No Contract, No US Snowboard Team

The United States Ski and Snowboard Association’s (USSA) 2003/2004 U.S. Snowboard Team has a ton of great sponsors. They’ve got Kodak, United Airlines, Visa, Sprint, Budweiser, Earthlink, Chevy Trucks, Nike, and even Burton. They also have a problem: they have no team.

That’s right, most of the people who wore the U.S. Team uniform last year--riders like Tommy Czeschin, Andy Finch, Gretchen Bleiler, Rob Kingwill, Steve Fisher, Hannah Teter, and Tricia Byrnes--are not currently on the team.

And, if the legal letter of the law is followed, they weren’t exactly on the team last year either. To be officially on the team, the riders must sign the U.S. Snowboarding Membership Agreement, and last year very few signed it. “Before this year I’ve never signed the contract,” says former U.S. Team member Andy Finch. “And that went for most of the team. It worked out well. We did what they wanted. We traveled, we wore the uniforms, and it worked out really well for all of us.”

That won’t fly this year, according to Alan Ashley, the USSA’s vice president of athletics. He’s telling the riders that if they don’t sign the membership agreement, they won’t be on the team. “I’ve been pretty hard on it,” Ashley says. “I can’t spend the resources until we have some kind of agreement on it.”

Ashley is not looking for a repeat of last year when many riders were allowed to ride without signing the contract. “The sponsors are putting up the money to support the programs, and then we have all kinds of contract violations,” he says. “”And that doesn’t work for anybody.”

It’s not that being on the U.S. Snowboard Team doesn’t have any advantages. The USSA provides coaching, trainers, and physical therapists. And when the athletes are taking part in official competitions and/or training camps, all their entries, travel, lodging, and team clothing are paid for with funds from USSA sponsors.

So why aren’t the riders signing? According to Peter Carlisle of Octagon, the sports agency that represents most of the athletes on the team, it’s about the USSA asking for too much. “The contract is basically acquiring the endorsement rights of all the riders,” Carlisle says. “These athletes have had the ability to enjoy a professional career in the sport, and they are feeling really uncomfortable about this contract.”

The new contract has, among other things, included a buyout agreement stating that if a rider gets a clothing sponsor during the time they are under contract with the team that “USSA and/or its outerwear sponsor have the opportunity to match the material terms of said offer.” Carlisle says this puts the riders in direct conflict with the nondisclosure agreements that are part of nearly all sponsorships. “There is no way they can keep both agreements, because signing one means you’ll break the other. And it’s just not fair to ask someone to sign something like that.”

The number of events at which the riders are required to wear team uniforms has also been increased. Last year it was just the FIS World Cup and the U.S. Grand Prix events. This year, the list has grown to include the X-Games, the Triple Crown, and the U.S. Open. Of course, if the rider can prove they have their own clothing sponsor then they don’t have to wear the uniform at all, just the patches of the team’s sponsors.

There is also a provision in the contract that allows the USSA to reserve the right to add one “exclusive” sponsor sticker to each team member’s snowboard topsheet. But the contract doesn’t say exactly which sponsor’s sticker would go on the board.

It is intrusive, but the sponsors need to get something out of their dollars. “The whole purpose of this is to have a program to support the athletes so they can have the best chance to win medals,” Ashley says. “But we have to figure out a way to support the sponsors who are funding the program.”

According to Carlisle the riders know what’s up. “It’s not that the athletes don’t understand the USSSA’s need to sell sponsors,” Carlisle says. “They want to be reasonable, but they feel that this contract is not reasonable.

While the riders have chosen not to sign the contract, many of them do want to make it clear that their failure to sign has nothing to do with negative feelings toward the team or the USSA. “The U.S. Team has been the best thing for me, and hopefully it will continue to be,” says former team member and Olympian Tricia Byrnes. “They’re not trying to sell our souls, I just feel like we need to come up with something that is fair for both sides. I think it’s possible for everyone to be happy, and I think it can happen.”

Andy Finch agrees: “The main issues really shouldn’t be that big of a problem to change. We’re not saying we don’t want to support the sponsors. We’re backing the team and the sponsors 100 percent.

Carlisle e-mailed a six-page letter to the USSA outlining the problems riders see in the contract and language that would make it easier for the riders to sign. Ashley received the e-mail, and says he’s working on the problem. “We’re trying to figure out some alternative plans,” Ashley says. “We’ve been having some discussions with the parents, of the athletes. I understand that the agents represent the athletes, but we have relationships with the parents and we’re trying to figure out how to thread the needle on this and make a win-win for everyone.

Whether the USSA works out a better contract or not, it really comes down to the individual riders and what they think will work best for them. “The agents are keeping us informed, but ultimately it is our decision,” Tricia Byrnes says. “We’re going to have to make a decision based on our own deals.”

And so far, that decision is not to sign the contract.