There is something epic happening to the sport of adventure racing in the United States.
After 20-something years of growth, decline, resurgence, and now stagnation, the sport of adventure racing has reached a tipping point with respect to its national identity.
The existing national-level organizations — Orienteering USA (OUSA), United States Adventure Racing Association (USARA), and North American Adventure Racing Association (NAARA) — have all failed adventure racers in their own ways:
Orienteering USA (OUSA) is a 100-year-old man yelling for his pudding that wants to be all things orienteering but has completely ignored adventure racing since it’s founding.
Only now, with budget shortfalls on the horizon, does Orienteering USA turn its gaze towards adventure racing.
I talked about this move by Orienteering USA back in January 2015 in my article, Why blurring the line between sports is good for business.
Only Orienteering USA never “made the move”.
Instead, they maintained their same-old-same-old that has directly led to their current membership decline.
Too little, too late.
United States Adventure Racing Association (USARA) is that family member that is always asking to borrow money from you but never pays it back.
Then you see them weeks later driving around in a fancy car like they don’t owe you a dime.
Granted, they were the first to give adventure racing a national voice, but two decades and millions of dollars later, there are few adventure racers that can tell you a single benefit to being a USARA member.
I talked about this problem with USARA in my December 2016 article, Where have all the amateurs gone?.
Sure, they managed to help some elite teams travel to AR Worlds, but they ended up alienating the rest of the adventure racing community in the process.
Too long, too little.
North American Adventure Racing Association (NAARA) is the new kid on the block that is attempting to become the Goldilocks organization between OUSA and USARA.
Formed out of the frustration over USARA member neglect, NAARA is still an unknown entity that no one understands yet.
As the new kid, they are young, inexperienced, and often seen as amateurs when it comes to representing adventure racing on the national stage.
Will they grow into an organization that is capable of taking over the reigns from USARA?
Still too early, still too new.
Divided We Fall
These shortcomings are not new.
Anyone who has been around adventure racing for at least one season has been given an earful of the complaints regarding this organization or that, not doing this or that, for years.
However, this year, something changed.
This year adventure racers — combined with adventure race directors — seem to have had enough.
Enough sanctioning fees going into the ether, enough top-down, old-school establishment, and enough me-first, members-second thinking.
It’s hard to pinpoint just what lit the fire, but over the past few months, it has become obvious that there is a raging inferno of angst taking place in the sport.
Much of this fire is being directed towards USARA, with the heat being felt by both NAARA and OUSA.
What is the major complaint that has everyone so upset?
Simple — None of these organizations have adapted to what adventure racers want out of a national-level governing organization.
Adventure racers are finally asking a very important question:
Where are my membership dollars going?
That is a good question.
Here is a better one:
Where do adventure racers WANT their membership dollars to GO?
That is a great question, but a hard one to answer.
Why is it hard?
Because the sport of Adventure Racing doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up.
The people that embrace adventure racing culture and see themselves as part of the AR community certainly know where they DO NOT want their dollars to go.
They DO NOT want their dollars to go to an organization that disenfranchises them.
They want a voice.
It was inevitable that adventure racers would start to want a say at the national level.
Having a say in how it is run, how its money is spent, or at a minimum, who runs it, is the hallmark of any American-based representative organization.
In many ways, adventure racers are asking for a “representative governing body”, not a corporation, not a un-responsive non-profit, and not a big racing company, to be in charge of their membership dollars.
This includes showing the complete transparency of every cent that is given to it.
Racers do not want another organization that talks about benefits, but never shows a balance sheet or annual report.
Everyone involved is tired of paying fees to organizations that show them no tangible return on their investment (ROI).
Justice for All
This leads me to point out that some of that racer ROI needs to include helping race directors provide better safety tools like insurance.
Without getting into all details of who’s done more or less for adventure race directors when it comes to insurance, it is safe to say that insurance is a big deal to both racers and race directors during any given race.
A national-level organization has the capability to negotiate insurance rates as a group that is better than what an individual race director might get.
It is the value of that insurance that is the question.
Does $10.00 per-racer/per-race really equal the amount of coverage offered?
What about a $35.00 membership fee?
Which is why transparency at every level — include the total cost of an insurance policy versus what you pay for that policy — is an important factor in winning over race directors AND racers.
What adventure race directors DO NOT want is an insurance policy that doesn’t actually include any protections.
Additionally, that protection needs to go both ways.
Any member run national-level organization — that provides insurance to a race director in the form of sanctioning — cannot all be about helping only the race director.
They need to be fully involved in making sure race directors are doing their due diligence when it comes to safety too.
Racers DO NOT want race directors that skimp on safety.
Neither should any national-level organization that is about to back that race director with any kind of support.
If membership fees are going towards providing race directors with a good rate on insurance, then those same race directors should be required to adhere to some level of risk management oversight to be considered eligible.
Only seems fair.
Do you want our insurance and our sanctioning?
Then do these things that meet these standards, and it’s yours!
Therein lies the rub.
Adventure Race Directors DO NOT like to be told how to build their races.
Both directors and racers want an organization that can provide them a voice with equal transparency but do not want to lose the freedom they have in running their events.
Unfortunately, you cannot have it both ways.
If you want a member-run, representative organization that acts in the best interests of adventure racing, then it cannot act ONLY in the best interests of race directors.
A lack of standards means no sanctioning and no insurance.
However, when race directors take standards to mean a loss of control, many DO NOT want standards.
If you came from some of the other governing bodies (e.g. USA Cycling, USA Triathlon), you’ve already been down the road that included an all-powerful governing body that throws its weight around.
Adventure racing has not really had anyone telling race directors they will not get sanctioned if they do not build their races a certain way.
Is now the time for that too?
We know that race directors DO NOT want an all-powerful sanctioning authority, but we also know they DO NOT want to be associated with a lone-wolf race director who does whatever they want and calls it adventure racing either.
What do they want?
A balance between want they will be asked to do for sanctioning, and a say in how those standards are developed.
Fortunately, in a representative organization, everyone gets a chance to present, debate, and then vote.
You may not win every vote, but you will get the chance to persuade others to your point of view.
If that still doesn’t sound good to you, consider the alternative that is in place now: check-box sanctioning with no voting power.
How does having a sanctioning as a “checkbox” where everything is left up to the discretion of both the good and bad race director to do safety “as they see fit” benefit the racer?
It does not.
You cannot have a national-level organization that does not have a standard definition of the sport, a basic rulebook, or race direction guidelines.
As a result, a set of standards will need to be created to help make sanctioned races meet a minimum level of quality.
However, there is a big difference in being given standards and having a direct role in determining what those standards will be.
When members get a say — included race directors — then what they ratified is a sanctioning process that everyone can respect and follow.
United We Stand
What do we — the adventure racing community — actually agree on then?
We seem to want a voice in any national-level organization, and we want that organization to representative and racer-centric.
We also want complete transparency of how our membership dollars are spent.
We’re equally interested in knowing how insurance rates are negotiated on our behalf and to what extent race directors have to go through to garner sanctioning.
What we are less clear on is the vision we all have of where we want adventure racing to go and what that will look like 5-10 years from now.
Some agree that having only one national series would help, possibly to gain more international legitimacy towards organizations like the International Olympic Committee.
Others think it has everything to do with fixing our media presence.
Or how adventure racing needs to embrace technology by having online tracking that provides near-real-time coverage like the Tour de France.
Regardless of your position on WHAT a new national-level organization should be focused on, it is the HOW this new organization should be organized that is still in question.
Should it have a board of directors?
Should it be run by a president, an executive director, or both?
Or should one of the existing organizations be courted to transform into something everyone wants to see?
I think the ship has sailed on transforming one of the existing organizations into what adventure racing needs going forward.
There is too much personal involvement, too much baggage, and too much angst to keep things civil.
There might also be too much money involved to keep the monsters of greed and power at bay.
It is not to say that those that came before do not have a place in this new national-level adventure racing organization, it’s just that we have reached a point where the old ways have not worked.
It is time for something new.
Join or Die
It’s time to stop talking about it or do something.
If you’re in the “do something” group, then I think that building adventure racers into a more cohesive and organized group is the first order of business.
But where do we start?
We need a rallying point.
This means we need to bring both like minds and agitators together to hammer out some common ground.
A good first step of this kind of “Adventure Racing Congress” is the AR Race Directors Summit that Mark Harris from Adventure Enablers is hosting in Virginia on January 13th, 2018.
Although this focuses on those that create and build adventure races, it starts the conversation from a valid place by answering the question: What is adventure racing?
If this works, I expect more summits to come — especially if racers can see transparency baked into the process from the very beginning.
Once some sort of change coalition can function as a real national-level contender organization, only then could it begin to address the HOW behind effectively building relationships with big sponsors, television, and Internet media.
The last thing we need is more rival factions within a sport that is already too small and too fractured.
It has to focus on the things we DO agree on and use that to gain some common ground.
Like Cy Sack stated in his article, What’s the role of competition in the business of Adventure Racing, the answer is not to “[..] draw boundaries and keep gentlemen’s agreements to not move into each other’s markets.”
The answer is to join under one banner or watch our sport continue to die.
To that end, I leave you with this to consider:
Preamble to the Adventure Racers Declaration of Independence
When in the course of a sports maturity, it becomes necessary for adventure racers to dissolve the national-level bands which have connected them with another.
We must assume as a racing community a new station to which the needs of racers and race directors entitle us.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that this new national-level organization must be member-centric, support the prosperity of adventure race directors, and be dedicated to promoting the sport of adventure racing both at home and abroad.
That to secure this mission, any national-level organization, deriving their power from the consent of its members, that whenever any Form of Sanctioning Body becomes destructive of these ends, it is in the best interest of those racers to alter or abolish it.
In its place, these members shall institute a new Sanctioning Body, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Obviously, an Adventure Racing take on the Preamble to the United States of America’s Declaration of Independence.
But Bill Pullman’s speech from the Independence Day movie could work here too!
Either way, buckle up.
All this rhetoric is the calm before the storm.
E Pluribus Unum AR