SARANAC LAKE - Facing a financial crunch worsened by the loss of a key sponsor, USA Luge officials are reaching out for political support, including to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.
Jim Leahy, executive director of the Lake Placid-based organization, and Gordy Sheer, its marketing director, talked with Schumer both during and after an appearance by the senator Friday at the North Elba Town House in Saranac Lake.
Although the two-time Olympic village of Lake Placid is a national and world-renowned host site for international winter sports competitions, luge is the only sport that has a national governing body based in Lake Placid.
USA Luge Executive Director Jim Leahy, right, speaks to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer Friday at the North Elba Town House in Saranac Lake. The organization’s marketing director, Gordy Sheer, listens at left.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Leahy told Schumer they want to keep it that way.
"We're here hoping we can work with you and some other political leaders for sustainability of our national governing body in this state for years to come," he said.
Leahy's pitch follows a very successful season for the organization's athletes. USA Luge won five World Cup medals this past winter, the most since the winter of 2009-10. At the February Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, slider Erin Hamlin of Remsen won USA Luge's fifth Olympic medal, a bronze, making her the first woman in U.S. luge history to stand on the Olympic podium.
You might think that success would translate into more money, through increased sponsorship, for the organization. Schumer asked Leahy if that was the case.
"We would hope, but not yet," Leahy said. "Every four years we become popular because of the Olympics, but we have three years to sustain. We get zero funding from the U.S. government, and it's all sponsorship and private donations."
Schumer said he'd do what he could to help.
"You just let me know what you need, and I'll go to bat for you," he said. "I'm really proud of USA Luge."
Following the press conference, Leahy told the Enterprise that USA Luge is "running into a financial shortfall and we need to find ways to generate additional revenue." Asked how much, he wouldn't give specifics but said the shortfall is "a couple hundred thousand" dollars.
"I'm losing sleep over it," Leahy said.
A couple hundred thousand dollars is a significant hole for an organization that two years ago was operating on a budget of roughly $1.5 million, according to the nonprofit's most recent Form 990, from 2012, posted on the website guidestar.org.
USA Luge has 15 full-time employees and typically has 120 to 130 athletes in its programs, from kids ages 11 and 12 to members of its national and Olympic teams. Could the financial crisis affect staffing or the number of athletes it supports?
"We haven't reached that point yet," Leahy said. "Could it affect some of our core programs in the upcoming year? Yes."
The shortfall has been exacerbated by the recent loss of sponsorship from The National Guard. Since 2011, the Guard has provided USA Luge with an annual "mid-five-figure sponsorship," Leahy said.
"Losing the National Guard was a tough hit," Leahy said. "The National Guard was a key component in our overall budget, and our budget is solely based on athlete development, so it's needed.
"What we've been able to do is quantify, based on that sponsorship, that we've taken Olympic athletes, national team athletes and coaching staff that are Guard members. I think what we need to do is a better job of communicating that to the people who write those checks."
Rick Breitenfeldt, an Army National Guard spokesman, said in an email that the Guard did a "onetime sponsorship of the luge team during the most recent Winter Olympics.
"There were never any plans to continue beyond that," he wrote.
Breitenfeldt referred the Enterprise to a press release earlier this month that said the Guard is redesigning its entire sports marketing program. Among the changes, it ended a $32 million sponsorship of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"Significantly constrained resources and the likelihood of further reductions in the future call for more innovative and cost-effective ways of doing business," Maj. Gen. Judd H. Lyons, acting director of the Army National Guard, said in the release.
In addition to the conversation with Schumer, Leahy said his staff has also been working with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's office, North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi and local politicians, business leaders and officials from the state Olympic Regional Development Authority. Ken Adams, the head of Empire State Development, has also visited USA Luge's headquarters, Leahy said.
"We've had meetings with them," he said. "I think what we need to do is get our message out."
Apart from the political angle, efforts are also ongoing to bring in new sponsorships, Leahy said.
For more information, visit www.usaluge.org.