Soon after he accepted the thankless task of trying to rebuild the sprawling, fractured operation at Indianapolis-based USA Track and Field, Doug Logan received a one-line text from the NBA commissioner at the time, David Stern: “You only take the easy ones.”
Logan laughed. Deep down, as the first commissioner of Major League Soccer in the late 1990s, Logan knew if he did what was necessary, he’d make enemies and be gone in a few years.
He lasted 26 months—not very surprising given the world of Olympic-style politics, infighting, limited resources and multilayered demands he walked into.
“There’s the old cliche of ‘low risk, high reward,'” Logan said. “Taking a job like that, it’s ‘high risk, low reward.'”
As the new CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, Sarah Hirshland, or any of the three recently ousted leaders of Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics can attest to, the task of running an organization in the U.S. Olympic world looks like a job description from hell:
Wanted: Take-no-prisoners sports-and-business expert to run not-for-profit sports team in which you have no say in picking the players, and cannot pay them, either.
Salary: $1 million a year if you’re lucky.
Key challenges: Ensure athlete safety, both from abusers and day-to-day injuries common to your sport. Keep hundreds of grassroots clubs, thousands of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of recreational participants happy.
Also: From those grassroots programs, maintain a high-functioning, elite program guaranteed to win medals each year at world championships and Olympics.
Bonus: Be ready, at any given moment, to answer to the government, which ultimately controls your future but has vowed not to spend a penny toward furthering your success.
If you succeed, you get to keep your job. For a while, at least.
Ultimately, neither the USA Gymnastics board of directors nor the two leaders it chose to reboot the federation were up to these tasks. That led Hirshland to call for the dismantling of the national governing body, or NGB, torn apart by a sex-abuse scandal it couldn’t prevent, recognize or rebuild from. Hirshland’s own future will be decided in part by what the USOC does to replace the agency it seeks to tear apart.
USA Gymnastics is one of 50 national governing bodies for sports—all with differing sizes, agendas, budgets and staffs—but with this common thread:
“You have to not only look for ways to grow your sport, but also for ways to support your sport at the highest level,” said Rich Bender, the CEO of USA Wrestling in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “At times, you can get conflicted. One of the realities is, those NGBs that have found success have been able to marry the two.”
When Congress adopted the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act in 1978, its main motivation was to wrest control of the individual sports from the grip of the Amateur Athletic Union, which regulated most Olympic sports and often adopted rules that didn’t allow them to function well at the highest levels.
The law, likely to be revisited and tweaked in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal, established the modern-day USOC and gave it authority to choose which organizations would oversee the dozens of sports on the Olympic program.
Those organizations, the annual revenues of which fall in the range of anywhere from $750,000 (USA Badminton) to $35 million (USA Track and Field, U.S. Ski & Snowboard), are in control of much more than producing gold-medal Olympians, however.
“A lot of these NGBs have an executive, and he or she is doing press releases, folding towels and making sure they have a place to stay at the Olympics,” said Bob Condron, a longtime Olympic insider who worked at the USOC. “A lot don’t have the resources to do what they’re supposed to do.”
Jim Scherr, the former CEO of the USOC, ticked off no fewer than a dozen roles a typical NGB has to fulfill.
Among them: managing youth sports; developing athlete pipelines; liaising with the NCAA, which is a key part of that pipeline in the United States; marketing, promoting and delivering local programs and services; event management, both local and national; fundraising; sponsorship; media; ticketing; licensing; managing hundreds of volunteers whose only compensation are recognition and occasional access to events.
Board members that oversee the staff and set the direction of the organization are volunteers—usually not well versed in most, if not all, of these areas.
“There’s a cycle,” Scherr said. “Boards will focus for a while on athletic performance and hire someone who’s an expert there. Then, they’ll say, ‘We’ve lost sight of the bottom line,’ and the sports person will get replaced with someone they think can steward those resources. Then, that will get solidified and they’ll want someone who can drive media rights.
“Then, eventually, the focus shifts back to sports.”
Until, that is, the cycle is interrupted by an unexpected crisis, which is where USA Gymnastics and, to some extent, the USOC, now find themselves.
Sex abuse has, for now, replaced doping as the crisis that most Olympic organizations were not built to deal with. As the dig-out begins, Hirshland will have to find a leader for gymnastics who, first and foremost, understands the need to shift the focus to athlete safety—with some concrete actions to put behind the words. It is, even in this fraught time, not an area of expertise for most sports executives.
The last time this big an NGB was in this sort of peril came when Logan was hired, not long after the USOC threatened to cut off funding or decertify a federation it deemed to be poorly run by an unwieldy board of directors.
Logan cleaned house and tried to get a grip on a volunteer operation that many felt had gotten out of control. He also created a panel to assess why the team won a paltry 23 medals in track and field at the Beijing Olympics.
In the end, he was gone, and replaced by Max Siegel, an Indianapolis native and marketing veteran with NASCAR ties who has received equal doses of love and hate for his signature business accomplishment while at the helm — a 23-year extension on the sponsorship deal with Nike worth more than $450 million.
The U.S. team has won 29 (2012) and 32 (2016) Olympic medals under his watch.
But he has no illusions that these jobs are easy—or forever.
“When people approach it by saying, ‘It’s a (not-for-profit),’ the implication is that it’s a charitable organization,” Siegel said. “But that’s not the case, and running a public entity that has commercial objectives are not missions that go hand-in-hand. It’s a constant challenge and it is a built-in tension.”
Siegel, now in his seventh year at the helm of one of the toughest NGBs out there, is a rare exception.
The chilling fact is that almost everyone who has tried one of these jobs since the current framework was established in the 1970s has been shown the door—often in far less than seven years. Scherr said the USOC conducted a survey while he was CEO and found that, excluding a few outliers, the average tenure of an NGB executive was around 18 months.
“It takes a particular lunatic, like me, to be incented to do them,” Logan said. “But the thing that is exciting about them is the great challenge.”
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