A USA Curling checklist

In order to thrive, a sport needs at least one of the following:

  1. A substantial professional league or tour
  2. A strong national governing body

On that, we agree. Well, most of us. Some curlers have expressed the sentiment that a strong NGB isn’t necessarily top priority.

I disagree for reasons ranging from the practical to the philosophical. And we should dispense with the idea being propagated that the clubs are choosing the GNCC over USA Curling as part of a “free market.” An NGB has responsibilities — national championships, representation on the world’s stage, SafeSport, elite athlete representation, audits, disability sports development, etc. — that the GNCC does not. Comparing the GNCC to an NGB is like comparing a math tutor to a public school.

An NGB also has to develop national teams to compete in world championships and the Olympics, something that has a tangible benefit for all clubs because it helps drive people through the doors. (Also, national-team spending is roughly equal to the USOPC’s annual grant.) Some people may go to a curling club because a friend suggests it, but as someone who runs guest programs and sees the registration numbers, I can attest to the hard evidence of the Olympic bump.

But even if you view a strong NGB as a “nice to have” rather than a “must have,” it’s worth discussing what we want to see in an NGB.

And there’s something I can’t stress enough — this discussion shouldn’t be predicated on what you think of USA Curling over the last two, five or 20 years. It’s about what you want to see.

I’ve asked this question in various social media, and while some people remain fixated on the question of why you’d want to support USA Curling after the Jeff Plush saga, the botched members’ assembly or kicking out the GNCC, some people have contributed some interesting ideas …

Membership

This is, more or less, the sole focus of the Governance 4.0 committee. Such a narrow focus has drawn some complaints, but membership was at the heart of the GNCC-USAC split, and fixing the membership model may fix a lot of other issues.

Tiered memberships for individuals and clubs

On Dec. 12, interim CEO Dean Gemmell presented a model with tiered individual memberships (basic, competitive, daily, etc.) and tiered club memberships (per sheet, arena, etc.). Going with individual memberships raises a lot of questions about representation in the Members Assembly and on the board, but it might be worthwhile in the long run.

The argument the GNCC made was that clubs were having trouble paying for USAC membership, and the GNCC was willing to be a cheaper alternative, even if it meant they were functioning as an alternative to rather than a subsidiary of USAC. Take away mandatory fees of $34/member for each club, and the clubs may be more likely to be USAC members, perhaps paying a nominal fee just to be in the club directory and so forth.

The other issue is crunching the numbers to make sure USAC doesn’t lose so much in membership fees that it can’t function. But perhaps that can be overcome by scaling back and diverting most of its grants-and-loans operations to a donor-funded Foundation (see below).

Standardize the meaning of “regional association”

As someone put it in a social media discussion: “If regions need to be a thing, define their reasons for existence and they should all be fairly similar (experiments or new ideas is fine, but one region being full service and others being…not… is uncool).”

Pre-ouster, GNCC was a regional association that charged $15 per member in addition to its optional insurance. Other regions charged $3. In return, GNCC offered ran (and will continue to run, even as an independent organization) assistance programs to new and needy clubs, and its bonspiels are reputed to be awesome.

Between the large fees and the massive geographic reach, which included the high-growth area in the South, the GNCC was a behemoth compared with other regions. Add in a bit of arrogance from GNCC advocates about all the programs it’s able to fund, and it’s not hard to see why other regions may have resented the GNCC, which would explain why many of them voted to expel. (Reminder: Even with elite athletes’ share of the vote, which is 33.3% by federal law, going against the GNCC, a majority of non-athlete voters needed to vote against the GNCC to uphold the board’s action to expel.)

More generally, the old system was simply untenable. Had cooler heads prevailed, USAC and its regions could have figured out what rights and responsibilities needed to be handled on a national level and which ones needed to be handled regionally. However we move forward, that discussion needs to be had now.

One option is the GNCC model, in which regions take a big role in instruction, grants and other areas. This would require other regions to ramp up to GNCC’s level of resources, probably with a couple of mergers and higher membership fees (which should be offset by cheaper national dues, since the NGB would be punting more to the regions).

The other option is to give regions little responsibility other than organizing the playdowns for national competitions, leaving everything else to the national body.

If we assume the GNCC is going to remain as an independent organization, perhaps eventually mending fences to become a national affiliate akin to the USWCA, the second option is probably better just so clubs aren’t paying substantial dues to USAC, a regional association, GNCC, USWCA, the local sewer and water utility, the local pizza place, etc., etc.

The board

End unanimous votes at USAC board meetings

Perhaps another way of saying this: Have more detailed meeting minutes that capture the whole discussion — in favor, opposed, skeptical, etc. To give credit where it’s due, the GNCC does a good job on this front.

Membership vote on independent board members

The bylaws say the USAC board must have at least one and no more than three independent members, and this is meant to satisfy the USOPC’s insistence on independent voices. I’ve read and reread the bylaws, and I can’t see the specific mechanism under which these members are elected. In practice, at USAC and elsewhere, independent directors tend to be recruited by the board and then rubber-stamped by the members.

Elite players

Instead of selecting High Performance athletes, give High Performance places to the top teams at the national championships

Caveat: This wouldn’t necessarily hold true for juniors, where some alternate talent-identification protocols should surely exist. A talented junior might happen to live in a place where it’s not easy to find similarly talented teammates, and USAC wouldn’t want to shut down that junior’s pathway.

Some curlers would love to see the High Performance Program dismantled, but the USOPC, whose grant money more or less covers HPP expenses, would not be happy.

Support professional play but don’t pour a lot of money into it

Maybe easier said than done, but the benefits would be clear. Perhaps picking up broadcast feeds from more of the big Canadian events would pique sponsor interest in teams that would play in them? Or maybe some more US events?

Related …

Quality live-streaming of events

Even better, get them on TV somehow.

Staff

Band together with other small-ish NGBs for some professional services such as media relations and SafeSport

I don’t see anything in the USOPC’s NGB requirements that would expressly forbid this potential cost-saving move.

SafeSport work requires professional staff, even with the US Center for SafeSport taking exclusive jurisdiction over cases of sexual abuse and criminal behavior. At the NGB level, the educational aspect is vital, and it has to be tailored to each specific sport. It’s not hard to imagine a group of, say, five people taking responsibility for eight NGBs.

For now, USAC has changed its chain of SafeSport responsibility. In the past, SafeSport responsibilities fell to the CEO and CFO, which was an unconventional setup made worse by the fact that the CEO was Jeff Plush, whose SafeSport record came into question from his tenure as NWSL commissioner, and the CFO was Eric Gleason, Plush’s former colleague in US Soccer circles. Now, responsibility for handling complaints (other than those for which the Center takes jurisdiction) will fall to the Judiciary Committee and an Independent Reviewer from the United States Council for Athletes’ Health.

NGBs also need a lot of help in media relations. It’s not just USAC. Trust me on this.

Basic competence/responsiveness

Complaints abound. Unreturned calls and messages. Failing to get an updated rulebook published by the beginning of the season.

Maybe if a shared staff handles some day-to-day NGB functions, USAC’s staff can have a narrower focus on member service.

Support

USA Curling offers grants, and it has a loan program to get rocks to clubs. They’re also the pass-through organization (“guarantor,” though I don’t know enough about international law to know the details) for interest-free loans from the World Curling Federation to help build dedicated-ice facilities.

USAC’s critics say this isn’t enough. USAC should probably counter by …

Formally launching the USA Curling Foundation

USAC hired a staffer to run a foundation. It was never really advertised or fully described, and that staffer has since departed.

Starting a foundation would provide a more visible path for donations that can be spent on the grants and loans that clubs need.

Along those same lines, it’d be nice if the GNCC would finance its dedicated funds through donations rather than through mandatory membership fees. But we’ll talk about GNCC reform another time.

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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

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