E-mails and calls we received at headquarters after members read the October Parachutist “Gearing Up” on this program made it clear a 500-word summary was too succinct, leaving some readers with more questions than answers. So here is a full discussion of the program as presented to the board of directors last July and approved unanimously. This is my longest blog ever, so get a cup of coffee and settle in. I think you’ll find it an interesting read.
First, you need to know the long-standing problem this program is designed to solve: our U.S. Teams are woefully underfunded.
Second, it’s important to understand that USPA’s constitution (and its status as a not-for-profit organization) requires that it select, train and send U.S. competitors to international competition. We aren’t doing the best job. The last time we sent a fully funded team to the world championships was circa 1976, when the U.S. team consisted of 10 style and accuracy competitors. Since then, our team has grown to 60 skydivers in six disciplines, too large for member donations to finance the team. The board has wrestled to find a long-term solution to this problem for decades.
To date, the U.S. Parachute Team Trust Fund is the best solution the board has come up with, so let me take a moment to explain how it works.
The money members donate to the U.S. Team generally goes (unless designated otherwise) to the U.S. Parachute Team Trust Fund, currently valued at a little over $588,000. During world meet years, a portion of the annual Trust Fund earnings is disbursed to the U.S. Parachute Team. Historically the fund has provided around $250 – $450 per competitor—nothing to sneeze at—but only about 10 percent of the direct cost of travel and entry fees. A competitor strives for years to make the U.S. Team and then takes a big financial hit for the privilege. Ouch.
Doesn’t seem right, does it?
Some related math: the Trust Fund would have to be 10 times its current value, at five million dollars, in order to generate a disbursement of $250,000, which would provide each competitor about $4,200. That’s not bad, still less than the amount needed for a pre-WPC training camp, round-trip airfare and entry fees. So how can we accelerate the growth of the trust fund and simultaneously give our U.S. Teams substantial financial support in the meantime?
There’s one proven solution—one most other national athletic teams employ—corporate sponsorship. Hence, the focus of this program is to attract partners and sponsors. A sponsor wants and needs exposure to as many eyes as possible to justify its investment. We’ve learned through hard experience that our USPA Nationals and the exposure our teams get overseas are not sufficient to attract sponsorship. The board concluded that if the U.S. Team performs before American audiences and establishes “brand identity,” it could give us a legitimate shot at real financial sponsorship.
One concern the board had when considering this program was that it might be perceived as a move to take demos away from PRO-rated members. On that issue, it’s important to know there are hundreds of airshows and events each year and we don’t foresee the U.S. Parachute Team doing more than a dozen—so chances are unlikely. However, we can’t guarantee an airshow or event organizer might invite the U.S. Team to do a show that some other skydiving team has done before. No show team ever “owns” rights to an event; the desire for “fresh acts” is part of the airshow business, whether the U.S. Team is involved or not.
That said, we certainly don’t want the U.S. Team to squeeze our brother and sister skydivers from a show they’ve worked long to cultivate. That raises an important part of the program. If the U.S. Team is invited to do a show, we will reach out and ask local demo teams and jumpers to perform with the U.S. Team. If it’s a paid show, they will earn their standard fees (members of the U.S. Team will only be reimbursed travel and per diem). If all we do is break even, we’ve met our primary goal—presenting the U.S. Team to the public in order to attract sponsorship.
Another point: while the immediate goal isn’t sport promotion, this initiative most certainly will generate positive coverage and broad public interest. We will invite local group member DZs to get involved, possibly supplying aircraft, plus local demo jumpers/team and tandem instructors to do VIP jumps before the show, with local skydivers helping staff a booth where U.S. Team merchandise is sold while simultaneously advertising local DZs. It should be a win-win for all.
Some members expressed concern about the $10,000 loan USPA authorized to jumpstart this program. Keep in mind that USPA routinely invests in new ideas and seeds special projects that show promise of enhancing the sport. The loan was made in order to market the team at the International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) Convention this December to solicit air show interest. The first $10,000 earned (after show expenses) by the team in 2012 will go back to repay the loan.
By giving a green light to this project, the USPA Board of Directors is meeting its constitutional obligation to the U.S. Team, launching a new program that might help it attract corporate sponsorship. If the plan works, our newer athletes might enjoy a developmental program with paid coaching. Our elite competitors might finally have a way to afford full-time training—leveling the playing field with government-sponsored teams we so often face in world competition.
Some nuts-and-bolts: this December, we’ll present the U. S. Parachute Team to ICAS (and to corporate America through our PR firm) as a performing entity available for select airshows and special events beginning spring of 2012. In our promotional materials, we’ll explain that the U.S. Team will perform with leading USPA PRO-rated jumpers (and pro demo teams, if they are willing and able). Part of the sell is that we intend to be inclusive of established skydiving performers. Together we can make the U.S. Team an attractive brand that corporate America wants to associate with and sponsor.
Before the airshow season begins next spring, we have much to do. Not every member of the U.S. Team has time or talent to take part. However, by reaching out to current and former U.S. Team members and our top demo jumpers, we think we have a pool of about 300 capable skydivers to draw from. From this pool, and with the help of leading demo experts, we’ll run a demo training camp to practice all the elements of show jumping: flag jumps, hi- and lo-variants, pyro, dealing with the media, the public, etc. Some already have experience; for others it will be a steep learning curve.
All who volunteer must understand that this is a building year for a new project, and we will have to bootstrap it largely at our own expense. One big advantage in our favor is the U.S. Team is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization, so services and goods-in-kind it receives from members and supporters and any future income from sponsors is tax-deductible.
As Executive Director Ed Scott pointed out to the board, no one knows if this will work. We do know you can’t expect a sponsor without self-promotion and public exposure. Other ideas have been tried without real success. The generosity of our members who donate to the U.S. Team Trust Fund is much appreciated but it only goes so far. We need to move the U.S. Team out of obscurity into the limelight, and this is a bold way to do it, but only with member help and support—especially from our pro demo jumpers—will it succeed.
- Jim Hayhurst, USPA Director of Competition