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Plans for the Future
Moving USRowing Forward: row2k Talks With CEO Patrick McNerney
November 29, 2017
Ed Moran,

CEO Patrick McNerney at Worlds

In just a few weeks, Patrick McNerney will close the books on a tumultuous 2017 at USRowing after his first months as the CEO of the United States Rowing Association. As he begins the process of working toward making significant changes in the way the national governing organization of rowing in the US conducts business, it is safe to say that he steps squarely out of any honeymoon phase and into an unavoidable spotlight given the fact that McNerney took over USRowing while it was in full crisis.

Just to put his job in perspective, McNerney was named Chief Executive Officer in August following a long search to replace former CEO Glenn Merry, who left when an examination of a disappointing 2016 Olympics ultimately led to an implosion of and mass resignation from the Board of Directors, followed closely followed by a public relations disaster in the form of a quickly abandoned, flawed exclusive sponsorship contract.

Before the skies clear on 2017, USRowing's new leadership will by proposed changes to the composition of its Board of Directors that, if passed by a full membership vote, move the board toward a partial governance merger with the National Rowing Foundation, the organization from which USRowing receives the most funding for its national team athletes, a practice that mirrors that of many national governing bodies in the US.

The vote, which will begin Dec. 3 and concludes Dec. 15, will render a decision on a proposal that would increase the size of the board from 14 to 15, give three seats to the NRF (to mirror the practice of many national governing bodies in the US of having direct representation of funding sources on the board), and gives the CEO a seat for the first time, among other changes.

USRowing has posted several informational documents to support the vote and provide information about the proposals, including an initial announcement, a letter from Board Chair Marcia Hooper and McNerney, and a full listing of FAQs of the bylaw changes.

The changes to the Board of Directors is just one of several initiatives McNerney will oversee, which will also include the restructuring and location of the men's national team training center and senior national team coaching staff.

Ahead of the USRowing Annual Convention, which begins Friday in Sarasota, Florida, row2k talked at length with McNerney about his experiences during his first months on the job and his plans and hopes for his administration as it moves through its first Olympic quadrennial.

row2k: Can you give assessment of what your first months have been like, what changes have taken place, and what you see as important for the direction of the organization?

Recording the worlds performance

McNerney: I've spent a lot of time listening, and from that I've learned a lot, and I'm even more optimistic about the future of our sport then when I came in. As I think through what I've gone through over the past 90 days, I feel that there is an incredible amount of unlocked potential in our sport, and that is what excites me and gives me the sort of optimism looking to 2018 and beyond.

I do feel, however, that there are a lot of challenges we need to address.

row2k: Can you be specific about which challenges?

McNerney: I would say probably my biggest challenge as CEO is harnessing the passion of the rowing community and channeling it towards achieving the future growth of this sport. And the biggest question that USRowing has is answering the question of, 'why should I be part of USRowing?'

The sport of rowing itself continues to grow. But I feel that the challenges that I've identified, and I am trying to address, are how do we support that growth; how do we support better coaching, more access to coaching, more access to clubs and facilities, and more access to the sport for inner-city disadvantaged youth.

We have a significant issue in our sport with diversity, and I'm specifically referencing the African American and Hispanic communities. We have events that have grown significantly over the years and we need to evaluate their structure and how we continue to support them so that they continue to be good experiences for our membership.

Youths Nationals is one of the largest of the USRowing domestic championships

One of our biggest events is the Youth National Championships and we have challenges in the youth programs, which is exploding in our country. There is a healthy tension between what I would call scholastic rowing and youth club rowing.

I was in Philadelphia last week meeting with the Schuylkill Navy and there was a lot of discussion around supporting scholastic programs. Club rowing is seen as being comprised of the all-stars of all of an area's' local high schools, where scholastic programs are the best athletes from an individual school.

So the question is, how do we provide a format or structure that continues to support the history and growth of scholastic rowing but then also allows us to support the explosive growth of youth club rowing? Where do those two intersect? I don't have an answer for that, but I think there's a challenge there that we need to embrace and work with our constituency to provide a format, or formats, to provide good, meaningful, competitive opportunities for both constituents.

row2k: A basic belief of a large portion of the rowing community is that USRowing is less than transparent, and makes decisions without the involvement of the people who participate in the sport. Do you agree with that?

McNerney: I feel that we have not done a good job over the years of listening, and then communicating, or better communicating, the services and initiatives, that we're providing our membership. I do feel, just to be clear, that in 2017 I need to give credit to my predecessor. Susan (acting CEO Susan Smith) has taken some very, very strong steps towards addressing that. But the legacy or that, the lack of communication or transparency, is a significant issue that we're working proactively to address.

row2k: Are the proposed changes to the Board of Directors to include direct input from the CEO and the NRF part of the attempt to address transparency? What exactly does this reconstruction hope to achieve?

McNerney: The process actually started a couple of years ago. This is the outcome of a process that examined the governance structure of the board over the years. What is being proposed currently is an outcome of a process that began well before I started as CEO.

Having said that, I think that the key themes as to why this is important, why the timing of this is very relevant, is, one, the NRF has been in operation for well over 50 years. We're probably overdue for an alignment for our fundraising partner with the governance side of the sport. That is one of the key outcomes of these dialogues, aligning the interests of the two organizations much more closely.

The NRF has been a good partner in supporting fundraising efforts for the senior and junior national teams and we both believe we can significantly increase that by working even more closely together.

Therefore, having that alignment at the governance level is a step towards achieving that goal. There's also the opportunity to move the organization to governance with a more national approach. We're not governing a sport that is focused on specific issues for the Southeast region, because the Southeast region has very similar issues to the Northwest. It's all the sport of rowing. Having the opportunity to bring additional perspective to our board is only going to help us continue to evolve, strengthen, and grow the sport over the long term.

I look at our membership as 85,000 people, but I feel strongly that the number of people that participate, or have participated in rowing, is significantly higher. Yet, we haven't really been able to answer the question in terms of how we engage and bring those individuals into our organization, into our membership.

In the process of studying our governance structure, one of the outcomes of the process was to address the question of what is an effective size for a board of directors? And the number 14 was the conclusion and 15 when you include the CEO.

By bringing the CEO on board, which is new to the organization, it reinforces a level of accountability of the CEO with the board in terms of making sure that the decisions that are made are implemented. Obviously, the CEO is part of the decision-making process, but then ultimately this reinforces the accountability of the CEO to effectively implement those policies.

The ultimate goal of the reconstitution of the board is an alignment between of the NRF and of USRowing. And the outcome of that in our view will only benefit the future growth of our sport.

Men's eight with their silver medals at Worlds

row2k: Besides the proposed changes to the board, there are expected to be significant changes for the men's national team. Coming off of the success of the men's eight silver medal performance in Sarasota, it is being said that two of the worst kept secrets in the US right now is that Mike Teti will be named the head men's national team coach, and that the men's training center will be relocated to the West Coast from Princeton. Can you comment of those two developments?

McNerney: I think it's probably best to describe this as we're in a transition period coming off of Sarasota, that is, we are working toward our long-term planning.

row2k: Can you be more specific about Teti?

McNerney: We have a confirmed agreement with Mike Teti that he is a consultant for the US Men's National Team, and we are in active discussions with relevant parties regarding the short and long-term plans for our Men's National Team.

row2k: Consultant? What does that mean?

McNerney: He's overseeing the training and selection of our men's team, like he did for the World Championships.

row2k: Is the men's training center relocating to Oakland, California?

McNerney: We are actively exploring that as well.

row2K: What about the rest of the coaching staff?

McNerney: As part of that transition out of Sarasota, Bryan Volpenhein is engaged as a consultant supporting Mike Teti through the early part of next summer, and then we'll formalize the structure at that point in time moving forward. Also, Cam (Kiosoglous) is overseeing our athlete identification and development program.

We've already scheduled and implemented multiple national identification camps. The first one was here in Princeton about three weeks ago, where 75-plus athletes arrived. Then we've had them in Seattle, Notre Dame, and other locations around the country. These are traditional erg tests, with an on-water component, weather permitting.

row2k: What about speed orders?

McNerney: The only reason why we didn't have a speed order this fall was a timing issue given the lateness of the 2017 World Championships. We fully intend to have the speed orders next fall, so kind of the traditional schedule, if you like.

row2k: To wrap up, is there anything you want to say, repeat, reinforce?

McNerney: I feel incredibly optimistic about the future of our sport. We have interest now from media partners like NBC, and even from ESPN, to begin to expand coverage of our sport. We have a very strong relationship now with FISA where we're looking at opportunities to bring future world championships, juniors, under 23s and seniors back to the United States.

We have the Masters World Championships next year in Sarasota, which we're looking forward to co-hosting and supporting because I feel like it introduces an event to our masters' constituency which traditionally has not been readily available. We're looking at multiple other initiatives that I believe will focus and continue to achieve incredible growth for this sport.

Ultimately, it's only been three months, but I feel like I've learned a lot. I'm clear on what the priorities are for 2018, and I'm incredibly optimistic about what's in store for our sport, not only in 2018 but for the long-term.

Supporting referee corps among the immediate objectives

I'm repeating myself a little bit, but the immediate priorities we're addressing are the challenges of youth rowing in terms of how we can support that growth, addressing the challenges that we have with our judge-referees in the sense that we need to determine how we can recruit and retain an increased pool of judge referees - because clearly the more events we want to support and host, the more officials that we need to be available. We also need their efforts to be recognized and sustainable.

Expanding the access to our coaching education program we believe will only help support the continued interest and growth in coaching at all levels, junior, high school, collegiate, and club.

We are focused on building and sustaining the success of the World Championships of all of our teams from 2017 forward into the quadrennial, for 2018 through Tokyo. And from a governance or fiscal perspective, we're focused on making sure that we go into next year with a governance structure that supports our membership's objectives.

Again, I feel like we're still trying to answer that question of 'why should I be part of USRowing?,' and I feel my biggest priority is to continue to answer that question so that people want to be part of our organization.


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