New U.S. Ski and Snowboard chairman sets eye on funding the athlete experience
If you want to really boil it down, Kipp Nelson is the money guy at U.S. Ski and Snowboard.
In May he formally took over the position as chairman of the organization’s board from Dexter Paine, meaning that a significant part of his job now is to raise donations, which typically constitute a third of the organization’s $36 million budget. He’s been in the finance industry off and on for most of his life and his role now in the top position at U.S. Ski and Snowboard is largely to make money so athletes and teams have what they need to compete on the highest level. He is currently a partner at the New York firm Long Arc Capital.
He said for all of his 18 years with the nonprofit, starting from when he was brought on as a trustee in 2002, the organization has been noticeably underfunded.
“It always seems like we’re 10 to 15 percent under what we need to really fully fund what we want to do,” he said, reclining in a chair upstairs at the Center of Excellence. “That’s been kind of a chronic problem. … Money is like oxygen. If you don’t have it in expensive sports like this, you’re really dead. And if you think you’re going to improve the culture without that … probably not.”
A month ago, a consulting firm finished a three-month study on just what U.S. Ski and Snowboard should do to bring in more of that oxygen, and what it should do with it to improve the athlete experience – two areas that Nelson and others in the organization started discussing more during the process of replacing Paine, who had served a full 12 years in the leadership role and was ready to hang up his hat.
According to Nelson, Paine contracted the consulting company and handed Nelson the reins.
“He said to me, ‘You can direct what they study,’” Nelson said. “We decided what were the one or two most important things.”
Money and improving the athlete experience topped the list. So that’s what Nelson is going to focus on while starting his four-year term.
Who’s behind the mustache?
Nelson was brought into U.S. Ski and Snowboard essentially by happenstance.
One night, during the Winter Games in 2002, Nelson crashed a USA national team party at a bar on Main Street in Park City, where his former alpine coach at the University of Colorado and then-U.S. Ski and Snowboard president Bill Marolt, noticed him.
Marolt didn’t quite recognize Nelson. Nelson had changed so much since their time together during the early ’70s, and Nelson, who lacked the VIP credentials to actually attend the party, was worried he would be thrown out when his former coach pointed to him across the bar and waved him over.
“I’m thinking, ‘dammit, I’m busted,’” Nelson said on Friday. “This is coach disciplining me again.”
But Marolt was simply curious. Nelson, who was clean cut during his years at Colorado, now had long hair and a formidable mustache. Now 60, he stands tall with fair hair and blue eyes.
In a picture of Nelson from the same era, he looks like if Kid Rock had cleaned up for a wedding.
Though he probably didn’t know it, Marolt would soon understand he had found a mark in Nelson. Or, at least, a sympathizer. Nelson said he had just retired from finance for the second time and was living in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he had become a rabid skier after the invention of shaped skis. He was spending 125 days a season on race skis and through that, he had gotten to know some of the really competitive racers at the time and had seen their struggle to compete on the international stage firsthand.
Marolt asked Nelson to help sponsor the ski team, and Nelson has been a member ever since. After Nelson started running large boardercross and skicross competitions called Ski Tour (and later 48 Straight), he was brought on as a full member of the board in 2008.
Minding the gap
As chairman, Nelson said one of his main objectives is to reduce the cost of being a member of the U.S. team.
“When the B and C teams, the athletes, would have to come up with something like $20,000 to $30,000 apiece to pay to the organization to be on the team, that created a fair amount of resentment because that’s a lot of money for a 20-year-old and their family to come up with,” he said. “The kid, instead of being in the gym and on the snow; they’re out fundraising. And after writing us a $20,000 check, you still need money to survive. So it may cost you $50,000 a year for the benefit of being on the national team.”
He said forking over that large sum made some athletes question whether U.S. Ski and Snowboard had their best interests in mind.
Nelson also said U.S. Ski and Snowboard has “under-invested” in coaches’ educations. He and the current administration are trying to remedy those woes.
He said this year, for the first time since he joined U.S. Ski and Snowboard, the nonprofit has been able to fully fund the A, B and C teams within cross-country, alpine and moguls skiing. The development team athletes still need to raise $10,000 each, which Nelson says is perhaps less than they are spending on a yearly basis to compete outside of U.S. Ski and Snowboard.
The freeski and snowboard teams have a bigger hurdle.
“We’ve gotten that down to around, in total, around $400,000 and we think we will be able to close that this year,” he said. “Our ambition is to be able to fully fund everybody above the rookie level.”
Nelson said U.S. Ski and Snowboard invested some $2.2 million in closing the gaps, though it still has more to do.
“A lot of it came from donors who understood, ‘Wow this is a problem for the organization and we want to help,’” he said.
More and more, he said, the organization is trying to garner those donations from more and smaller sources as opposed to a few larger contributors, which is one area where the athlete experience and fundraising overlap. One of the findings of the consulting group was U.S. Ski and Snowboard wasn’t putting enough money into digital marketing, and was spending a considerable amount promoting only their very top athletes – some 25 athletes out of 185. Going forward, Nelson said the nonprofit will expand its marketing and feature more of the upcoming athletes, which he said would both add to the athlete experience and help the governing body raise funds.
“Our Instagram followers, if you aggregate all the athletes, (numbers) 22 million,” he said. “For the organization itself, it’s only 800,000. We need to help figure out with the athletes how to best explore the 22 million.”
As for coaches’ educations, Nelson said U.S. Ski and Snowboard has been working with the U.S. Olympic Committee to establish a “coach’s code” that employees will apply consistently.
“If you want to be competitive in the modern era, you have to be much more attuned to an athlete’s overall wellness, which isn’t just on the hill, it’s off the hill,” Nelson said. “And it’s not just during the snow sports season, it’s year round. Just a lot of things like that we realized we had some gaps in what we were doing. … What the athletes would say is, probably, we treated them too much on a transactional basis, instead of really thinking about them more holistically.”
When asked about his guiding principles for steering the organization, Nelson said trust and integrity were at the forefront – two qualities he has found integral, believe it or not, in the finance industry.
“If you lose that, you’re worthless,” he said.
The same goes for how he interacts with the athletes at U.S. Ski and Snowboard.
“I’m not somebody who has any kids,” Nelson said. “Now I have 185 of them.”
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