On the edge: Nordic combined could go either way after last month’s US Ski Team funding cut
May 11, 2014
In the end, they're left with a mix of emotions. There's pride and jealousy, confusion and optimism, anger and fear.
The sport of Nordic combined changed April 14, in a meeting that had to be bad news from the moment it was announced.
Budget cuts have been a way of life for the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team during the past decade. The team does with a little less every year, cutting corners in training, making do with the equipment it can afford and, when it comes to it, making tough decisions. Last season, the squad left members at home for the season's final World Cup competitions.
The sport's budget slowly was stepped down from a high of about $1,000,000 to about $600,000 for the 2013-14 season. The news of cuts always comes in the spring, when the budget is being set, summer training camps planned and new equipment ordered. None of the previous cut announcements, however, included a meeting like the one on April 14.
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Seven members of the ski team's A and B teams and coach Dave Jarrett sat down in an office at the expansive Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, with United States Ski and Snowboard Association President and CEO Tiger Shaw and Executive Vice-President Luke Bodensteiner.
"It was definitely ominous," said Bryan Fletcher, fresh off his first Olympics and his ninth year on the ski team.
Bodensteiner and Shaw explained that Nordic combined's day as a fully funded sport by the U.S. Ski Team was over, and from this point, it would be far more dependent on funds that the athletes themselves could raise.
Just what that means is unclear, even nearly a month later. The one thing that is clear is that the sport, with the deepest roots in Steamboat Springs, is in for a major change, from top to bottom, and that leaves everyone involved swimming in emotions.
The people of Nordic combined feel betrayed and angry, optimistic and accepting all at the same time.
The meeting that defunded Nordic combined took less than an hour. The athletes asked a few questions and tried to get clarification on a few details.
Jarrett kept silent. He'd heard rumblings of what was coming but left the talking to his athletes. Although the ruling may well send him to unemployment, this was the athletes' meeting and it concerned their dreams and futures.
It wasn't a debate and they didn't argue.
"That didn't seem very productive," Fletcher said.
It took less than an hour to undo what athletes feel took them decades to build.
At its height, buoyed by the funding surge that came with the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, Nordic combined drew more than $1,000,000 in funding, largely from the U.S. Ski Team but also from other avenues and in-kind donations.
Those were heady days for the team. Its growth into one of the best-funded programs in the world was as much a crowning achievement as the legendary medal haul eight years later at the 2010 Winter Olympics would be.
Today's Nordic combined athletes say they couldn't imagine USSA could cut an entire sport, but there was a time when those on the ground floor of Nordic combined in the United States struggled to envision their sport ever getting funding at all.
"When we started, we were way worse off," said Tom Steitz, the Steamboat Springs-based coach who proudly embraces the nickname, "Godfather of Nordic combined."
He coached the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team from 1988 through 2002, and with the help of some extremely talented athletes, drug Nordic combined to the forefront of the U.S. Ski Team.
He presided over the team at its funding pinnacle, but he also was there when it had nothing.
"I remember one year — I never told the guys this, not the athletes or the coaches — I remember putting everyone on a plane, flying to Finland to start the World Cup season for a four-month trip with $137 in my pocket," he said. "We went over there unfunded, and I had bet the farm that we would make enough money from performing well that some sponsors would pay us, and we would get appearance fees from the sites."
A disaster from the beginning, that plan got worse — the first event of the season was canceled because of lack of snow, and the team skipped town, bills unpaid.
"I still have nightmares about this," Steitz said. "I had no choice. I didn't have the money."
On that trip and throughout the early years of his tenure, he bet on what he saw as a promising group of athletes, and it paid off. Strong performances netted the team enough money to pay its bills and continue the season. Those performances also paved the way for larger deals.
Steitz never was afraid to trust his athletes — guys like Todd Lodwick, Ryan Heckman, Tim Tetreault and Jarrett, then, in later years, Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane.
"We had to pitch the team with a commitment that they were going to be good," Steitz said. "They were up-and-coming young kids and they were very presentable, likable and very professional."
Again and again, he was able to entice doubting potential sponsors to pledge money based on performance, then his athletes delivered.
It took all sorts of creativity to come up with enough money. The team would at times stop at stores on their way out of Denver and load up on blue jeans, knowing they could turn a profit by selling them in Europe.
But, it worked. The team was able to compete, and talent took over. The U.S. Ski Team had to take notice — the persistent Steitz wouldn't allow it not to — and by the late 1990s, the program was based in Steamboat Spring and was growing fast, with young skiers like Demong and Spillane coming up to bolster the ranks until seven U.S. skiers were on the World Cup in 2002.
"The point was, it's been worse," Steitz said. "It's been way worse."
Paying the bills
It may have been worse, but there was an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears that went into ensuring those days were in the past.
That's something those who were there in the early days simply haven't been able to shake since April 14.
"To be cut off at the knees like this by the U.S. Ski Team, the way they did it, it sucks," said Lodwick, who in February became the United States' first six-time Winter Olympian.
The team isn't entirely cut off from the U.S. Ski Team, which still officially represents Nordic combined. If no funding is raised to help the team, the top athletes — likely Demong, Bryan Fletcher and Taylor Fletcher — still will receive enough money to at least continue their careers and compete at the season's biggest events.
In the past, funding, even at the reduced level of recent years, took care of most of the basics. Coaches salaries were paid, and staff such as doctors, physical therapists and wax technicians were brought on during the competitive season. The funding paid for some equipment and, of course, all that travel, which included, for the top tier, the World Cup season stretching from late November to March, as well as several European training camps during each offseason.
Today's Nordic combined team athletes don't receive a paycheck from the U.S. Ski Team. They aren't exactly linebackers on an NFL team.
Instead, day-to-day money for expenses or for any extra skiing equipment comes in three general ways.
First, some work part-time jobs in the offseason. Spillane and Demong spent summers building concrete countertops to sell, and Spillane long has been a fishing guide at the fly shop he now owns, Steamboat Flyfisher. Others spent summers painting houses, washing windows or serving pizza.
Second, athletes get prize money for placing well in World Cup events.
World Cup champ Erik Frenzel raked in $97,279 during the 2013-14 season in World Cup winnings. Bryan Fletcher was the top-producing American and 20th on the circuit, netting $12,386. Demong, at 27th, earned $5,663.
It's nice money. It's welcome money. But even Frenzel's take isn't enough to finance a career by itself.
The majority of the funds for many skiers comes from sponsorship deals, and those too typically are related to performance. Spillane said his agent helped him land a deal with Visa, his biggest, which paid $7,500 per season as a base salary. He got another $7,500 every year he was on an Olympic team, then $10,000 if he was used in Visa advertisements. Again, nice, welcome, but even $25,000 isn't paying the bills.
The real money from sponsorships comes with success, in clauses woven into the contracts.
"That's where you make your living," Spillane said.
His normal hill silver medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia brought more than glory. It brought $15,000 extra from Visa. And that was just one of his sponsorship deals.
Pull the rug out in the form of that $600,000 annual team budget, leaving athletes to pay for all their own equipment, coaching and travel, and even lucrative individual sponsorship deals don't stretch very far.
Plus, this isn't like the early days with Steitz, either, when athletes could get away with waxing their own skis or going without the latest technology. Today's Nordic combined is more precise and competitive than it's ever been, and that isn't cheap.
On top of all that is the fact that worrying about replacing hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding isn't conducive to winning medals.
"I had an agent," Spillane said. "You have to have people doing good work for you."
"The biggest problem with what the ski team is doing now is that they really have inhibited these guys from just focusing on their sport. Now they're having to deal with this whole different job, fundraising, on top of just trying to be the best."
The team's current athletes sat through the April 14 meeting without a fight, but they came away feeling attacked, as if they'd been slapped in the face. One of the reasons given for the decision to ax Nordic combined was a perceived lack of potential in the sport's future.
"They said we didn't have the horses coming up for the next couple of quads," Jarrett said. "They said their goal is to be the best in the world, and that means winning the medal count at the Olympics, and they want to put their resources into those events where they think the
y can win medals."
The athletes point to their 2013 World Championship bronze medals from the team event and a number of top-10 and top-three finishes, and of course to 2010's four-medal Olympics, as proof that such a stance is wrong.
Still, they admit their results need to improve.
The team wasn't a threat at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The relay was sixth after winning silver in 2010, and the best individual performance, from Taylor Fletcher, only landed him 20th.
"I was extremely frustrated with the results in Sochi," said Bryan Fletcher, who placed as high as fifth in an individual World Cup event but didn't place better than 22nd at the Olympics.
"It was challenging and tough, and it didn't go the way I had hoped," he said. "If we had gotten a medal, maybe this wouldn't have happened. If we had gotten gold instead of bronze in 2013, or if we had consistent results on the (World Cup) podium, maybe they would have seen more value."
He finished the year 18th overall in the World Cup, up from 21st the year before, and already is well into training for the 2014-15 season.
Taylor Fletcher, who experienced an even more up-and-down season than Bryan, finished ranked 27th, and Demong was 25th.
"It's definitely heartbreaking to hear those words out of your supposed leader's mouth," Bryan Fletcher said about the April 14 meeting. "It's tough when you have consistent results in the top 10 for more than half the season and finish in the top 20, and they don't see the potential in that."
Being upset won't change anything, however, and the athletes say they understand that.
They came out of the meeting shellshocked, angry and feeling betrayed, but left the facility that day in a different mood entirely.
They became convinced that day that the news eventually could result in a stronger, better program.
"Bill (Demong) told us not to change a thing, to go train, and he said they'd take care of us," Bryan said. "He and DJ (Jarrett) left the room, motivated to go fix what had been done wrong, and we left the room motivated to continue training."
U.S. Ski Team funding comes with its ups and downs, and there are examples of programs that have thrived, and those who have crashed, without it.
On one end is biathlon, one of the most popular winter sports in Europe but an afterthought of an afterthought for much of the United States. It's supported by the U.S. Biathlon Association, however. It has no ties to the U.S. Ski Team and produces strong, well-funded teams.
At the other end of the spectrum are sports like special jumping and Alpine snowboarding. Without a funded team, the U.S. is a non-factor in men's special jumping, and the lack of funding for an Alpine snowboarding team proved USSA is willing to take a fair amount of egg in the face when it comes to its programing decisions.
One-time Steamboat alpine snowboarder Vic Wild, forced to turn to Russia for funding, won two gold medals in the sport in Sochi. Had he been riding for the United States, he would have been the most successful athlete of those Games.
Nordic combined rather would use biathlon as a model and, like that sport, it sees vast potential to sell itself to an eager European audience.
"In the past, we've been handcuffed by the sponsorships we could seek by our relationship with the ski team because they had their corporate sponsors, and we couldn't do something that competed against that," said Spillane, retired but eager to assist his friends and the sport he loves. "The reality is our market is in Europe, central Europe, Scandinavia and Japan. That's where our market is, where we have our TV viewership.
"You can understand the ski team's point, that they don't get a whole lot out of us, that it costs a lot of money to keep us around versus how much we bring in, but that's because of the sponsors they have," Spillane continued. "If they opened it up to different sponsors, we could be a hell of a lot more beneficial to them. They don't use any of the avenues where we have traction."
The athletes are eager to sell their bodies, or spots on their bodies. There are several obvious avenues to do that, Bryan Fletcher explained.
The best opportunity for a sponsor is on his helmet, just above the eyes so any TV camera focused there will show a logo.
The second best spot is on the top of the skis, toward the front, so when they're placed on end as a jumper waits in the landing zone for his score, the logo is right next to his face.
"A lot of companies don't realize how cheaply they can put a logo on an athlete's head and how much they can get out of it," Bryan Fletcher said.
Released from at least some of the ski team's sponsorship conditions, the athletes are open to a whole new world of potential customers and are just waiting to be approached.
"The goal is to make it a business decision for someone and not a charity," Spillane said. "Nordic combined shouldn't be a charity because there's too much potential for it to be profitable to someone. There are too many people who watch it."
The skiers boast that events in Europe regularly draw 20 million viewers. They're confident that fact can be their salvation, and not just to replace the U.S. Ski Team's funding, but perhaps, to surpass it.
The key to the future isn't with any athletes who currently stand to lose funding. It's with the National Training Group, in Steamboat, filled with teenagers hoping to follow in the footsteps of Spillane, Lodwick, Demong and the Fletcher brothers.
A weak talent pipeline is one problem the team has faced, but that and other problems could be fixed.
"If we were to do our own thing, to go into a more European market, there's potential to raise enough money to start funding that pipeline and getting more funds for younger skiers to have some sort of sustainability," Spillane said.
The April 14 meeting left a world of uncertainty surrounding Nordic combined.
There's no guarantee the sport will be represented by the United States in the same way at the 2018 Winter Olympics or beyond.
The U.S. Ski Team's decision left those closest to it, the athletes and coaches, in a fog of emotions. The days since have been marked by ups and downs, as well. There are a lot of ideas but no big sponsors yet, and the clock is ticking on the ski team's funding, which officially runs out July 31.
The news brought Nordic combined fans and skiers out of the woodwork, offering to help, trading phone calls and emails, and from that, there's been confidence — evidence to those at the center of the storm that there are too many people out there who care for the sport to allow it to fail.
And there's one unifying sentiment, through all the confusion and the emotions.
"I was talking with Bryan (Fletcher) the other night," Spillane said "He asked, 'What do you think I should be doing?' I said you should be training your ass off so we can make the ski team look like a bunch of a-holes for dropping you." ■