Profile: Steve Penny – USA Gymnastics President/CEO

(This post originally appeared on iSportconnect)

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Since Steve joined USA Gymnastics in 1999, he has overseen the strategic planning and marketing of the organization’s national and international events, the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, and the World Gymnastics Championships.  As president and CEO, he also oversees the organization’s finances, membership division, sports programs, public/media relations and marketing.  Penny works closely with the Board of Directors and its chairman for the strategic direction of the organization.

Penny’s professional experience includes vice president of Bob Walsh Enterprises, a private sports marketing company in Seattle, and managing director of USA Cycling.  He also worked for Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) on its premier international multi-sport event, the Goodwill Games, and for the Seattle Mariners in community affairs and public relations.

A graduate of the University of Washington, Penny enjoys all sports, including skiing and golf.  He is married and has three daughters.

How have your previous experiences in marketing, broadcasting and at USA Cycling helped you in your current role at USA Gymnastics?

As I look at my career I really do feel that every step along the way has contributed to where I am today and helps me understand the challenges we face here at USA Gymnastics. I think the most important thing I’ve learnt along the way is that sport is something that really tugs at people’s hearts, so you have to make sure that you’re serving the best interests of the organisations that you’re running.

I think the specific experiences that I have had outside of gymnastics are the things that help build an organisation like USA Gymnastics and you don’t often find those from people within the sport. That expertise has helped the organisation because it allows gymnastics to reach outside of its normal walls.

In what ways has USA Gymnastics progressed during your time there?

One of the biggest things is our athlete programme – our athletes have done very well and we’ve been able to create a very stable environment for our athlete support programmes, our coaches and our team staff.

That has allowed them to be as successful as they’ve ever been – our women’s programme being the most successful in the world over the last twelve years. Our women’s coaches and athletes have really created a dynasty of success, which is something that I’m very proud of.

The other thing that we’ve done very well is we’re very financially stable. We have a diverse revenue stream, we’ve grown our budget significantly over the years and we’ve been able to invest into the foundation.

I also think we’ve increased our visibility. We’ve done a good job of staying out front with what USA Gymnastics is all about, keeping our athletes out front and producing win-win environments for our sponsors and stakeholders. I think everyone that has been involved with USA Gymnastics since I’ve been here feels that they’ve benefitted from that partnership and that’s very rewarding.

You mentioned the success of the US Women’s Gymnastics team, they had a fantastic London 2012 and Gabby Douglas emerged as one of the Games’ individual stars. How important is it to have those ambassadors for the sport?

It’s huge, when you look at the last twelve years and three Olympic Games we’ve had team success and individual success. We’ve won team medals at all of those Games and the individual all-around in 2004, 2008 and 2012.

The beauty of those is it spreads the wealth; we have dozens of great ambassadors. We have so many athletes that have World Championship and Olympic medals around their neck that it creates so many more connection points between your sport and the outside world, as well as within your sport and the community that you serve.

It’s like having a full house in a game of poker! It makes your hand so strong when you have such great personalities, good people and confidence in your programme. It’s just huge and it has come because our coaches and our athletes are working together to keep that success sustained. No one wants to take a step backwards.

As well as the top level of the sport, you are also responsible for grassroots gymnastics in the US. You have over 900,000 frequent participants, how do you ensure there are adequate facilities for all of these people?

We have some amazing business people that run clubs around the country and 2000 of those clubs are directly connected to USA Gymnastics through our Member Clubs programme.

They look to USA Gymnastics to be successful on the international field of play, which helps to promote the sport at the highest level and really keep the role models out front. We’ve seen a surge in our club enrolment since the Olympic Games. Many of our clubs are reporting increases of 20-30%, some are even telling us they’ve got waiting lists because they can’t handle all of the people that are coming into the sport and all of the kids that want to be in classes.

The second thing that we do is try to increase the education that we provide for the professional members of USA Gymnastics so that they are able to really work well with the athletes. The clubs look to us to provide resources to help educate their staff. If we can provide a consistent education platform, which we have in USA Gymnastics University, then clubs can expect their coaches to have the skills to coach those athletes

The other thing that we really focus on is making sure that those clubs adhere to a standard of safe conduct around the athletes. We serve as a guardian of the community, making sure that everyone’s minding their P’s and Q’s and doing things the right way. We have a very close connection with our community and we take that relationship very seriously. I think our number one goal is to provide leadership and resources for that community.

Were you ready for the surge in popularity after the Olympics or did it catch you by surprise?

Winning the team gold is a moment that you look forward to, but you never assume it’s going to happen because anything can happen on the field of play. Most of the time we see an uptick from the Olympic Games, but this time around it’s been significant. I don’t think anybody was truly prepared. We thought our post-Olympic tour would keep the story going for a few months after the Games, which helped, but clubs just saw such a huge wave of interest.

One of the beauties of the London Games for us was that not only did we have the team success, but as you pointed out, we then had Gabby be successful and each of our athletes really had her own story over those 16 days.

Not only did we have great moments at the beginning but the last scene in the Gymnastics arena was the American flag after Aly Raisman won gold on floor. It’s just a beautiful thing when you feel you came out of the gate strong and then you finish strong. We sustained that story for the entire period of the Games and I think that had a huge impact on how young people look to our athletes as role models.

There are a lot of kids that now see Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Weiber, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross or McKayla Maroney as role models for each of their individual reasons. I think when you combine the team success with the individual stories that emerge and the individual successes, that really helps to get kids and their parents excited about gymnastics.

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Recently boy’s high school gymnastics has been removed from official competition in Massachusetts and statistics show that over 75% gymnastics participants in the US are female. How can you encourage more males to get involved with the sport?

We’re working on that and we’ve recognised that for a while and the amazing thing is that there are a lot of young men who like to participate in the sport. The overriding abundance of our membership are young girls, but our goal is to look for new ways for those boys to get recognition for staying involved in the sport and, in fact, we’re putting together a plan for USA Gymnastics to provide high school opportunities for boys that are staying involved at the sport at that level.

I think that’s our greatest challenge as it relates to boy’s and men’s gymnastics – keeping those 13-18 year olds interested in the sport and to maintain the collegiate programmes that we have right now. That’s definitely a priority for us.

How have you managed to diversify revenue streams and improve the organisation’s finances during your time at USA Gymnastics?

We’ve created a business model here that’s based on any number of revenue streams and when you look at the revenues for a national governing body, you’ve got your membership revenues, event sanctioning revenues, US Olympic Committee funding and sponsorship and other marketing related funds.

Our goal has been to maintain the support we need for our programmes and then create win-win partnerships with our sponsors, event partners and with other folks. Our number one goal is to undersell and over-deliver when we have a partnership with somebody. We understand that the risk-reward model needs to be evenly distributed, and that we have to have skin in the game and be a good partner to those who are going to take a risk on something with USA Gymnastics.

We also have to continue to provide return on investment for our sponsors and we’re very proud of how we do that. We have a very stable business model that continues to produce results for the organisation and then as it grows, it just gets healthier. We’re very proud of how we’ve increased the budget, increased direct athlete support, increased attendance at our events and how we’ve delivered on just about every promise we’ve made to our partners and our stakeholders over the last ten years.

The 2013 American Cup and the Nastia Liukin Cup both take place in early March. How are preparations for those events going?

Everything’s great. That’s the AT&T American Cup and we expect it to remain that way, we just need to tie up some loose ends with them. The north-east of the United States is really a bread basket part of the country for us. It’s so densely populated with gymnastics fans and participants, clubs, etc.

When we have an event in the north-eastern part of the country we can look forward to good attendance and it also allows us to work with those clubs on the collaborative marketing efforts that exist so that they can benefit from us being in their backyard.

Both events are being broadcast on national television. What impact does that exposure have?

Coming out of the Olympic Games you want to keep your exposure at a pretty high level and we’re so fortunate to have NBC as a partner. We couldn’t ask for a better broadcast parter. Some of the extensions of NBC being Universal Sports and NBC Sports Network provide a very solid platform for us and our partners to be investing in USA Gymnastics.

The other thing it allows us to do is advertise the benefits of our sports, so that we can reinforce that back down to the club level and those people can also benefit from some of the exposure that we provide. As an example, we’ve created commercials over the last few years for our clubs. They’ll then buy airtime during gymnastics broadcasts on their local affiliates for those commercials, so there’s a lot of reward when gymnastics is on television.

What’s your overall ambition for USA Gymnastics in the future and how do you hope to achieve it?

My goal for the organisation is to build on the success that we’ve had. If you’ve got kids coming to these gyms, how is USA Gymnastics going to help them retain those athletes? Our priorities have been winning medals and increasing visibility. We’ve done a good job with that and we’re going to continue to do a good job with that, but we really have to look at how we integrate the community into our activities more, we need to look at how we continue to partner with the clubs.

I think our biggest success story in the next few years will hopefully be how we’ve grown the sport in an extremely measurable way and how we have served the sport at an even higher level than we are right now. It’s a little bit of a shift, and we don’t want to lose anything in terms of visibility or medals, but I think we can pay a little more attention to what’s happening at the grassroots level.

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