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Archive for April, 2010

A+ for Grover

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Several days ago, new US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover outlined a vision for the 2011 US Ski Team.  This seems like a reasonable and expected undertaking for a head coach.  But in many ways Grover’s well-thought-out and thorough description of why the US Ski Team is doing what they are doing, and how it fits into the bigger picture is a new level of openness and communication with the ski community.

Over the last years, Ski Team coaches and staff have been extremely forthcoming and accessible to FasterSkier.  This has made our job easier and is greatly appreciated.  Additionally, coaches, especially former head coach Pete Vordenberg, have encouraged members of the community to contact them directly with questions, concerns, and ideas.  This is also a good thing, and impressive.

However, there has been little effort to so clearly explain what the goals and methods of the Team in a public forum.  People get very worked up about the issues surrounding the Team – who gets named, how those decisions are made, etc.  Much of the anger comes from simple misunderstandings.  The clarity of Grover’s piece immediately addressed many of the of the most controversial issues, and while not everyone will agree with what the US Ski Team is doing, at least they now have a good understanding of the how and why, and can respect the amount of thought that goes into the decisions.

Hopefully this is just the beginning of a new era of communication.  I am not familiar with the job description for the head coach, but part of it should be communicating with the public.  This might be challenging for already overworked coaches, but the benefit is enormous, and it goes a long way toward bringing the community together, and reminding everyone that we are all on the same side – we all want the sport of cross-country skiing to flourish in this country and to develop fast skiers who can compete at the highest level.

Just based on the shift in the comments on FasterSkier, early indications are that the ski community appreciates being kept in the loop.  Grover should be commended for his efforts.

The Koos Question – UPDATED

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

This piece originally stated that Koos would not be able to make the World Championship Team if he raced Continental Cups in Europe.  This is not the case as USSA has scored European Continental Cup races as part of the US National Ranking List.  As European races often have better points, racing there could actually be an advantage in making the team.  I apologize for the error.

The decision not re-nominate Torin Koos to the US Ski Team is easily the biggest and most controversial change to the team in recent years.  Koos is a nine-year veteran of the US Ski Team, and was the longest tenured member.  But none of that should matter.  Loyalty is not, and cannot be, part of the decision making process.

However, there is a strong argument, based on merit alone, that Koos should remain on the team.  In the case of the other skiers not brought back, and those who may have had a shot, things were pretty clear-cut.

Garrott Kuzzy never showed significant improvement internationally after his 9th in Canmore in 2008.  Lindsay Williams has been beset by significant injuries and lost the better part of two years, and it is unclear whether she can regain her top form.  Tazlina Mannix has yet to breakthrough outside the US.

Morgan Smyth was 30th in the sprint at the Whistler World Cup in 2009, but lost nearly all of 2010 due to injuries and illness.  A case could be made that she should be given a chance to show she is over her injuries, but with an even greater focus on the club system and a less-forgiving policy, the USST is not being as generous in granting an extra season due to physical issues.

That leaves Koos, who unlike the others, is very much a world class skier, albeit an inconsistent one, and one who is beginning to get on in years a bit.

Koos also battled significant illness throughout the season, but still managed to be in form to qualify second in the Canmore World Cup sprint.  The only man to best him?  Emil Joensson (SWE), the overall Sprint Cup winner.

And in 2009, while also inconsistent, Koos also had some excellent results, and showed great improvement in his freestyle sprinting, demonstrating that he is still getting better.

But consistency is a big issue, whether the cause is health related or not.  Koos has yet to prove he can be in the heats race after race.

Here are Torin’s top-30 results in World Cup sprints in each of the last seven seasons.  The sprint format has changed over the years, and previously, as few as 16 skiers qualified for the heats, so some of the earlier top-30 results did not result in heat appearances.

2004 2 of 5

2005 0 of 3

2006 3 of 5

2007 7 of 8

2008 5 of 9

2009 7 of 10

2010 1 of 5

2007 was obviously Koos’ best season, especially since that included the podium.  In 2009 his best result was an 8th.  One other knock against him has been that  in his career, he has made only one appearance in a World Cup sprint final – when he placed 3rd.

And in eight World Championship and Olympic starts, he has placed in the top-30 just twice, and qualified for the heats a single time.  Given that the USST’s primary goal is to win medals, this does not favor Koos.

As he approaches 30, the big question is, can he improve?  And while many skiers keep getting better into their 30’s, how likely is it for athletes who have not consistently competed in the top-10?  And how does age impact sprinting compared to distance?

The later two questions could be answered with some statistical analysis.  Obviously the US Ski Team felt that Koos would not be likely to take a step up.

At the end of the day, he missed the objective criteria, albeit by a small margin.  It appears that the US Ski Team would rather put resources into younger athletes.

Personally, while there are many reasonable arguments for Torin not to be on the team, purely based on results, I feel it is a mistake.  Even in a year derailed by illness, he still showed the speed to qualify second on a very challenging Canmore course.

And while the ultimate goal of the USST is to win medals, and it appears that time is beginning to run out for Torin, having skiers who can place in the top-15 is both good for the Team and good for the sport in general.

We need fast athletes on the World Cup for US ski fans to follow and root for.  It builds excitement and interest.  One of the biggest issues for the US is depth – if one skier has an off day, there is no one to step up.  That has been the case in women’s sprint and distance, and men’s distance.  But in the men’s sprint there have been two shots – Newell and Koos.

Even including last year’s tough run, Koos has placed in the top-30 56% of his starts.  I’m sure he wants better, but that is still quite a number of chances to keep racing in the heats.

We may not have the luxury to spend money on an athlete that the USST feels is not improving at the rate they would like and getting the results everyone hopes for.  But we also don’t have the luxury of turning away a legitimate World Cup athlete – right now we are down to three.  USSA does not market cross-country skiing, and from a business perspective that makes sense.  I’m sure the return on marketing dollars spent on alpine and snowboarding is much much higher.

But a lack of marketing hurts the sport, and the best thing we have going is fast skiers racing internationally.  It seems like they are taking the long-term approach in not nominating Koos, but I think there are actual potential long-term consequences to not having the strongest World Cup Team we can.

Koos is not stuck in limbo as Nat Herz discussed in his recent article.  Since European Continental Cup races are scored on the USSA National Ranking List, he can make the World Championship team racing over there.    The USST won’t commit to giving him World Cup starts, even if he pays his own way, so that is not currently an option, making it harder for Koos to make it back on the Team.

The only way to objectively make the USST is to be ranked in the top-30 on the FIS sprint points list, short of winning an Olympic or World Championship medal.

With several strong this past winter (notably Canmore), Koos does have a shot at making the top-30, especially if he skis at World Champs.

It would be tough to get points low enough solely skiing Continental Cup races as there is a penalty in each race – hard but not impossible.

I understand that the US Ski Team wants to maintain control over the selection process – and many countries have no objective criteria – National Teams and Championship squads are all discretionary.

But Europe is different.  There are many very high level races in close proximity – if you are Swedish or Norwegian, a regional race could be almost as strong as a World Cup field.  But someone like Koos is not likely to get faster winning SuperTours.

Koos’ case may seem unique – a skier who is still in his prime, and capable of racing on the World Cup being left off the Team.  But hopefully, as we improve as a country, this issue could come up again.  Why not start working on a better way to handle the situation right now?

There has been some discussion about personal issues impacting the decision to leave Koos off the Team.  Both parties have been circumspect in discussing the issue and respectful of the other side.  It is dangerous to conjecture about such things, and regardless of any issues, there should be a way for athletes who meet the World Cup standard to race on the World Cup if they can provide the funds, and the start spots exist.

Bill Marolt – Overpaid or Underappreciated?

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

A recent article in the New York Times revealed that USSA President Bill Marolt took home $650,000 in the fiscal year ending April, 2009.  The article made waves in the US cross-country ski world, especially given the fact that prize money for overall SuperTour winners was not paid last year.

There is no way to spin it.  It looks bad, and it is bad.  When Marolt is given a $250,000 bonus, and Colin Rodgers is told he will not be getting his $3,000 in prize money?  Not good.  Regardless of how the corporate structure functions, the specifics of budgets and allocation of funds between sports, this never should have happened, and USSA deserves the bad PR that the Times articles has created.

But the whole situation does bring up some interesting issues.  Like it or not, Marolt’s hefty payday fits the American corporate structure quite well.  CEO pay has been in the news plenty of late, and it is the American way to pay top executives massive salaries and bonuses.  And for what it is worth, Marolt’s bonus is peanuts compared to many corporate bigwigs.

The question that I find worth asking, is not how much someone is paid, but whether or not they are worth it.  Finding an answer in most cases is not easy.

One good example is Apple’s Steve Jobs.  Few would argue his value to the company.  He pulled Apple back form the brink of failure, and has made it into one of the most successful companies in the world.  Of course the example breaks down when you note the Jobs is paid only $1 a year (he does own 5.5 million shares of the company).  But the point is that Jobs adds big time value to the company – both in terms of the work he does and the perception of his role.  He could be one of the highest paid CEOs and still be a bargain.

Many CEOs, however, do not offer such clear value, and one has to wonder if they really take their company to another level – a level that someone paid a fraction of the amount would not be able to reach.  This is particularly true in the the case of USSA.

Who is more important?  Marolt who raises money, secures sponsors, and sets the overall direection of the organization?  Or the coaches who develop athletes and put them in a position to succeed? Or the athletes themselves, who are statistically among the the top fraction of a percent at what they do?

Without the money and good management, the US Ski Team and USSA couldn’t exist, but without the hard work of some of the best coahces in the country, and the athletes, there could be no success.

This is particularly true in the case of the athletes.  They are NOT replaceable.  If Kikkan Randall decided to leave, USSA couldn’t find someone else.  Professional sports like baseball have a more reasonable hierarchy of payment.  Managers, coaches, General Managers and Presidents are all paid significantly less than the players.  Why?  Because those roles can be filled by a large number of people.  The players are the scarce commodity and are paid accordingly.

The difference in skiing is that there are no options.  A national team skier could quit the USST, but would have nowhere to go.  He would still want to race the World Cup and the Olympics, both of which are under the auspices of USSA.  And so in that respect that athletes are permanently indentured to USSA and have no leverage.

When evaluating Marolt, one has to take into account alpine skiing and snowboarding.  While the cross-country results may have been disappointing to some, the other sports, including nordic combined, have flourished in recent years, with many US medals.  If the credit is given to the man at the top, Marolt has done an excellent job, and while at the risk of incurring the wrath of the FasterSkier anonymous peanut gallery, XC has shown improvement, and more importantly a long term commitment to excellence.

I am in no position to judge how much credit Marolt deserves for these successes.  When talking to new US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover I asked about the consistency in the program, noting that in the 90’s there was quite a bit of turnover in staffing.  Grover agreed that the consistency over the last decade has been a positive thing and credited that in part to Marolt.

Another issue to consider is Marolt’s efficacy at bringing in sponsors and other donations.  If the USSA board feels Marolt does an exceptional job at this – a job that someone else could not do, or at least not for less money, then he is probably worth every cent.  USSA is dependent on big sponsor contracts and donations.  The organization would not exist without someone who does a very good job at this.

John Farra, USSA XC Director told me that “It isn’t my business what someone else makes.  My job is to squeeze every bit of value out of every dollar that I am given.  He [Marolt] is a huge fan of what we do.  Four years ago we saw a big increase in the cross-country budget, and I think we are benefiting from that, and I would like to see that again.  And if that is what it takes to retain a guy like that…who has been a champion for us and really supports our sport, so be it.  Just make sure I keep getting that dollar I can squeeze because that is what I can control.”

It is also important to remember that Marolt doesn’t set his own salary.  The USSA Board of Trustees does.  Obviously they think he is worth it.  And it we must also remember, as Tim Kelley points out on a comment here, that USSA is not competing against other non-profit cross-country ski organizations for executives, but with colleges, universities, other large non-profits, and even corporate America.  This will drive the price up.

And bonuses are a common and often effective means to promote effort and results.  Just like athletes are given win schedules, tying a large part of someone’s pay to how they perform is a good way to bring out their best.

It may sound like I am defending the large salary and bonus.  That is not my goal  But a knee-jerk reaction (which I had when I saw the intial number) gets us nowhere.  As with most things, there are subtleties that must be considered.  And while the Board clearly thinks Marolt is doing a good job, it doesn’t mean he is.  Or that he is doing a better job than someone who could be paid less.  But as long as the US Ski and Snowboard Team is winning medals, and as long as Bill Marolt is guiding that effort and bringing in major sponsorship bucks, there likely won’t be any major changes.

However, as stated above, someone should have made sure those SuperTour purses were paid.  Obviously the money was there…just not in the right place. That never should have happened, and the proper thing to do in light of this new information is to belatedly pay out that prize money.

US Mini-Tour Clarification

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

In my recent post congratulating the Maine Winter Sports Center on organizing the SuperTour Finals, I wrote

In many ways the event was groundbreaking.  While it wasn’t the first multi-day race series to be held in the US, it was the first to be so closely modeled on the new international format.

I was sure to make it clear that multi-day events with an overall winner have been held before, but should have given explicit recognition to the Colorado Spring Series of 2004 and 2005.  That event was truly groundbreaking and clearly ahead of its time.  The week of racing contained all the major elements of the current mini-tour format, plus some.  The one big difference is that A) The Colorado series was getting closer to a full Tour de Ski type event than a mini-tour, and B) the final day was not a handicap start based on overall standings – now standard in the international tour format.

Regardless, this event predated the Tour de Ski, and attracted an impressive international field.  Organizers showed a level of creativity and vision that should be recognized.

You can read FasterSkier’s final coverage of that event here.