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Bouchard-Hall exit interview, part 1: The decision to leave USA Cycling

"The membership side and the racing participation has been the biggest challenge that USA Cycling has faced," says Derek Bouchard-Hall.

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In December Derek Bouchard-Hall will officially step down as president and CEO of USA Cycling after nearly four years on the job. Bouchard-Hall is leaving to become the CEO of Swiss apparel manufacturer Assos.

Bouchard-Hall’s tenure at USA Cycling saw both successes and failures. USA Cycling’s overall membership and racing participation declined from 2015 until 2018, and the organization struggled to recruit corporate sponsors. But the organization also won back the trust of thousands of American cyclists after a period of distrust. It also stabilized its budget and helped build a multi-million dollar elite athletics program aimed at Olympic success.

VeloNews recently caught up with Bouchard-Hall to discuss his departure and time with the organization.

VeloNews: Why was this the right moment for you to move on from USA Cycling?

Derek Bouchard-Hall: It was an exceptionally difficult decision to make, in part, because it’s not the optimal time for me to move on because there are a lot of exciting things going on that I want to be a part of and see through. We’ve been really working really hard on some technology that will serve our community well, and we’re working hard toward [2020 Olympics in] Tokyo, and I’d love to be around for that. Personally, I found it a bad time for me to leave. For the organization, however, it’s not a bad time, because we have gotten some of these major initiatives in place, and they are rolling, and they’re being led by people other than myself. Elite athletics is being run by Scott Schnitzpahn, and Chuck Hodge has taken over what we’re doing with events. He’s going to be able to use this new IT technology. We have the leadership in place to run with these things that I have helped get going. I don’t think the organization is going to be adversely impacted by my departure.

There are some personal things that are driving [my departure] with my family that made the timing work. It’s never ideal to leave a role like this. As timing goes, I think we have some good stuff in the works. My departure isn’t going to stop any of that.

VN: You are leaving to take a leadership at ASSOS in Switzerland. Would you describe your decision more from stemming from professional or personal reasons?

DBH: It was a combination of both of those. It’s an even split between the two.

VN: When you took over, the national federation faced hurdles on multiple fronts. License holders were going down, the high-performance side was struggling, so you faced multiple hurdles. How would you describe your success with membership?

DBH: The membership side and the racing participation has been the biggest challenge that USA Cycling has faced. Our membership had a significant increase through 2012 and that is where it peaked, and it has been falling slowly since that time. People in our racing community know this and have seen it. They are seeing lower participation in the events that they are in and reduced membership. It’s not been a huge drop, but it’s been a consistent drop over the last five years. That’s not just for us, the entire cycling industry is facing this.

The good news that participation in cycling as a whole remains robust, we’re just seeing changes in what they’re doing and the types of events they want to do. And those changes have been really hard for USA Cycling. These challenges have been driven by a lot of factors outside of USAC’s control. The loss of a very popular icon like Lance Armstrong is a big factor. Concerns about safety on the road is a big factor. The greater cost and challenges of putting on races is a big factor. And also all sports go through waves of popularity that simply can’t be maintained indefinitely, which is another challenge. We have struggled with what USAC can do to address that reduced participation. We’ve pulled all of the levers that we can. This year our membership is going to be up year-over-year, and we’ll have a larger 2018 membership over 2017 for the first time in five years. That is driven by the efforts to improve retention of our members. We’re proud of that.

Of course, the number we really care about is the number of people participating in events, and that continues to fall. That decline is slowing and I think we’re reaching the bottom of that contraction. One of the things we’re asking ourselves is what can USA Cycling do, and what role do we play in limiting this contraction? Any good idea we have we’re doing it. We have a series of initiatives to bolster participation in the sport. It’s about enhancing racing opportunities. It’s about bringing in people from adjacent categories like BMX or triathlon. We’re never going to stop fighting. I’m proud that we’ve stopped the decline in membership, but we still need to stabilize the decline in racing participation. It’s going to be the most interesting challenge for my successor. It’s a very interesting problem and it’s possible that someone coming in will have better ideas than I’ve had, and can make some more progress there.

Another initiative we’ve done is to make ourselves more relevant to the enthusiast community. We’ve signed up enthusiast events like fun rides and gran fondos, and we’ve launched an enthusiast base membership. We’re getting traction there on the events side. We’ve had some initial success that makes us want to keep doing it.

VN: One of the tools you used to attract enthusiasts was the ride membership. How would you rate USA Cycling’s execution and overall success around these memberships?

DBH: I think there are lots of ways the execution could have been better. We have really limited resources. While [ride membership] is a strategic initiative, it is a tiny fraction compared to USA Cycling’s other efforts. There were things about it — how much marketing we could put behind it — that were limited because it’s not appropriate for us to put too much behind it. We’re proud of it. The success is we had just more than 4,000 new members, which is great. Our aspirations were significantly larger than that. We’re now tweaking it to develop a basic membership that is priced at just 20 dollars, and the upgrade, Gold, is the equivalent of [ride membership]. I think the lower price point is going to be helpful for bringing more members in. We’ve already gotten 1,000 [new members] with almost no marketing effort, so we’ll keep running with that. The success is we’re learning more about what people are interested in from us. The failure is that we’re not at the scale at where we’d like to be. We’d like to see ourselves the way British Cycling is, where we have twice as many enthusiast members as racing members, and our community is now three times the size it is today. That is what we’re after, and we have not reached that scale yet. We’re not looking for 5,000 or 10,000 new members. We’re looking at 50,000 to 100,000 new members and we’re not there yet. Our focus always has to be on the racing side and we have stuff we must do there. We just have to be cautious about the level of energy we put into the enthusiast.

VN: The head of USA Cycling is under constant scrutiny and criticism from racers, race promoters, the media, and even athletes. Did it wear on you? Were you bogged down?

DBH: No. Yes, there is scrutiny. We’re a public organization and we serve a large and very passionate membership that have rightful expectations of what we can do. That comes with the job. I wouldn’t describe it as wearing or burdensome. It comes from the fact that people really care, and they don’t always see the whole picture. Some of the criticisms are valid, and some are not because they don’t understand the demands and constraints we have and how little we have. We select athletes for the Olympics, train officials, issue license, run the SafeSport program, do anti-doping, among other things. The list is very long and the resources we have get watered down rapidly. Everything you do, you do so with a teeny amount of resources. They say well you have $16 million in revenue, so why can’t you do X? Yes, X is on a list of 25 other things we need to do.

I think our relationship with our community has dramatically improved. There was a time when our membership distrusted everything we did. They saw our failures as failures of intention and lack of goodwill. I think that has improved a lot. People are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt.

VN: What letter grade would you give yourself for your time as USA Cycling CEO?

DBH: Oh geez. Well, I’m one of these people that is very critical of one’s self. So as I think about what I wanted to achieve, and in some areas have been great, and in other areas have been less so, I would probably be very critical. So I don’t really know. I’m not sure I’m emotionally in a position to do that. I’m still in it. I’m still going to be working hard until the end of the year. I can say that I’m very proud that the organization has dramatically improved its relationship with its community and earned trust back. That is going to be essential for the future. I think the organization is very well-structured in terms of its leadership. What we’ve done with IT, the good stuff is still coming. I’m very proud of the foundation that we have built. But when you have a sport where the objective is to have more people racing and participation, and the numbers are going the opposite direction, it’s hard not to be critical and wistful about that. And I have some elements of that. I will be very proud that the foundational elements of the organization are now better than they were. But the end result is what happens to our member. How is the average member enjoying the sport and experience the sport? And that is the area where a lot more progress needs to be made in the years ahead. And I probably fell short of my own personal aspirations of what I could do. That will keep me from being entirely enthusiastic. That leaves me jealous of what the next person is able to do. I think that is going to be a really fun thing to work on.

Read part 2 of this two-part conversation with Bouchard-Hall >>

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