An interview with Steve Johnson, acting CEO of USA Cycling, April 25, 2006
In light of the recent departure of Gerard Bisceglia from USA Cycling, the next in command, Steve Johnson , was the obvious choice to serve as the immediate replacement. But just who is Steve Johnson? Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski found out, and where he thinks USA Cycling - as well as U.S. cycling in general is headed - along with a few other issues.
Steve Johnson is quickly coming upon his six year anniversary as a full-time employee with USA Cycling. Like a lot of people within the cycling community, he sort of 'fell into' his position - beginning as a consultant for the organisation while he served as a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Utah. He was brought in to develop the athlete side of the organisation as the organisation moved towards professional rather than strictly amateurs representing the country in events such as the Olympics. But like many of us, Johnson is first and foremost a cyclist himself.
Cyclingnews: Tell me how you came to USA Cycling?
Steve Johnson: I have been a cyclist and competitor at the elite and masters levels for thirty years. I have been the director of what used to be called a district, an official and have basically been in and around the sport for a long time. I was a college professor for fifteen years. I was recruited by USA Cycling back in 1998. I was asked to design a high-performance plan and got EDS to fund some of what I thought were really appropriate programs. One was the U23 program and the other was the coaching association. Another was the ranking system that is still in place today. And another was a junior regional program. So I got all of that up and running as a consultant and then discovered at the end of 2000 that EDS was going to go away. In the process of getting all of this going I got more and more involved that I should have - you know how that happens when you are passionate about something - you lose all perspective!
At that point I sat down with Thom Weisel about creating a foundation - a major donor fundraising program to keep the money going into the programs we started. That just grew into these other opportunities over time. Basically it's been a huge component in support of the organisation. It pumped over $4 million into athlete programs in the last five years. It not only kept the programs that I started going but it also ended up funding everything we do in athletics - mountain bike, women's programs and other important stuff. From the beginning I believe the top end of our sport is connected to the bottom - if you look at membership growth and grassroots, you cannot disconnect the athlete performance side of it. And a lot of the membership growth is a result of Lance Armstrong putting our sport on the radar screen for millions of new fans. A few of those buy bicycles and that pumps billions into the bike industry. One out of every hundred decides to become a member, so there are ten thousand new members - it becomes a complex, interconnected ecosystem.
I think that elite coaches are absolutely critical to supporting the whole thing, and creating an industry. Making an association for them to share information and create structure was critical. We have grown from just a few people who had coaching licenses in 1999 to over 1,200 now. That has been a big factor with our growth as well.
CN: You were Chief Operating Officer and are now still the Director of Athletics. How do you see those roles functioning within USA Cycling?
SJ: I think that the sport definitely needs to have a well-functioning grassroots effort and a well-functioning elite effort. If you look at our mission it is to grow the sport domestically and the other is to achieve international success. I really believe that having Americans on the podium of international competitions ultimately creates the perception of opportunities among those who might be inclined to pick-up the sport and drives membership at the base. I am very passionate about both ends of the spectrum. I've been part of both ends.
USA Cycling never really adapted to the change to professionalism in the Olympics in 1996. When I came on board in 2000 they still had a lot of basic programs that were designed around an old amateur model. So to dissolve those programs and revaluate where we put our resources in what otherwise is a professional sport was critical. The bad news is that not all the disciplines have all the same level of professionalism. On the road side that is clear it has grown to a very sophisticated level, but on the mountain bike side it is a little behind, but going in that direction. Women's professional cycling is also not as sophisticated and track is behind all of those.
So the question as to where do our programs fit and how do we integrate with the professional component of the sport? Making sure we are feeding athletes to the professional side of the sport and not competing with the professional side of the sport. It has been a read paradigm shift. It is a complete redesign of the sport from the ground up.
CN: Your ascension to the level of CEO was a little dramatic with the recent departure of your former boss Gerard Bisceglia...
SJ: Let me say that from my perspective I think that this change is really going to be transparent to our members, and it should be. I want to assure everybody that we are not changing directions. All of our programs and initiatives that we started we are going to continue with and we have a bunch more stuff we are working on. I don't think it should be a concern with the rank and file members.
CN: Do you think this transparency is a result of your good working relationship with Gerard?
SJ: Yeah, we had a great relationship. The staff that is here are all part of the decision-making processes. They are all committed to the same things.
CN: Are there things that you want to do now that you are in charge?
SJ: There is never enough money, time or resources to do all the things that you actually want to do - so everything is always a compromise depending on what is available. I have a lot of initiatives and a lot of these have been on the drawing board for a long time. But developing our membership is a key component here. If you look at our organisation, it is not like a shareholder organisation - it's not one member, one vote. It's a stakeholder organisation and membership is a big stage in that, but not only USCF membership. Track riders, mountain bike riders and everyone else. So we need to make sure we listen to, and work with all of these constituent groups.
We created this local stakeholder model four years ago, after developing it for a while we were finally able to implement it. We put the management of local bike racing in the local community. I think one of biggest mistakes of this organisation was in the late 1990s terminating the district associations and getting rid of the district reps. The members are absolutely critical and we have affinity partners and other organisations to provide other member benefits that we are going to continue to roll out.
Insurance is a huge issue. A lot of our riders don't have coverage for accidents. And we have come up with a solution for that for our riders that is for an inexpensive amount - for about $25 per month they can get full coverage for accidents on a bicycles.
Our juniors membership is up fifty percent this year, it's running ahead of last year. We created a new position, director of junior programs to tie directly to our regional and national camps. On the road side for juniors we are moving a lot of our junior programs to Europe, just like we did with our U23. We are getting our juniors over there in an eight week program in Europe.
For the near term it is pretty clear we need to export our riders to Europe, with the end goal of having men's racers in the UCI ProTour and women racing on European trade teams. It may seem contradictory when I say I want to grow the sport in America, but I think that there is a connection. If you look at the Tour of California, it had eight ProTour teams there, because you have American riders on those teams and American sponsors interested in ProTour teams, whether they are European or domestic. That is ultimately going to grow American cycling.
CN: Explain to me the different power structures at work within USA Cycling. What are the most important entities the organisation needs to focus on building or maintaining a good relationship?
SJ: If you look at our stakeholders, we need to have good relationships with all of them. Obviously, the U.S. Olympic Committee is obvious, they fund a third of our athletic programs! The UCI is crtitical with a goal to eventually have UCI ProTour events here in America. So they are going to have a large say in that. Promoters are absolutely an important stakeholder group in our organisation. Our sponsor and partners are stakeholders, as is the entire industry. And the foundation is a stakeholder - they have poured $8 million into athlete programs to keep the lights on during some very difficult times.
CN: That has been an issue in the past - stakeholder versus shareholder.
SJ: As far as the foundation goes, I'd say that these guys are just wonderful patrons of the sport. They are very generous and have never asked for any other than the staff run this organisation in a fiscally responsible manner and continue to make the sport grow.
CN: What do you say to people who say that the power is too concentrated, particularly on the board of directors?
SJ: If you step back and look at our responsibilities from a stakeholder perspective - and then you consider it from a very tightly knit ecosystem, promoters connected to the grassroots to the elites to the foundation to the industry - and you don't want to remove the voice of any of those stakeholder groups. If one of them is ineffective, then the whole system crumbles. That is the whole point of the representative system - at the top with the stakeholders all having a voice and interest in seeing the sport succeed.
CN: What checks and balances are there in place to insure that an abuse of power among the fourteen individuals of the board does not occur?
SJ: Everybody is represented. We have representation from NORBA, USCF, USPRO, the foundation, elite athlete groups and BMX, with broader representation of BMX coming. So everybody has a voice through their representatives on the board. If you look at it from a strictly democratic perspective, why should NORBA have the same representation as USCF? And from a numbers perspective it doesn't make sense, but from a stakeholder perspective it absolutely does. We are responsible for all of the cycling sports. And I absolutely believe that is the best way to run this company.
CN: Okay, but some people have contended that the board should better reflect the raw numbers involved with the memberships. With this in mind, why should USPRO have three votes out of fourteen for a small minority of members?
SJ: From a stakeholder perspective, the two hundred or so athletes are absolutely critical to the continued growth of cycling in America, period. They are going to help grow the grassroots. Americans are funny animals - they make decision of what they are going to do with their time and money based upon perceptions of opportunities, and the more professionals in the sport, the clearer it becomes that there is a chance to make a living and do a fun thing at the same time, so I'm going to become a cyclist. Again, representing professional cycling is critical to the overall success of cycling in America.
The board has steered this organisation through some difficult times. Before it was three separate organisations that came together in the early nineties. It wasn't always smooth with everybody fighting for their own piece of the pie. I think a lot of what happened to this organisation in the late nineties was the result of this constant evolution of the union and the better understanding of it. There used to be separate managing directors for NORBA, USCF and USPRO. And of course they are all there to represent their own constituent groups. Now we have a membership side and an athletic side, with good coordination between them. It is much more streamlined, much more reactive and better able to implement plans that work on a broad scale for the whole sport.
CN: How much would you say that money plays a factor into USA Cycling and the board?
SJ: American sports are unique in all the world, in that we don't have a social system that supports the programs. It's all based on marketing, sales and membership. It costs money to implement programs and if we don't have money we cannot do anything. Sponsorships, partnerships, support from the foundation and members helps us develop and implement programs. The redesign of the web site cost a lot of money. The programs in western Europe cost a lot of money. Putting money back into the local associations in the form of rebates on memberships, it puts almost $400,000 back into the local organisations. That is how the sport is going to grow.
If you think about how much USA Cycling has to invest in opportunities, and it's not a lot. Our budget is $8.5 million and $200,000 doesn't go very far. At the end of the day we are on the top making sure all of the parts fit together and having success at the international level. It's not a distraction from our focus on the bottom because again, success at the top will ultimately feed back on membership growth at the bottom. If you look at the investment we made recently in the elite side of mountain bike racing. Getting the top NORBA athletes to do world cup events is entirely driven by the calculus that international success is important. Their local sponsors may or may not be interested in that aspect, but we are so lets help fund that component.
CN: Now that you have had time to move into your new office and change the voicemail settings, what is the first item on your agenda?
SJ: Things are going in the right direction. We have enough critical mass in the local organisations to get our membership groups here for the fall meeting, and they will get together and share in their best practices. The foundation just gave us a grant to pay to bring one representative from each of these groups to Colorado Springs. That is a huge initiative for me, to get this group working together to share information.
On the athletic side, we would like to create a European-based program for women. I think that is the next place for us to go. Right now we are going over there with the same old model, going over on a project by project basis. We are looking at places where we can set-up a residence centre. On the track we have started a cross-pollination program to entice the best endurance road riders to race on the track. We have already seen tremendous success from that. And we are sending one of the best endurance track teams to the world championships in years, as a result of that effort. Collegiate for us is a huge opportunity which can have profound impact on the sport. To understand and serve collegiate cycling better and create more continuity is critical.