A Board for the Better
USACK looks outside the box to up exposure

At this time last year, the USA Canoe/Kayak (USACK) board of directors was like an old dam on a river. It still had power, but lacked efficiency. So it was time for the organization—which governs America's national canoe and kayak racing teams—to tap new sources of energy.

"We were very clearly a constituency-based board," says former president Gina Sanchez. "We were made up of athletes, parents, club administrators, coaches, people who might have some kind of incentive. At times, it was a clear conflict." In fact, the United States Olympic Committee, which provides a majority of the USACK budget, told the organization that at least four of its nine board members must come from outside the sport. Board members had discussed reforming the panel for years; when they finally pulled the plug, Sanchez says, "the fairest thing to do was to step down as one unified party."

The USOC offered a list of executives eager to work with Olympic sports organizations, and USACK snapped up a trio of heavy hitters from the television and sports marketing world.

Welcome to paddling, Humpy Wheeler. Often called a sports marketing wizard, he's credited with developing NASCAR from a niche sport to a mainstream phenomenon. Jenny Storms is senior vice president of sports marketing at Gatorade. And when Marian Hanson joined the board, she was vice president of content strategy at ESPN.

Their mission is simple, but won't be easy: making an American public enamored with bone-jarring tackles, dramatic speedway crashes and over-the-top sports personalities appreciate the subtleties of canoe and kayak racing. In short, they must make USACK relevant.

"More than anything, [we need to] make a statement to the American public about paddling and how interesting it is," says Wheeler. "You sell sport and you sell events through personalities, and that's what we've got to have. We've got to make dynamic personalities out of the true stars of paddling. We need a Lance Armstrong."

The new board, which met in person for the first time in May, is chaired by the fourth independent director, David Backer, an attorney who previously served on the board of USA Triathlon, and more recently on the USOC's Athlete Support Committee. Joe Jacobi, a 1992 Olympic gold medalist in C-2 slalom, also sits on the board and is serving as interim executive director. The new leadership has made a concerted effort to reach out beyond USACK's traditional emphasis on flatwater sprint and slalom, in order to tap the talent and enthusiasm of all paddlesports, from dragonboat and outrigger canoe racing to whitewater freestyle.

But in the end, growing the sport comes down to winning medals. Period. To win medals you have to develop a pipeline of young talent that may someday deliver another Greg Barton, or even a paddling version of Michael Phelps. Beefing up USACK's development program remains Job One.

"In the U.S., you mention canoe/kayak and not too many people know what you're talking about," says William Irving, USACK's National Teams Director. "I'm most concerned with getting as many kids as possible in boats." – Kurt Mullen