The U.S. Olympic Committee’s two-day board of directors meeting in Atlanta wrapped up Tuesday, and what was notable was not that it produced any big news — none was expected — but that it was, as new board member Dave Ogrean put it, well, “fun.”
“Fun” is not a word that has not often in recent years been associated with USOC precincts.
Then again, as has been observed repeatedly in this space over the past 15 months, since board chairman Larry Probst hired Scott Blackmun to be the chief executive officer, this is indeed a new USOC.
Ogrean, who has pretty much seen and done it all in an extensive career that has traversed the American Olympic stage and who is currently the executive director of USA Hockey, said in a conference call with reporters, referring to the USOC’s management and, as well, its outlook, “I think things are in better shape today than they [have been] in a decade.”
It is perhaps the nature of what’s now to suffer some amnesia when recalling what has come before. So let us not so easily dismiss the domestic stability that Peter Ueberroth and Jim Scherr brought through the Athens and Beijing Olympics; that stability was much needed after the wholesale convulsions and governance reforms that immediately preceded their tenures.
Then, though, came Stephanie Streeter, who as USOC chief executive showed that she knew of the intricacies of the international Olympic movement about what you’d expect from someone who had run a printing company. Like — what?
And then came the debacle of the aborted USOC television network.
And then, worse, Chicago’s beat-down in the first round of the 2009 International Olympic Committee vote at which Rio de Janeiro won the 2016 Summer Games — the president of the United States summoned to the scene in Copenhagen just before the vote, and for what? For Chicago, his hometown, to win just 18 votes?
None of that could in the least be described as “fun.”
Of all the things they have done, Blackmun and Probst have spent considerable time and effort working at the one thing that counts more than anything else in the Olympic scene — relationship-building.
Last September, Dick Ebersol, his title now chairman of NBC Sports Group, appeared in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the annual USOC assembly, with words of praise for both Probst and Blackmun.
News item, Feb. 17: Online broker TD Ameritrade Holding Co. agrees to sponsor the U.S. Olympic team through the 2012 Games, the deal marking the first-ever USOC sponsorship in the online broker category as well as the first collaboration with NBC, which will receive a commitment for a certain level of media buys from TD Ameritrade, according to the USOC. Terms were not disclosed.
News item, March 10: NBC and the USOC sign Citi as an official bank partner of the network and the 2012 U.S. team. The USOC had been without an “official bank” since Bank of America had bowed out in 2009. The USOC’s chief marketing officer, Lisa Baird, tells the Sports Business Daily of the novel deal, “Partners are responding to the integrated marketing and media package. We’re proud of both of these coming on and doing so in quick time is evidence this is working.”
Disclosure: I am a former NBC employee.
More: I had no idea any of these deals were coming and I have zero idea if any other USOC contracts are coming.
But I can put two and two together, and I know this: whether or not Ebersol was in the least bit involved in any of this deal-making or not, the fact is that the climate between NBC and the USOC is totally, totally different than it was not all that long ago.
Here, from October, 2009, was Ebersol, to the Washington Post: “IOC members ‘don’t hate America, they hate the USOC, and with good reason. Congress doesn’t need to do any new reform. The USOC just needs new leadership.’ ”
And here, just a couple days ago, after the announcement that Probst and Blackmun had been appointed to IOC committees, was Ebersol, in the New York Times: “This is exciting news for all of us involved with the Olympic movement in the United States. It is clear evidence that the re-energized and clearly focused USOC under Larry and Scott is being recognized not only by the IOC but by the entire international Olympic community.”
To be sure, the USOC in March 2011 still faces significant challenges.
It must yet strike a deal with the IOC to resolve a longstanding revenue dispute. Talks are ongoing, and Probst said Tuesday, without providing any details, that he and other senior USOC officials are “encouraged by the tone of the discussions.”
A U.S. television rights deal for 2014 and 2016, and perhaps beyond, is now at issue. That deal is the key to the IOC’s financial well-being. Meanwhile, how it plays out — and for a variety of reasons it is almost sure to play out in the near term,before July — is central to perceptions of the USOC in IOC circles, and certain to be a key factor in whether and when the USOC gets back into the bid game.
A whole host of other concerns are also up for discussion. Just to pick a couple:
For funding purposes, how best to determine which national governing bodies are more or less likely to reach or sustain “sustained competitive excellence,” to use USOC lingo?
Are there security-related concerns beyond the usual at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico?
Such matters were on the table Tuesday in Atlanta for the board, which now totals 15, and the new members: Ogrean; former Visa executive Susanne Lyons; Nina Kemppel, a cross-country skier who raced in four Winter Games; former John Hancock chief executive James Benson; and former Microsoft executive Robbie Bach.
“These are talented people and they are not wallflowers,” Blackmun said.
Probst echoed, “They were happy to speak up — to share their opinions.”
Ogrean said the dialogue was “always civil,” a point that, again, could not always be said to be the case with the USOC. He said, “It was, quite frankly, fun.”