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USA Weightlifting’s woes paint familiar picture for Olympic NGBs

(Credit: Getty Images)

  • US Olympic national governing body has lost 1,500 members since March due to health crisis
  • Moving competitions and coaching courses to digital platforms has helped maintain revenues
  • Organization will likely tap into $4m reserves to help pay for sharply rising costs in 2021

The fate of USA Weightlifting in the past three months helps shine a light on the opportunities and challenges faced by US Olympic national governing bodies following the onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The shutdown of live sports competition in the United States, coupled with a decline in consumer discretionary spending and widespread closure of gymnasiums and training centers, has had a devastating impact on the NGBs’ principal revenue sources.

Meanwhile, the rescheduling of the Tokyo Olympics until 2021 has delayed the opportunity for these bodies to gain significant nationwide publicity and, in turn, potential membership upticks and an influx of new commercial partners.

Already USA Rugby has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, while many other NGBs have laid off staff and implemented pay cuts, such as USA Cycling and USA Track and Field. The vast majority have also requested funding from the US government’s federal loan program to help see them through this financial crisis. A $2tn (€1.8tn) federal economic-rescue package allows certain American employers to apply for loans to cover work costs such as payroll, rent, and utility bills.

Meanwhile, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee plans to make budget cuts of up to 20 per cent through the 2024 Paris Games, which could further impact grants and funding to these NGBs. A complete cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics next year, which has not been ruled out, would be devastating all around.

When live competitions do eventually return, revenues are expected to be lower than before, at least in the short-term, due to the need to stage events without – or with far fewer – spectators, as well as increased spending on additional cleaning, security and screening, and temperature checks.

Moreover, it remains unclear how many members of these bodies at the grassroots level will decide to return to the fold once the health crisis subsides.

All in all, it paints a pretty bleak picture for these non-profit organizations.

“The impact [of the coronavirus] has been pretty great,” USA Weightlifting chief executive Phil Andrews tells SportBusiness. “We came out of March 19-per-cent down [in revenue month-on-month] and I sent a letter out to our board saying, ‘I never thought I’d say this but I’m delighted to tell you that we’re 19-per-cent down.’

“There are lots of question marks we just don’t know the answer to which will dictate how badly we will be affected in 2021. What we already know is that the costs are going to be higher,” Andrews says.

Notably, though, the coronavirus crisis has also led to new opportunities and income streams, such as the introduction of virtual competitions as well as online coaching clinics and training camps, which has helped stem these losses.

“It’s not all negative,” Andrews adds, “there have been some interesting things that have come out of this, which we will see some continued benefits from as we go through into post-Covid. We ended up up [in revenue] in April and we’ll probably be marginally up in May as well. This is not to say that we are out of the woods, but we are doing better than most.”

Revenue dip in 2020, rising costs in 2021

USA Weightlifting has lost around 1,500 members since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis in mid-March, which amounts to around $100,000 in reduced revenue.

Several hundred competitions, ranging from elite national championships to local inter-club tournaments, have also been called off or postponed until later this year. As membership is intrinsically linked to competition – to compete in events you need to be a paying member – several members have opted not to pay their monthly dues for the time being.

Many others have cancelled their monthly payments as, for them, it an unnecessary discretionary spend for them during a time of financial hardship. In a survey of members, eight per cent of respondents also said they would not return to national-level competition unless there was a Covid-19 vaccine.

“We don’t know how many will come back when competition reopens,” Andrews admits.

In addition, the rate of new members joining has ground to a halt due to the competition shutdown, most notably the Tokyo Olympics this summer, which was expected to provide a major publicity boost for the sport.

The current plan is to resume competition in September, beginning at the elite level with the American Open Series 3 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Three tentpole events have been scheduled for December 3-6 in Atlanta, Georgia: the American Open Finals, National Championships, and National Youth Championships.

Elsewhere, over 100 in-person coaching courses have had to be cancelled, significantly affecting the organization’s major revenue stream. “People use weightlifting and strength conditioning for other sports. That proves a useful course for them,” Andrews explains.

USA Weightlifting has not lost any sponsorship revenue so far. However, some commercial partners have asked for repayment plans in which, Andrews says, “they are going to pay a little less now and a little more later.”

He adds: “That’s OK, we can deal with that. We’ve not had any sponsors who have said they can’t do this any more. It may happen as we go through Covid but so far it has not.”

To help deal with the financial crisis, Andrews is temporarily not taking any salary. This has enabled the organization to continue to pay league-office staff in full as well as stipends to athletes, he says.

Meanwhile, USA Weightlifting received a loan of $218,000 from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which is being spent on payroll and rent for the head office in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The office reopened on May 18 at limited capacity for staff, as well as on a voluntary basis.

According to Andrews, promised funding from the USOPC will continue this year. “We are not a particularly well-funded NGB from the USOPC. We generally self-fund, but it is helpful that they are keeping commitments to their NGBs, especially the high-performance funding this year,” he says. “We know what’s going to happen this year, we don’t know what’s going to happen next year.”

USA Weightlifting is also bracing itself for the dual impact of declining revenues in 2020 and significantly increased costs in 2021 following the postponement of the Pan-American Championships and Pan-American Junior Championships. It means there will be four major events next year, including the postponed Olympics and the International Weightlifting Federation World Championships in Lima, Peru.

“Where we’re really going to feel the heat is next year because a lot of our costs in our business is through funding our international teams,” Andrews says.

Moving main revenue streams online

USA Weightlifting has been able to weather the storm so far for two principal reasons. Firstly, the organization has maintained large financial reserves. And secondly, it has successfully pivoted its main revenue streams online.

The 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles generated an unprecedented surplus of $232.5m and these funds were, in part, distributed to the US Olympics NGBs that existed at the time.

Not only has USA Weightlifting maintained these funds for the past 35-plus years, but organization has also added to it, leading to reserves of around $4m. The organization plans to utilize some of these reserves in 2021 to help manage its increased costs.

“We’re very fortunate that we have a large reserve. We are going to predict a deficit budget for next year, when we’ll use part of that reserve,” Andrews says. “We don’t have the largest reserve by cash. But we have one of the largest compared to the size of our annual budget. We can afford to run the business for about nine months without a single penny coming in through the front door if we had to. It’s obviously a good position to be in.”

USA Weightlifting chief executive Phil Andrews (Credit: USA Weightlifting)

USA Weightlifting has also leveraged the fact that it is an individual sport that requires stationary exercise equipment to stage competitions online amid the coronavirus hiatus, as opposed to the likes of judo, taekwondo, and wrestling which need person-to-person contact.

This has included the elite Virtual Super Championships over May 15-17, as well as other events such as the American Open Series Online Qualifier. That participants have had to remain USA Weightlifting members to compete in these competitions has helped alleviate the drop in membership numbers.

Competitors record their lifts on electronic devices, which are then adjudicated by national and international referees and can be used to qualify for a series of competitions. Highlights are posted to USA Weightlifting social media channels.

“It gives you something to train for and compete for. We’re fortunate that the spiritual home of weightlifting is the garage, that’s where we started the sport in the US,” Andrews says. “We’re not completely closed off the idea of continuing to do some of these online competitions post Covid-19. It’s an additional way to compete as opposed to a replacement.”

Notably, selection for the 2021 Pan American Championships will be conduced by videoconferencing platform Zoom later this year.

In addition, USA Weightlifting has put its numerous coaching courses and training camps online, which have both proven hugely successful initiatives, maintaining revenue streams. The costs of staging these in-person events have also declined, with the move online.

“We’ve sold out every level one coaching course, the issue has been capacity, which has been raised from 35 to 50 per course,” says Andrews. “We’ve also designed some strength and conditioning courses for other sports to help them with their revenues and we split the revenues between us – we’ve done that with rowing, cycling, judo, triathlon and soccer.”

Although USA Weightlifting has been badly hit by the coronavirus crisis, something that will extend throughout 2021, Andrews remains quietly optimistic about the future of his organization.

“We’ve been able to pivot online very quickly, partly because we have a very creative team and partly because of the sport we are: you can do weightlifting on your own in your garage,” Andrews says. “So’ve had some luck, innovation and ingenuity that’s got us through this.”

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