Golden 25: #1 -- New Direction for USOC

(ATR) As the USOC goes, so goes the Olympics. The coming year brings major challenges.

(ATR) As the USOC goes, so go the Olympics.

This largest and best-financed NOC in the world faces significant challenges in 2019. Some could change the U.S. Olympic Committee as it exists today.

While the changing marketplace for the Olympics is one factor, the biggest headwinds flow from the aftermath of the USA Gymnastics sex abuse saga.

Lawsuits filed by victims could mean judgments or settlements into the tens of millions of dollars, not to mention the seven-figure legal bills the USOC faces.

Criminal proceedings stemming from a failure to act expeditiously when he learned of the sexual abuse allegations could be ahead for ex-USOC CEO Scott Blackmun. The FBI has been asked to investigate whether Blackmun may have lied to a Senate committee hearing last June. Charges against Blackmun will do little to restore the credibility of the USOC in Congress.

After a half dozen hearings in 2018, more are likely in 2019. One outcome could be a push for radical changes to the Amateur Sports Act, the law that establishes the USOC and provides for its protected status under U.S. tax law.

There’s even the possibility that Congress could demand resignations of the USOC board of directors, similar to the edict the USOC issued to USA Gymnastics.

Based on the comments and questioning from members of Congress during the hearings of 2018, the USOC seems to have few friends in Washington. It has no advocates among the members of Congress, not even from its home state of Colorado. Of note, Diana DeGette, a member of the House of Representatives from Colorado, will take over in 2019 as chair of the U.S. House Oversight subcommittee handling the USOC.

The election of Mitt Romney to the U.S. Senate from Utah could be a help. The former head of the Salt Lake City Olympics has already worked firsthand with the USOC at a time when the NOC was also dealing with organizational issues and complaints from Congress. In fact, the USOC is operating under a set of governance reforms that resulted in part from congressional hearings 16 years ago.

Answering the tough questions from Congress will be Susanne Lyons, the new chair of the USOC effective January 1.

Hers will be the voice for stability at the USOC, the one who explains to the Senators and Representatives how things are changing for the better under the new leadership of the USOC. A long-time board member and interim CEO in 2018, Lyons is deeply familiar with the operations of the USOC, which should be a valuable asset. Predecessor Larry Probst brought zero such background in 2008 when he came out of nowhere to become USOC chair.

Whether Congress makes radical changes or just tinkers with the USOC, the impact could be felt for years to come. With the USOC’s role as keeper of the rings in the world’s largest Olympic market, the financial implications are enormous.

Broadcaster NBC provides the largest dose of cash to the IOC and USOC of any sponsor. Of the worldwide sponsors, six out of 12 are from the U.S. On the horizon for 2020 is the launch of the next phase of the new marketing agreement between the IOC and the USOC. That deal, struck six years ago, provides for more equitable distribution of revenues between the IOC and the world’s NOCs.

Along with Lyons, CEO Sarah Hirshland will be a key member of the USOC team. She has been on the job since August.

With a no-nonsense style of leadership, she acted decisively with the firing in December of sport performance director Alan Ashley. An independent report prepared for the USOC on its role in the gymnastics scandal indicates that Ashley did not tell the truth about what he knew.

Recruiting a successor to Ashley, who oversaw a juggernaut of Olympic medal success, will test the direction Hirshland is taking to build a new team for the USOC.

Hirshland is the first permanent CEO for the USOC since 2010 when Blackmun got the job. She comes from the U.S. Golf Association where she was chief commercial officer.

Hirshland and Lyons now become the USOC’s international representatives following the departure of Larry Probst and Blackmun. Both women have been part of the U.S. delegations to international events this year, including the IOC Session in Buenos Aires and the Youth Olympic Games, as well as the ANOC General Assembly in Tokyo.

Lyons will take over as chair of the marketing commission for Panam Sports, the post held by Probst. One of the two USOC leaders will probably be elected later this year to a seat on the Panam Sports executive board also once held by Probst and Blackmun.

Not so certain is the prospect of Lyons or Hirshland as an IOC member. There is no requirement that either be selected given that the U.S. currently has two active members, vice president Anita DeFrantz and Athletes Commission member Kikkan Randall. But that was also the case in 2013 when Probst was nominated.

The importance of the US to the Olympic Movement is underscored by its willingness to host Olympic Games at a time when cities are not welcoming the event. Los Angeles is now designated as the host of the 2028 Games. And in December, Salt Lake City was named as the next U.S. candidate for a Winter Olympics, although the date is still uncertain. Talk behind the scenes continues over whether Salt Lake City might be available as an emergency candidate should both Stockholm and Milan bids for 2026 fall apart before the IOC vote in June.

As a result of Los Angeles being selected to host the 2028 Olympics, the USOC has handed over its marketing operations to a joint venture that will begin sales in 2019. Headed by Kathy Carter, with offices in New York, Colorado and Los Angeles, her team intends to raise more than $5 billion in domestic marketing revenue. Closely involved in the joint venture are Lyons as well as Casey Wasserman, chair of LA 2028.

The year ends with word that the largest sporting goods retailer in the U.S., Dick’s Sporting Goods, won't continue its sponsorship. Whether that's a bellwether that signals a tougher climate to make Olympic deals remains to be seen.

It's up to the new USOC team to convince existing and and prospective sponsors that an Olympic sponsorship won't be shadowed by reputational concerns..

A healthy USOC presumably means good health for Olympic sports in the U.S. Globally that means a new generation of athletes in the mold of Michael Phelps, Simone Biles or Lindsey Vonn who can give the Games the star power they need.

As the USOC goes, so goes the Olympics.

The Around the Rings Golden 25 is the annual survey of individuals who will have the most influence for the Olympic Movement in the year ahead. First published in 1997, this is the 22nd edition.

Reported by Ed Hula.