In his Weekly Report for January 17, 2011, USA Field Hockey Executive Director Steve Locke addresses concerns relating to the ‘global’ landscape of funding for Olympic/Pan Am sports in the United States. Put into context, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has cut funding to a number of National Governing Bodies (NGB’s) due in part to underperformance in business aspects and principally, a lack of ‘podium’ appearances in international competition. Locke does not indicate that USA Field Hockey falls into this category.
In essence, the USOC functions as any other type of business. Success/survival is determined by the ability to maximize return on investment, whether it’s technology, infrastructure, human capital- or in the case of the USOC, Olympic/Pan Am Sports. The USOC’s revenue is acquired solely through private sponsorship, which implies that it is charged with allocating those funds to NGB’s whose sports have the greatest chance at earning medals in international competition. Positive marketing associated with successful Olympic/Pan Am teams provides exposure and terms necessary to sustain long term sponsor relationships.
Locke generally seems satisfied with the USOC’s approach to funding NGB’s, and he even goes as far as to say that “The USOC’s CEO and CMO are both top shelf and are operating in a highly professional manner in a very challenging financial environment in the face of ever growing competition for sport marketing dollars.” Yet, in order to take the financial pressure off the USOC and Olympic/Pan Am sports alike, Locke goes on to suggest Federal funding as a serious remedy.
Many countries throughout the world have sport ministries and/or Olympic Committees that conduit governmental funding to Olympic/Pan Am sport development and general support. Having governmental funds to support sport gives other countries a distinct advantage.
Locke doesn’t mention any specific examples of a ‘distinct advantage’ gained by other countries via government support. At first glance, perhaps they’re too obvious to mention. Yet, I wonder if one were to speak with the heads of various foreign field hockey NGB’s, they would all agree? Would they all feel that their sport is being adequately funded by their ‘Sport Ministry’? Or perhaps, would they feel the exact same type of pressure competing for ‘Sport Ministry’ funds as the US Olympic/Pan Am sports do with the USOC? Furthermore, to what extent do the executives of a given NGB enjoy being dictated the terms in which to operate their organization by a government official or committee that possesses no expertise relating that respective sport? Locke acknowledges the last point, but brushes past such a concern as mere ‘perception’ – as if easily overcome by evidence to the contrary.
While combining USOC funding with Federal funding is sure to satisfy any given NGB’s short term accounting fix, the long term effect is much harder to predict. It’s possible that Federal influence in the process could result in an actual decline of USOC sponsors. Gaining sponsors is largely achieved by selling a story about the sport, the athletes, the lifestyle, etc… The USOC will have a much tougher case to make to private donors when specifying it’s funding needs against the backdrop of a Federal cushion. Furthermore, it’s not a stretch to imagine the extent to which a given sponsor may be subject bureaucratic policy preferences. In the long run, it’s conceivable the net result could amount to the USOC having less to allocate than before.
Underlying the entire conversation about whether Federal funding would be a good idea, is the notion that Olympic/Pan Am sports simply cannot succeed without proportionally increased funding on an annual basis.
While the argument can be made that the USA has been generally successful in medal acquisition over many of the previous Olympic and Pan American Games, the competition for support dollars likely will cause Olympic/Pan Am sports’ portions to diminish, and along with a lack of investment there will be diminished performance on the field of play.
The premise that there exists a causal link between money and performance is taken simply as a matter of fact. For example, the same premise underlies the logic that drives debate for education funding and ultimately, the allocation of billions of dollars worth of legislation. Yet, a statistical snapshot of American public schools in the last 50 years depicts an inverse proportion of funding relative to performance. That is, as education budgets continue to increase, performance has measurably declined. The relationship is obviously not perfectly interdependent, but the example effectively undermines the notion that money is a performance prerequisite.
I’m sympathetic to the financial realities faced by NGB’s, notably USA Field Hockey. However, in the face of economic pressure, it’s dissatisfying to witness an executive mindset that instinctively eyes Federal funding on behalf of a non-profit organization or otherwise. Not only has the concept become somewhat of a cliche, but the notion that sport has a place among any given taxpayer’s hierarchy of needs seems highly misplaced.
The field hockey landscape in the US is like no other country in the world. We boast high participation in real numbers compared to other countries; however, despite US Field Hockey’s genuinely strong effort, the sport remains relatively fractured among each region, state, country and township. Wherever the game is played, a unique set of idiosyncrasies dictate the experience. Some athletes don’t start playing until middle school; others start in first grade. Some kids play on turf, while others play on grass their entire careers. Field hockey clubs range in varying levels of sophistication; some operate year round (indoor & outdoor), while others train seasonally. The list goes on and overall paints a picture of chaos.
In an effort to reign in the apparent chaos, US Field Hockey spends a great deal of its resources (time, personnel & money) on sport development, i.e. more organization, more continuity, more uniformity. Taken at face value, this seems a perfectly reasonable strategy, congruent with international benchmarks set by other countries. The problem is that field hockey is not tightly institutionalized in our country like it may be in others. Therefore, the same business practices do not apply. As US Field Hockey seeks to expand its reach in spite of limited resources, it unwittingly positions itself as ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Rather than seeking control of the chaos, the association would be better served by promoting it.
Businesses spend millions a year annually on consultants in an effort to break the mold of institutionalized uniformity within their organizations. After all, if you’re chasing yesterday’s product or business model, so is everyone else. In the case of US Field Hockey, the association is uniquely positioned to preside at the helm of a business (field hockey) that possesses unlimited resources and creativity. These resources manifest themselves most effectively in the hands of the individuals on the ground in each state, county and township- those people with the expertise and relationships to handle the idiosyncrasies inherent in their respective locality. None of this is meant to imply that US Field Hockey isn’t capable of bringing people into the fold. On the contrary; association membership is up, Futures enrollment is up, and attendance at the major events is up. But does the association exist for the sake of generating revenue, or rather winning medals? Might its own expertise be better allocated among it’s core competencies, allowing it to actually perform better with less? A stagnant world ranking begs the question.
So how does US Field Hockey solve it’s potential future funding dilemma while developing the sport and staying focused on its mission (productive national teams)? One strategy is to get lean. Stop extending itself in any number of seemingly relevant directions and allow its vast network of resources to do the heavy lifting. Focus strictly on a back-end, business to business approach through private club development. Construct business plans for starting private field hockey clubs and assist individuals in the process of implementation, expansion and sustainability. Serve clubs on a consultancy basis (charge a fee!). Overall, allow the unlimited power of personal financial incentive and market competition among clubs dictate their inevitable long term success or failure. The ensuing product will consist of a steady expansion of realized, multi-dimensional talent and an organically evolving sport.
By allowing the engine of sport development to happen on a behind the scenes basis (think puppet master), US Field Hockey could extricate itself from a heavy administrative and financial burden, reallocate it’s resources and focus more centrally on its reason for existing: the development of Jr. and Sr. national teams for the purposes of winning medals. Locke’s recent Weekly Report concerning NGB’s, shrinking USOC allocations and the prospect of Federal funding lends itself to more than simply a few curious questions. The association’s long term sustainability is contingent on it’s financial well being, so it only seems wise to revisit aspects of its business strategy that may prevent that realization from happening.
CE Business Director
Quick note… None of the commentary in this post is intended as criticism of effort put forth by US Field Hockey, Steve Locke or anyone else affiliated with the USFHA. Opinions expressed are done so with admittedly, limited information. I hope they are perceived in as constructive a manor as possible.