One Year In: Rocky Harris On Completely Changing the Focus of USAT

USAT’s new boss reviews his first year in office and gives insight into what lies ahead.

Rocky Harris came to USA Triathlon last September promising major changes in 2018 and he’s certainly delivered. While the sport might be a long way off from the boom of the early 2000s, Harris says participation in the U.S. remained stagnant in 2018 after a few years of steady decline. While we haven’t turned the corner to growth just yet, last month’s announcement that USAT would be reinvesting its profits back into the sport is a huge step toward doing just that. While technically a nonprofit, like most national governing bodies (NGBs), USAT makes a lot of money. Instead of stashing that money in the bank as is common among NGBs, Harris and the USAT board made the bold decision to invest their profits from the 2017-2020 quad back into the sport to support initiatives like age-group drug testing and the rapidly growing NCAA women’s varsity triathlon.

We caught up with Harris to recap his first year in office and hear why he’s so optimistic about where the sport is headed. It’s been about 14 months for you at the helm of USAT. What are the changes you’ve brought about that you’re most proud of?

Harris: I’m sure this will sound somewhat cliché, but it’s the truth: We’ve really changed the culture here at USA Triathlon. As a staff we’ve become more service-oriented toward the industry. Our whole staff comes to work thinking of what we can do to help the triathlon industry as a whole. We’re forming relationships with partners that we haven’t really worked with in the past—partners like Ironman, USA Swimming, USA Cycling, and US Masters Swimming. We’ve always had our goals aligned with these groups but we didn’t really work much together in the past. The “Time to Tri” initiative that we launched with Ironman at TBI last January is a big part of that and really gives us a rallying cry as an industry. We’re not yet where we want to be with that but this year we’re looking to be flat in terms of participation, whereas we’ve been in a bit of a decline over the past few years.

We launched a few high-performance programs like “Project Podium” with Arizona State University, and we launched a para tri resident team here in Colorado Springs. We’ve gone from 14 to 26 NCAA programs in just one year, including adding a historically black university in Hampton University. That’s something we can create diversity initiatives around and hopefully multiply that around the country. You and the board decided to invest all proceeds back into the support, which marks a pretty monumental change. Why was it the right time to do that and was it hard to sell the board on?

Harris: We’ve run a good business over the past six or seven years, but we’ve basically put all that money into our bank account. I feel like when an industry or sector is struggling, it’s up to those who can to create a stimulus of sorts. The board agreed last January to invest all the money we make over this quad (2017-2020). Essentially we’ll break even or lose money every year to invest in things like coaches, clubs, grants, and helping local race directors. Our technology is terrible as an industry, so we have to do some investing there to make sure our systems are adequate.

It really wasn’t a hard sell. Last year the board created a new strategic plan for USAT through 2020 because we realized we weren’t going in the right direction. Everything was very bottom-line driven. We weren’t giving back to the sport and supporting the sport as best we could. That’s when they made a change at CEO and hired me. That change in leadership was the result in a philosophical change within the board. So it really wasn’t much of me selling them on this idea. We looked at our budget and saw that we had reserves and we had things like our own building. We had all these positive things from a financial perspective, but the sport was taking a step back. Race directors were suffering, clubs were dwindling and coaches were having a tough time finding new clients. Every metric you could look at was going in the wrong direction, yet we as the governing body were making money. It didn’t make sense to me as an outsider looking in. The board completely agreed and it wasn’t much of a discussion really. That alignment between our board and staff this year is something I’m really proud of. What as the impetus behind the new “Compete Clean” program to fund more age-group drug testing? Was that something your members have been asking for?

Harris: It was really from our board trying to take a proactive approach. We didn’t want to have a situation like USA Cycling where things spiral out of control. Our most competitive athletes—like the Team USA athletes who compete at nationals and worlds—they want a clean sport and a level playing field. That’s the only way you can sustain a sport long term. So it was really a board decision based on the feedback they’d received from a lot of our constituents. It’s about more testing but it’s also about education and awareness. We want people to know what USADA’s rules are so that they’re not taking medicine that could be on the banned list. A lot of positive tests are unintentional. When you educate people about USADA’s rules, they learn that anyone can report someone and they’ll look into it. So with that awareness comes more testing because they can report someone they think isn’t playing by the rules. So now the million dollar question—how can you and USAT take the sport from flat to growing in 2019 and beyond?

Harris: One thing we’re looking to do in 2019 is to reposition the brand of triathlon. It’s gotten away from its roots of being a social community and something fun to do with friends. Of course the competitive side of the sport is important, but we’ve gotten to a point that when I tell people I work in triathlon, they immediately ask when I did my last Ironman. The perception of the sport has gone too long distance. We want to focus on growing local, community-oriented, short-course races. We want to appeal to anyone seeking something new in their life. We want people to know this is a sport that anyone can do as part of a healthy lifestyle. We need to change this perception of triathlon being a sport for elite athletes. If you can do a 5K, you can do a triathlon.