18 February 2015


Daniel Gallan

It’s hard to imagine that the United States of America spends less money on any sport compared to their direct competition, but that is the case for the United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). Luke Bodensteiner, the Executive Vice President of Athletics for the association, explains how his unique program implementation ensures his athletes win as many medals as possible, for the least amount of money.

The 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships wrapped up at Vail and Beaver Creek (Colorado) this weekend, with the host nation finishing second in the medals tally behind Austria. The event was a resounding success for the US Ski Team, winning five medals, including two gold, matching their second best performance ever. Ted Ligety (Giant Slalom) and Mikaela Shiffrin (Slalom) both stood at the top of their respective podiums, representing their nation. Neither of them will receive a single dollar from the organisation and government for which they triumphed.

 “We don’t pay our athletes money,” says Luke Bodensteiner, the Executive Vice President of Athletics for the US Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). Bodensteiner is a two time Olympian and a NCAA champion so he understands the financial restraints that are felt at all levels of the USSA. He oversees the integration of the USSA’s twelve sports under a unified strategic plan that emphasises high performance services.

Bode Miller competes in the Men's Super G at the 2015 FIS Apline World Ski Championships, Vail/Beaver Creek. Image supplied by USSA/ Cody Downward.

Bode Miller competes in the Men's Super G at the 2015 FIS Apline World Ski Championships, Vail/Beaver Creek. Image supplied by USSA/ Cody Downward.

Manchester United and England football captain Wayne Rooney earns $460 428.00 a week. In the same time, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will make $876 000.00. Boxer Floyd Mayweather made $32 million dollars for his single fight against Marcos Maidana last year. I think you see the point I’m making.

“Our goal is to win as many medals as possible with the least amount of resources. We don’t receive government funding and so we need to generate funds through various other avenues,” says Bodensteiner. “We receive donations and sponsorships in order to raise money for the facilities and coaches our athletes have access to. We host “Ski and Snowboard Balls” at major cities across the country. We have fund raising events. Our board of trustees consists of between 70-80 people who are leaders in their industries and who have been with us for years. It’s a challenge for us to keep up financially with the arms race as there is no sport we manage where we out spend our biggest competition.”

Still, the money that is raised does not go to the athletes, nor does it go to the roughly $25 000.00 that is needed for travel costs annually. The USSA’s policy is to provide the athletes with what no one else can give them. Hotels and flights are not covered because every cent that is raised through donations or made through sponsorship is funneled back in to the sports. The way the USSA and its athletes have sought to overcome this obstacle required some out of the box thinking.

They use RallyMe, an online crowdfunding site that helps athletes appeal to strangers in order to raise the funds required. It’s given the athletes a chance to reach out to the American public who have a strong Olympic dream and who wish to see the men and women who represent them achieve their goals. It has also allowed the USSA to be clear in the way they assist their athletes. As Bodensteiner says, “we can be a lot more pointed in the way we’re going to spend our resources. It’s usually a tough line to maintain emotionally.” This external crowdfunding source allows the athlete to free his or her mind from the burdens of financial restraints. The importance of the mental side of sport is obvious to us all and anything that helps in this regard will always translate to results on the slopes. By allowing this, the USSA has created a mechanism that alleviates the resource allocation pressures, as well as creates a pathway where the fan and the athlete can engage on a level that transcends a fleeting social media interaction.

Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates her victory in the Women's Slalom at the 2015 FIS Apline World Ski Championships, Vail/Beaver Creek. Image supplied by USSA/ Cody Downward.

Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates her victory in the Women's Slalom at the 2015 FIS Apline World Ski Championships, Vail/Beaver Creek. Image supplied by USSA/ Cody Downward.

“Good resource allocation is fundamental to any organisation,” says Bodensteiner. “It’s the classic Moneyball/ Oakland A’s thing. By being smarter with what you have, you can unlock innovation, technology, better coaching and facilities. The way we have started to think about resource allocation has had a profound effect on results.”

Before the 2010 Winter Olympics, the most medals the USSA contributed to the American total was 10. At Vancouver, that tally was 21. What Bodensteiner and the USSA did was unevenly distribute resources across the 12 sports based on the prestige of the sport as well as their chances of medals in each sport based on the talent at their disposal versus the competition from their rivals.

For the USSA to make the wheels turn they need to focus on alpine skiing as the media coverage and standing of the sport demands it. With other sports such as ski jumping, less attention and resources are allocated. It’s nothing personal. It’s all about the medals and prestige.

Roughly 200 athletes are involved in the elite set up across the 12 sports and the churn of talent is something that the USSA is conscious of. In sport, especially in codes that carry astronomical financial weight, we tend to forget that these are real people with real emotions involved. Have you ever tried telling a veteran of the sport you love that you are no longer going to support him and that you are replacing him with a much younger, less accomplished athlete? Could you look him in the eye and tell him he’s not going to represent his country at the Olympics? It’s a tough game that Bodensteiner has to play.

“Emotion is something that can really trip you up,” Bodensteiner admits. “That’s why we focus so much on the data. Nordic combined was a sport we never paid too much attention, but we had a real shot at gold so invested so much in these four kids who we believed could win. At Vancouver they brilliantly won gold but all the data we looked at showed that we were spending a ton of money and that we wouldn’t get the results in four years’ time, but because these guys were successful there was a lot of emotion involved and we couldn’t just scrap them. It would have been too political so we spent another four years heavily in this team. At Sochi (2014) we got zero medals out of them”

Bodensteiner and the USSA stresses leadership, accountability and honesty throughout the organisation from top to bottom. His rhetoric echoes in some way Captain Thomas Chaby’s. As a result, big decisions need to be made and that often means telling an individual athlete or even a whole sport that the support that was there before is going to be pulled. The USSA’s objective is winning as many medals as they can and Bodensteiner and his team are constantly playing a chess match against multiple opponents on a board that is moving with pieces that are always changing.

Data is collected and analysed over four and eight year cycles with Olympics and World Championships the focus of these cycles. They assess the athletes across the codes and figure out where to allocate resources. Remember though, some sports carry more prestige and a win in a less important sport is not going to move the needle on anyone’s radar. The USSA also have to keep in mind how the competition is doing. Scouts and tracking teams closely monitor other nations but there is only so much guessing you can do. As Bodensteiner explains, “the hardest thing to know is how the competition is going to react with regards to their own performance.”

You see, the same issues of prestige and where to allocate resources are being discussed in Norway, Austria, Slovenia and France. The Canadians might want to target a softer sport for an easy gold but the Germans might want to risk putting it all on the line for a team that could potentially make history.

“We are constantly trying to figure it all out,” Bodensteiner says with a small chuckle. “All these different nuances that come with managing resources with the aim of winning medals means we can never know anything definitively. These sports take a long time to develop and the data we’re collecting now might not even be the right data that we need. But we have to always assess where to increase time and energy but that means we have to figure out where to decrease.”

Like the snow their athletes compete on, the landscape that the USSA lives in is constantly shifting. A snowboarder who loses his love for competition and would rather make snowboarding movies is something to deal with. Changing rules in sport that focus on different elements means that a gold medal hopeful now has a glaring weakness and her resources need to be cut and located elsewhere. Recruiting talented athletes in a sport that will never have Katy Perry sing at the half time show is a challenge as well, but Bodensteiner revels in what is put in front of him.

“We have created an environment where we’re constantly learning,” says Bodensteiner. “It’s almost like we’re involved in financial management and risk assessment except our assets are athletes and our end goal is medals. Everybody in the system has to be progressing and use his or her experience to help the team. If you stop learning, your performance is going to come to a stop very rapidly.”