We look at what Rob Urbach accomplished in his six years at the helm of our sport’s governing body, and what lies ahead.
USA Triathlon’s CEO Rob Urbach left his position on May 8, according to a statement released by USAT. Urbach spent six years at the helm, beginning his tenure in March of 2011. He was the ninth person to hold the position, and was one of the highest-paid executives in the triathlon industry, with an annual salary of $362,000. No members of USAT’s staff or board wished to comment on his departure. USAT did state that the search for the next CEO has begun and no additional information will be given until the position is filled.
Urbach came to USAT from a job as Managing Director at Cortview Capital Markets, where he handled mergers and acquisitions for the company’s sports industry clients. Prior to that, he was Executive VP at Octagon, the world’s largest sports marketing and management firm. Before joining USAT, Urbach had no experience working in the triathlon industry, but he’d been an avid triathlete since the early days of the sport, competing in his first Ironman World Championship in 1982 at just 20 years old.
Urbach oversaw what is unquestionably USAT’s most successful period of professional racing. Although the Collegiate Recruitment Program was started under previous Executive Director Skip Gilbert, the success of the program wasn’t fully realized until last summer’s Olympics, when USAT collegiate recruit Gwen Jorgensen won America’s first triathlon gold medal. While male U.S. athletes haven’t had the same level of success, the women’s elite squad, led by Jorgensen, Katie Zaferes and Sarah True, has become the most dominant on the ITU circuit.
Urbach came to USAT with the nearly impossible task of continuing the membership and financial momentum from Skip Gilbert’s six years of leadership. Gilbert was in charge during the biggest boom in triathlon’s short history and saw membership rise from less than 60,000 to more than 135,000 between 2006 and 2011. He was forced to resign after a conflict of interest arose from hiring his wife’s interior design firm to decorate USAT’s new offices in Colorado Springs.
Doubling membership and revenue during Urbach’s six years at the till proved impossible, especially in the midst of a global economic recession and the bursting of the U.S. triathlon bubble in the early 2010s. USAT has more or less maintained membership numbers since peaking at more than 500,000 full-time and one-day members in 2012. But it did see its first significant drop in membership last year with a 9 percent decrease. Nonetheless, over the last six years, USAT has reached all-time highs in revenue, members, coaches, clubs, races, and has also doubled its endowment, which is no small feat. The incoming CEO will certainly have his or her hands full to meet or exceed Urbach’s success from a financial standpoint.
Perhaps the most lasting impact of Urbach’s legacy will be triathlon’s approval by the NCAA as an emerging women’s sport and USAT’s commitment to grow the sport among high school and collegiate athletes. In 2014, USAT announced $2.6 million to help grow NCAA triathlon, as well as a grant program aimed at developing high school triathlon teams. Currently only two D1 schools—Arizona State and East Tennessee State—have established varsity women’s programs, but 12 other schools are receiving multi-year grants from USAT to create varsity triathlon squads.
One of the biggest flops of Urbach’s tenure was the introduction of the “Retro Tri Series” in 2013, which aimed to grow membership and participation by establishing events with a lower barrier to entry. The distances for these events were extremely short and some weren’t timed. Athletes were encouraged to participate with “retro” gear, like non-technical bikes and board shorts. The series never really took off and fizzled out after the 2015 season.
One of Urbach’s proudest accomplishments was the Super Sprint Series events he helped get off the ground in Las Vegas and Milwaukee, Wisc., which were part of major events like the annual Interbike trade show and USAT Age-Group Nationals. Much like Major League Triathlon and Super League, these events featured fast-paced, spectator-friendly races with live media coverage. If USAT seeks to reach a broader base of new members, a continued commitment to spectator-and TV-friendly races needs to remain a priority.
Whoever the USAT Board selects as its next CEO, the challenges and opportunities will be immense. They will have to think creatively to improve membership numbers and the sponsorship dollars that come with them. They also must continue to diversify triathlon by working hard to appeal to three demographics the sport has struggled to attract: women, minorities and young people.
Whether the advent of NCAA women’s triathlon and Jorgensen gold medal performance can attract more young women to the sport remains to be seen, but that’s one of many opportunities and challenges facing USAT’s next leader.
May 31, 2017: This article has been altered from its original version to clarify that 12 schools are now running varsity triathlon programs, to include information on the Super Sprint Series, and information about Ubach’s impact on USAT’s revenue.