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USOC critics hail choice of Blackmun as CEO

January 5, 2010 |  4:20 pm

Scott Blackmun clearly is going to have a honeymoon period when he takes over as chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee in late January.

Fabforum The most outspoken critics of the USOC's upper management in the past year had nothing but good things to say about the decision to hire Blackmun, which was first reported Tuesday morning by the Tribune.

Happiest were the national sports federation (NGB) leaders who had excoriated both USOC board chairman Larry Probst and acting CEO Stephanie Streeter for their failure to communicate with the other constituent groups in the U.S. Olympic movement.  They were especially upset by what seemed like a palace coup last March, when the board ousted popular USOC boss Jim Scherr and replaced him on an interim basis with Streeter, who was a board member.


    "Picking Scott is a great indication Larry wants to work with the NGBs to put the USOC on the right track to where we want to go,'' said Skip Gilbert, the USA Triathlon chief executive and NGB Council chair who led an effort that produced a resounding vote of no-confidence in Probst and Streeter by the federation leaders in October.


    "Larry listened to the constituent groups and made our concerns part of the selection process.''


The NGB leaders, as well as NBC Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol, felt it was of paramount importance for the new USOC chief executive to have extensive knowledge of the Olympic movement in the United States, particularly the complex working relationships that make it unlike any business. All were worried the USOC would chose another CEO from the corporate world, like Streeter and two of her recent predecessors, all of whom lasted barely more than three years combined in the job.


  That the two finalists were Blackmun (photo, left), a former acting CEO of the USOC, and longtime USA Swimming chief executive Chuck Wielgus was clear evidence the board -- and the search committee, which selected Blackmun and Wielgus to present to the board -- realized the necessity of picking someone who would not have a steep learning curve.


The Associated Press reported that after learning he was not the board's choice, Wielgus sent a memo to the USA Swimming staff saying, "This is a great hire by the USOC Board of Directors and Scott is going to do a wonderful job.''

The friction between the NGB leaders and Streeter had become so intense that they issued a statement calling for her immediate resignation, along with that of Probst. He responded with a determination to remain as chairman for at least the entire four-year term that began in October, 2008.


  "What I am beginning to notice is the (board) leadership is starting to listen to people who have a lot of experience in the Olympic movement,'' said USA Gymnastics president and chief executive Steve Penny, another recent critic of Streeter and Probst's management style. "Scott is exactly the type of person we need in the role.  This is a win for everybody.''

    Ebersol had blasted the USOC leadership for undermining Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid. He also decried the USOC's past choices of "washing machine manufacturers and insurance agents,'' as CEO, referring to the backgrounds of Lloyd Ward and Norm Blake, the two full-time CEOs before Scherr.


    "Larry Probst and the USOC have worked very hard in recent months to run a detailed and thorough search for stronger leadership,'' Ebersol said in a statement Tuesday. "The high caliber of the finalists for the CEO position speaks well for their efforts. As their long-term television partners (since 1988), we at NBC wish good and great things for the USOC and their new CEO, Scott Blackmun.''



Probst is to introduce Blackmun, 52, to the USOC staff Wednesday in Colorado Springs.


Many already know him, since Blackmun, an attorney, served the USOC in a variety of positions, including general counsel and managing director of sports resources, from 1999 through 2002. He was acting CEO from November, 2000,  through Oct., 2001.


   "I think it's a good decision,'' said USOC board member Anita DeFrantz. "I am happy he is taking over the reins.''

Blackmun, a partner in the Colorado Springs law firm Holme, Roberts & Owen, replaces Streeter, who declined to be a candidate for the full-time job.


The Tribune also had first reported that the USOC search committee interviewed six finalists in mid-December and then decided last week to present Blackmun and Wielgus to the board of directors.


"He (Blackmun) is certainly a savvy veteran of the Olympic movement, and I think he is going to be very well received,'' USA Track & Field chief executive Doug Logan said.  "He has a proven track record at soothing roiled waters, and that skill set will come in handy in years to come.''


Blackmun became acting CEO during one of the USOC's frequent periods of turmoil, when Blake was forced to resign. There have been 13 changes in the CEO position in the past 14 years, with Blackmun among nine people to have served as acting or permanent boss.


Blackmun, a summa cum laude graduate of Dartmouth who got his law degree from Stanford, left the USOC after he was not chosen permanent CEO in 2001.


He went on to spend four years as chief operating officer of sports and entertainment giant Anschutz Entertainment Group, for which his tasks included the company's getting involved as a sponsor of the Tour of California bicycle race. He then returned to the Colorado Springs law firm where he had started his legal career in 1982.


    "A lot of people felt Scott should have been CEO previously,'' Penny said. "But not being picked allowed him to get better and wider experience in the sports world and bring it back to the USOC.''


Given past parameters, Blackmun's annual salary is expected to be between $500,000 and $600,000. The Tribune revealed last summer that Streeter was getting a salary of $550,000 plus performance bonuses that could have reached $1 million.


Blake, Ward, and Streeter all came from corporate backgrounds and proved unable to understand the complicated workings of the Olympic movement in the United States, where both volunteers and paid staff play significant roles in the national sports federations (NGBs) that develop nearly all U.S. Olympic athletes.


Blake, who came from USF&G insurance, spent less than 10 months on the job. Ward, from Maytag, was forced out after 18 months amidst revelations of ethical (conflict-of-interest) and managerial lapses.   Ward, the USOC's only African American chief executive, also came under fire for his membership at Augusta National Golf Club, which does not admit female members.


The Ward fiasco, plus the resignation of successive USOC presidents for ethical violations, led to Congressional hearings and a total restructuring of the USOC.


Blackmun inherits a mess in the USOC's international relations, as epitomized by Chicago's first-round ouster in the vote for the 2016 Summer Olympics.


There is an ongoing dispute between the USOC and the International Olympic Committee over the USOC share of global sponsorship and U.S. television rights. Although both parties have agreed on a timetable to discuss the issue, resolving it will not be easy.


The money friction was exacerbated when the USOC defied IOC advice last July to hold off on the launch announcement for a U.S. Olympic Network. Six weeks later, in what turned out to be a fruitless effort to minimize the impact on Chicago's bid, Probst ate crow by announcing an indefinite delay in the network's launch and all but apologizing for the USOC's bad manners.

Ebersol had insisted the revenue-sharing deals needed to be restructured immediately to give U.S. cities hope in future Olympic bids.


The USOC also faces significant revenue-generation issues. It has lost several leading sponsors and cannot count on money from a U.S.-based Olympics in the new decade. No matter what percentage it gets from TV rights, the amount may be lower, since many expect U.S. networks to pay less for the rights to the 2014-2016 Olympics than the $2.2 billion NBC paid for 2010-2012.

None of this stuff will be new to Blackmun. Neither will any of the USOC's Byzantine intrigues.  He served as acting CEO under Sandy Baldwin, the USOC's first female president, who resigned when it was learned she had lied about having a PhD.

Back then, the CEO was little more than a housekeeper.

Now Blackmun can hope for a chance to be the new broom who sweeps clean.


   -- Philip Hersh



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