PAY A MOUNTAIN OF MONEY
U.S. Ski Team appears to be pricing itself out of racer pipeline
The U.S. Ski Team, which has an annual budget of $32 million, appears to be pricing itself out of grooming top-tier talent. Some of the skiers have to pay $20,000 to $25,000 per year to compete as members of the team.
At age 82, U.S. Ski Team patriarch Bob Beattie doesn’t watch races from the finish area anymore. The visionary who created the concept of a national team in the 1960s while also coaching the University of Colorado ski team — and who co-founded the World Cup tour in 1966 — remains a keen observer with passionate opinions he is not bashful about sharing.
As he prepared to watch the women’s World Cup races in Aspen in November on a press-room television, Beattie fumed while perusing the start list. In the giant slalom, there were 10 Austrians but only three Americans. In the slalom the next day, there were 12 Austrians and four Americans.
There are multiple reasons Austria has a deeper talent pool at the elite level in alpine than the U.S., but Beattie worries that the cost of ski racing is “killing our sport.” He shared his concerns in a letter to U.S. Ski Team officials and former ski racing greats in December. One of the things that bothers him most is the ski team’s policy of charging some athletes $20,000 to $25,000 per year to be on it.
“My biggest issue is that we are eliminating kids who have no income,” Beattie said in a recent interview.
A member of the team’s board of trustees, Beattie coached the 1964 Olympic team that included three of America’s greatest racers: Billy Kidd, Jimmie Heuga and Buddy Werner. Kidd and Huega became the first American men to win Olympic medals in skiing, taking silver and bronze respectively that year in the slalom.
“Buddy Werner and Jimmie Heuga, Billy Kidd, they never would have made the U.S. Ski Team of today,” Beattie said. “They were ski racers because they loved the sport and their parents supported them, but they didn’t support them with money because they didn’t have any money.”
Top athletes on the “A” team such as Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin are “fully funded,” but athletes on the “B” and “C” teams receive letters billing them for their travel expenses. The letters go out in the spring so they have time to raise money before the season begins in the fall.
“If Dave Mahre, the father of Phil and Steve, received this letter back in 1974-75, we would never have had two of the greatest ski racers in World Cup history,” said John McMurtry, a former ski team alpine director who is now director of development for the Steadman Philippon Research Institute in Vail. “They would have stayed with high school football. Most of our country’s greatest ski athletes would never make it today because the vast majority came from modest backgrounds.”
The U.S. Ski Team has an annual budget of $32 million, and of that, $21.8 million is spent on elite athlete programs and staging international competitions at U.S. resorts. The team supports more than 200 elite athletes competing internationally in all disciplines at a cost of more than $100,000 each. The athletes who pay $20,000 to 25,000 are offsetting the cost of their travel, closing a budget gap of more than $2 million per year.
“I think it’s counterproductive to athlete development to ask any athlete that is in the fast-track program to pay toward that program,” said Aldo Radamus, executive director of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. “It seems to me that in an organization with a $32 million budget, there would be another way to find that $2 million (rather) than place that burden on the athletes.”
Hig Roberts, an alpine racer from Steamboat Springs, was billed $20,000 to race on the “B” team this season. His mother, Lulu, recalls a fundraiser in Vail last fall when head men’s coach Sasha Rearick appeared in support of his racers.
“He stood up and said, ‘I hate that we can’t support you guys more. It keeps me up at night. I wish we were able to give you more,’ ” Lulu Roberts said. “Then he presented a personal check of his own toward these guys. He was emotional about it.”
Tiger Shaw, a two-time Olympian in the 1980s who is president and CEO of the U.S. Ski Team, acknowledges that $20,000 to $25,000 is “not an insignificant amount of money,” but the “athletic funding gap” is real and has to be covered somehow. Billing athletes for travel expenses is less painful than other alternatives, he said.
“The other way I could close it, and do that immediately, even as soon as next year, is to cut our team size in half,” Shaw said. “I think that would be a mistake. We have no interest in doing that.”
Shaw inherited the policy from his predecessor, Bill Marolt, who had to find ways to support an ever-growing roster of athletes as sports such as snowboarding and free skiing were added to the Olympic program.
Ski team officials recognize the hardship athletes are being asked to bear and are trying to eliminate or reduce those costs. In the short term, the team works with athletes to help them raise money through crowdfunding sources. It also is seeking to endow a fund that would help athletes cover those costs.
“We have a big gap,” Shaw said. “We have plans to close it. We cannot do that in one or two years. But as we start to close it, everybody will feel the benefit. It’d be nice to get it all the way there.”
But in the meantime, many worry about losing talented young athletes because their parents can’t afford for them to make the U.S. Ski Team.
“If we’re talking about building a worldclass team with the best talent, we have to fund that team,” McMurtry said. “I talked to a parent whose child made the ‘B’ team, and the first thing the ski team wanted was their credit card number. It was $5,000 a month.” John Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org or @johnmeyer
Steamboat Springs’ Hig Roberts, racing this season at a World Cup giant slalom in Austria, was billed $20,000 by the U.S. Ski Team to compete on the American “B” team this season. The U.S. team’s annual budget is $32 million. Michel Cottin, Getty Images
From left, CU’s Billy Kidd, Bob Beattie and Jimmie Heuga pose at the 1964 Games. Kidd and Heuga were the first U.S. men to win Olympic medals in skiing.