federation's "rainy day fund" are temporary, or represent seed money to be retired in the future by offsetting income. My intuition tells me that those board members driving Olympic development are not likely to vote this funding back out of existence.

Some reading the above are going to be aghast. USA Triathlon was originally set up as a way by which race directors could pool their resources and buy insurance, establish rules, train officials, as a collective. Some hearken back to this original mission and say that the expenditures above are in direct contradiction to that mission. And they would be right.

Except that when USAT was established, there was no Olympic triathlon, and the federation was not a federation sitting under the USOC umbrella. The moment USAT decided to enter that milieu, it stopped being simply a race director collective. That ship has sailed. That horse has left the barn.

Consequently, the $440,000 appoved by for the 2011 season is precisely the correct move for the board to make (The up-to-$1 million for a WCS event on American soil, well, the persuasive case hasn't yet been made to me).

As to the execution of that $440,000 expense, opinions vary. Among other tasks I was a race promoter back in the late '90s, and USAT came to me and asked if it might bestow a considerable sum of money onto my national race series, were I to produce three pro events that were Olympic-format. I agreed, and that money sat in toto on top of my prize purses. The idea was to grant Olympic-format racers a way to race in the U.S., and to earn decent money. I stipulated, however, that I wanted this to be a 3-year commitment, so that I didn't supercharge my prize purse in year-1 only to shrink it back in year-2.

But the deal was rescinded after the first year because—USAT's then-president explained to me—so many RDs complained that they were not able to bid for the right to get this prize money for their races. And I understand their thinking. I would have been mad as well, had I been one of these other RDs.

I would not be surprised to see the same sort of blowback this year. Indeed, the Life Time Fitness / Race to the Toyota Cup Series share race dates with several of the USA Elite Series events. The way one Life Time Fitness RD put it to me, "Our federation is taking our one-day money and using it to compete against us." It's hard to argue with this logic, and one wonders why USAT didn't learn from the earlier experiment with my series and employ that via the use of a competitive bid system—sending out RFPs to RDs the way they typically do when deciding where to domicile a championship.

Still, while I might quibble about the execution, the idea is sound: you aren't going to generate Olympic medals if you don't invest in Olympic development.

Many of you are not persuaded. Many of you still think this is a bad way to spend the federation's money. Many of you think the federation has more urgent priorities. I understand that. I disagree with you. Any federation sitting underneath the umbrellas of both the ITU and the USOC has as a primary mandate Olympic development.

What I would say to those who simply don't share this interest is this: Vote. One way or the other: Vote. Either vote at the ballot box (did you vote during the last USAT election?). Or, vote with your feet. Or, if you're an RD, don't complain. Vote with your dollars. Lick a stamp, and place it on a letter to your board member. Vote with your decision on whether to sanction your race with a federation that you didn't leave, but which you think has left you.

USAT's mission has morphed. It has correctly morphed considering the decision it made upwards of 20 years ago to sit under the USOC umbrella. It has morphed into the federation it needs to be in order to be ITU/USOC affiliated.

USAT will, or would, or should, understand when what's best for the businesses of certain sanctioning RDs differs from an evolving mission in which those RDs no longer share.