Meet the New Boss of USA Triathlon

Rocky Harris is an avid age-group triathlete and has been competing for the past eight years.

USA Triathlon announced last Thursday that it has named Rocky Harris as its new CEO. Harris is taking over the position left vacant when former CEO Rob Urbach left in June. Harris, who recently turned 40, was named to Sports Business Journal’s prestigious “40 under 40” list in April and comes to USAT after a stint as COO Arizona State University Athletics. He has previously worked in communications roles with the San Francisco 49ers and the Houston Dynamo. Harris is an avid age-group triathlete and has been competing for the past eight years. We caught up with the new USAT head hauncho as he gets ready to make the move from Tempe to Colorado Springs. Did USAT approach you or did you approach them when you heard about the vacancy?
Harris: It was definitely a mutual interest. I’ve been working with USA Triathlon for a long time and talk to Barry [Siff] often. Here at [Arizona State University] I have a really great mentor and boss in Ray Anderson. He’s someone I talk to when opportunities come up. He’s always been supportive but is also very critical of any opportunities. When this one came up, he said it sounded perfect for me, which is pretty rare. So I became even more interested because his opinion is one I value a lot. The more I talked to Barry and the board, the more interested I became, because there’s huge potential and I feel like my background and skill set really fit with USAT’s vision for the future. How you first get started in triathlon?
Harris: I was on vacation with my wife in Belize in 2009 and got bit by a bug while I was laying on the beach. I didn’t think anything of it, but a couple days after I returned home to Houston I led a staff-wide presentation. I only sleep like four hours a night—that’s just the way I’m wired—but that night I slept for almost 14 hours and I couldn’t remember the day before. I thought I’d missed the presentation. I knew something was wrong at that point. Turns out I had contracted some infectious disease, but the doctors couldn’t figure out what it was. So they just tried every possible treatment and luckily I ultimately recovered from it after nearly a year and a half. I had been so lethargic during that time that I had done nothing but work and hanging out with my wife for those 18 months—no working out at all. So I wanted to try something to get me back, physically, and I chose a triathlon. It was my way to recover from something that was physically, mentally and emotionally draining. What are a couple of things that stand out that USAT has done particularly well over the past five years?
Harris: I think they’ve managed and worked with their members very well. I’ve been a member for a long time. I’ve noticed that if I have questions or concerns they get back right away. They’re very customer-focused. They’ve also created programs that have worked like the Collegiate Recruitment Program or getting triathlon accepted as an NCAA emerging sport. They’ve put programs in place that have produced results—like a gold medal. Right now they have a really solid strategic plan in place and it’s up to me and the rest of the staff to see it through. What’s the biggest challenge you see facing USAT right now? 
Harris: I think the big players in the triathlon community are a bit fractured and siloed. As the governing body, it’s our responsibility to bridge those relationships and remove any barriers that exist. Maybe that means collaborating with groups that we weren’t as willing to collaborate with in the past. We’re not in competition with anyone at all. Our job is to grow triathlon in America. So if we need to lock arms with Ironman or anyone else who wants to grow the sport, it’s our responsibility to do that. So from my perspective—and I have to dig into this deeper—USAT hasn’t always taken that leadership role in bringing the whole community together so that we can all reach our shared objectives. If we all work together we can accomplish so much more. How can you better leverage Gwen’s gold medal to grow the sport and what would you like to see done in the future surrounding big moments like that?
Harris: I think proactively planning promotional campaigns is key for major moments like that. I think before, during and for at least six weeks afterward, there needs to be a huge push. I don’t feel like there was enough pre-packaged material surrounding Gwen’s win in Rio to really tell her story. The best model is already in the Olympic movement—it’s what NBC does to tell these great stories and make you fall in love with these athletes. I think they did a good job with Gwen—in telling her story of leaving an office job and winning a gold medal. People connected with that. But I think that’s something we need to do for all of our elite athletes. Americans really look up to elite athletes. We aspire to be them and we want to know about the human side of them. It’s something that we need to do all the time—not just during the Olympics. We need to create more mainstream human-interest stories, and we need to use digital technology to engage a younger audience and connect them to these stars. There’s not a lot of triathlon content that’s being shared broadly or that’s going viral. I think USAT needs to be innovative to create and share that content—and it has to be throughout the year, not just at big events. Are there any other sports organizations—either another governing body or a professional team—that you can use as a model of where you’d like USAT to be, or do you see other ideas that you can borrow from?
Harris: When I look at successful brands I think of why they exist and why they matter. Apple is the perfect example—they’ve always been future-thinking and they approach their business by thinking of the customer and standing out. It’s not all about selling product. In terms of a sports organization that’s done that well, I think of the Seattle Sounders in Major League Soccer. They decided they weren’t going to be a typical MLS team—they were going to do things differently. They positioned their brand in a unique way and they’ve been enormously successful. So I look at those brands that stand out in unique ways and that’s what I want with triathlon. I want to take it from a subculture of a million or so advocates to a compelling brand that means more than just the sport. There are a number of sports organizations that have done that well, but I also like to look at industry and the business sector. I want USAT to be one step ahead when it comes to finding unique ways to stand out. I think we can be mobile in that regard. We don’t have the constraints that many other brands have. We have dedicated people who want to grow the sport rapidly. We already have that broad base of support—it’s not one-dimensional. Now it’s a matter of growing that base and reaching people that triathlon hasn’t in the past so that they can fall in love with the sport. It’s a sport that can change lives—it can make people healthy. I think if we take it from just adding memberships, or other narrow goals that are really transactional in nature, and turn it into something that has a lasting impact like improving lives, then I think we’ll get people behind it who haven’t cared about the sport in the past.