The Chuck Wielgus Blog: A Lesson the American Way


Wielgus (small)You learn from your mistakes.  There is great truth in this old adage, and based on this I have learned quite a bit during my journey in sports.  Much of the success we have had on the business side of USA Swimming, I attribute to learning from mistakes earlier in my career.  As a leader and a mentor, I have been able to call on these lessons to help guide our NGB to the stature it holds today.

From 1989-96, I served as the executive director for USA Canoe/Kayak, the NGB that was then known as the U.S. Canoe & Kayak Team.  It was a small NGB, but with whitewater slalom being added to the competition program for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics we thought we had a great opportunity to raise the sport’s public profile.

We had several factors working in our favor.  Aside from the Olympic status, the U.S. had some of the sport’s most elite athletes.  Jon Lugbill was a multi-time world champion in the single canoe; Davey and Cathy Hearn were among the world’s best kayakers; and the double canoe partnership of Joe Jacobi and Scott Strasbaugh offered great promise.  

The television industry was going through a lot of changes during these years.  Cable television was expanding and new channels were emerging. Among these was the Outdoor Life Network (OLN).  At the time, OLN was among the top five sports channels and they were in need of content, which provided our NGB with a great opportunity.  We envisioned creating a series of televised whitewater slalom events that would be held in attractive locations like Vail and Durango, Colo. and with prize money that would draw all the top international paddlers.  We made our pitch and OLN loved it and was prepared to give us the air time if we could cover the production expenses.

All we needed was sponsorship funding to fuel our vision.

To start, I set up a meeting with the Senior VP for Marketing at American Airlines. I traveled to the company’s corporate headquarters in Dallas and was ushered into the VP’s office.  After exchanging some pleasantries, I made my pitch, painting the picture of a new Olympic sport being introduced to the American public via a series of televised events. I talked about the majestic venues where these events would be held and the intrinsic danger of whitewater paddling that would lend great drama to the competitions in which the world’s best paddlers would be taking on raging rivers.  

I really thought I had all the pieces in place and that my pitch would be irresistible to any good marketer.  All I needed was money to bring it together, and American Airlines would have plenty of money, right?

The VP politely listened to my pitch, and then asked, “So, how many members are in your NGB?”  My reply was a bit sheepish, “1,200.”  “Well,” he said “I like your vision, but come back when you have 100,000 members.”

The VP went on to explain that his job was to get people to fly American, and that meant getting people – lots of people – to buy tickets to travel on American Airlines.  

In all the excitement about pitching my idea, I had forgotten the most important part about soliciting a sponsorship; showing how the sponsor would benefit.  It would be a lesson I’d never forget.  

Big companies get involved with a sponsorship for very specific reasons: they want to sell more products or services; they want to identify and engage new customers; they want to better position their brand; and they want to take advantage of unique hospitality opportunities for their top vendors, sales people, or customers.  The lesson is to approach any new sponsor prospect ready to explain how the relationship will help them accomplish their objectives.

Thankfully, we were eventually able to bring our dream together and the Champion International Whitewater Series became a five-event series that was televised and attracted the best paddlers in the world from 1991-96.   Our major sponsor was the Champion International Corporation, a paper company that used their association with the sport to help show people how paper mills were being converted to reduce river pollution and how the company was contributing to environmentalism in a positive way.

Sponsorships are not contributions; they are business partnerships in which both sides gain positive things.  It’s a lesson we think about every day as we work to enhance the business relationship with each of our corporate partners at USA Swimming: it’s not just about what’s in it for us, but about what’s in it for them!

Comments and suggestions for future blogs are welcomed, and Chuck Wielgus can be contacted at: cwielgus@usaswimming.org