Since the beginning of the year, the question of who would lead USRowing out of the disruption that enveloped nearly every aspect of the governing body for rowing in the United States since the conclusion of the 2016 Olympics has been a dominant subject both in the U.S. and among the international rowing community.
Operating without a chief executive, a severely reduced staff, evaporating revenue streams, and under a cloud of controversy that erupted publically in January when four Board of Director members resigned and then Chief Executive Officer Glenn Merry announced he was leaving the organization, USRowing has been searching for someone that can point the association in a new direction.
The answer to who that person would be came Monday when USRowing announced that they have hired that Patrick McNerney - a former rower and national team manager who left the sport and engaged in a career in sports management and marketing - to help lead USRowing into the future.
And, starting next week at the Masters National Championship in Oak Ridge, TN, the rowing community will get a first-hand look at who that new person is. Just after coming to the final agreement with USRowing Board of Directors at the end of last week, McNerney said he will head south from his New York home to meet and start a dialogue with USRowing members, including the masters community, one of rowing's largest constituencies.
"I have a lot of questions that I still need to ask and get answers to," McNerney told row2k in a wide-ranging interview before his appointment was announced. "My first job is going to be to listen. There is a constituency out there that I need to listen to. I'm excited for this. I know there are challenges, but I am excited."
Given that McNerney hasn’t yet had a chance to take up residence in his new office at the USRowing headquarters in Princeton, NJ, and that USRowing only officially announced his hiring Monday, it is very early days for the new CEO.
But his hiring should bring a sense of relief for the organization, and its athletes and supporters.
“Patrick brings with him the best of both worlds – an insider who understands the close-knit US rowing community, and an experienced innovative corporate leader who has had an extensive and successful career working at the highest levels of sports marketing and entertainment,” said Board Chair Marcia Hooper in making the Monday announcement.
“We are looking forward to working with Patrick and welcoming him back to USRowing. This will be exciting new era."
Hooper's sentiments were echoed by Rob Milam, chairman of the newly reconstructed USRowing high performance committee.
"Building a winning high performance culture starts with the right leadership at the top of the organization," Milam said. "Not only are we confident that Patrick brings that leadership, he also has an intimate knowledge of high performance sport, especially rowing, and he has a proven track record of empowering people and organizations to help them achieve their best.”
McNerney's professional career in sports began as a boathouse manager and club coach at the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia. McNerney grew up in Florida and rowed at Winter Park High School and later at the University of Central Florida, where he also worked as the freshman and novice coach.
In 1987, McNerney accepted a newly created position at USRowing as the international program coordinator and moved to the association's headquarters in Indianapolis where he stayed as the position evolved into more of the positon of national team manager as it is known today.
He left USRowing after the Barcelona Games in 1992 and moved to Great Britain to attend the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he earned a post graduate degree. After graduating, McNerney began a career in sports marketing and management with IMG Media. Over the course of his career, McNerney worked in high profile sports, promoting teams and events in professional tennis, golf, IndyCar racing, and soccer. He has held high-level executive positions for IMG and Lightmaker Sports, and most recently he worked as President of PKM & Associates to devise and implement the business strategy for the successful launch and continued progression of the Ivy League’s Digital Network.
His clients have included Manchester United, Wimbledon, and professional golf tournaments including the Masters Championship. McNerney was in the sports media and marketing world as it evolved into the "integrated media" - matching traditional media content with the emerging world of the internet and social media.
“I think it is terrific to have someone with Patrick’s experience and knowledge in both business and rowing as CEO. His experience leading major organizations through successful transformations will make him a valuable addition to the USRowing family,” said Jamie Koven, co-Chair of the National Rowing Foundation.
McNerney said, "One of the reasons I am so excited for this opportunity is when I think about my professional career, and even my personal life, rowing was a very influential part of the early days in that in high school, college, during my time in Philadelphia and in Indianapolis, I still feel part of the fabric of rowing today.
"When I thought about taking on the position, I thought about the personalities that have been in rowing since I was there and the impact they had on my life and my career, and I was probably irrationally excited about being engaged in the community again."
The new Olympic cycle is a good place for a new leader to start. But McNerney is coming into USRowing at one of the most challenging times in the association's history.
After a disappointing finish to the 2016 cycle in Rio, USRowing underwent an escalating and progressive period of self-examination and, some would argue, dysfunction, that began publicly when four board members resigned and Merry announced he was leaving the organization, effective April 15.
His resignation was followed over the course of months by the resignation of chief marketing officer Beth Kohl and an overhaul of the men's coaching ranks. (See the timeline here.)
McNerney's job will encompass helping to guide the national team toward a successful Tokyo Olympics and build a platform to continue that into the future; finding ways to grow the association's membership; market and publicize the sport in ways that engages sports fans who might not necessarily follow rowing, but like competition and the stories of the athletes involved; and to find ways to grow existing revenue streams and create new ones.
A tall order, anyway it is viewed.
McNerney's immediate answer: Ask questions.
"The logical path, and what my plan would be given this opportunity - and I was asked that during the interview process - is to approach this as an outsider looking in. I have a lot of questions. I'm going to Oak Ridge next week to the Masters. I will seek to find out how we are supporting the masters, what are we doing for the masters," he said. "That's just one constituency. There are a lot of constituencies in rowing.
"But as I try to prioritize my time, and I don’t start officially until September first, I am going to Oak Ridge. I'm not necessarily going with big ideas on how to grow masters rowing, but I am going to listen.
"I'm going to do the same thing with the national team," he said. "I'm going to be based in Princeton and I fully expect to be reaching out to the coaches, to the high performance committee, and more importantly, to the athletes, and to be a presence there. I feel like I have the appreciation for rowing and the sport and its values. But I have a lot of questions.
"And finding the answers starts with listening," he said. "I want to have a profile. I want to go out and I want to listen and I want to use that as a basis for formulating recommendations for a roadmap as we go into 2018 and 2019.
"As the information is absorbed, there has to be a road map, and there have to be priorities established. We can't do everything for everybody right away, but it's important that we articulate what the priorities are and then be accountable for addressing them."
McNerney is also thinking of how the sport has evolved in the time he has been away, and that is one of the draws that brought him to seek the position.
"What I think is very intriguing is, it's a little bit of a time warp," he said. "I left just after the Barcelona Games and now 25 years later I am coming back to the rowing world. I see a lot of good things in terms of how rowing has evolved, how much broader a sport it is than when I left, what is going on in places in Oklahoma City and in my home state of Florida with the number of rowing clubs and competitions. It's incredible to see all that," he said.
"But then on the flip side, I see that we are still on the bubble. There are those of us who row and love the sport, and we see a lot of good things in terms of participation. We have to look at the bigger picture, we have to examine what it will take to establish a high profile for rowing.
"And we have to be realistic," he said. "Rowing isn’t football, but there are a lot of other sports and activities out there that have a stronger profile compared to rowing and the question is, what have they done to achieve success?
"I have some success in terms of supporting that, and in bringing what is relevant to rowing and really helping over the next couple of years to build up our product, build up our profile. For some reason, we still haven't figured out how to get that story outside of our bubble. What I am excited about is I think I can help achieve that."