Eric Steele Is Off to a Fast Start at USA Roller Sports

USA Roller Sports Executive Director Eric Steele is proof you can take a person out of the Boy Scouts, but you can’t take the Boy Scouts of the person. Early into his new position at the Lincoln, Nebraska-based NGB, Steele slips a few times when referring to the Boy Scouts of America as “we.” It’s understandable. Steele was part of the youth organization for 20 years before his position was eliminated. While making a switch to roller sports may seem like a big swerve from the Boy Scouts, Steele says the same principles apply from an operations standpoint. In some regards, Steele notes that NGBs and the USOC as a whole could learn lessons from the Boy Scouts. By the time Connect Sports caught with him, Steele had yet to live up to his pledge to buy a new pair of roller skates. But the future does indeed look promising at USA Roller Sports under Steele, who spoke to Connect Sports about what’s ahead.

What similarities are there between working with the Boy Scouts and running an NGB?

You've got compliance and sports integrity. That would be no different than what we would do in terms of camp accreditation. You have to make sure the integrity of the sport is more important than everything else, so that has to be maintained. Another is there are multiple disciplines—you’ve got speed skating; you’ve got hockey; got figure skating; and so forth. The boy scouts have divisions as well: cub scouting; boy scouting, venturing and so forth. All of those have to have volunteer committees. Even the office we work out of here would be very much like a boy scout office in the sense there’s finance person, a membership person, sports directors (which would be like program directors) and there’s an executive director. Then there is history and tradition. The roller sports museum is housed here in Lincoln, Nebraska, and there’s lot history came with scouting.

Both deal a lot with youth protection. What are the parallels?

The Boy Scouts were definitely a forerunner in youth protection because of the problems they had in the 60s and 70s as they evolved in the 80s and 90s and today, they implemented one of the best youth protection programs you could ask for. The USOC is now aligned with safe sport. As I went to do the online training for safe sport, it was almost verbatim on mandatory reporting and how you identify all of those bad things that are sitting out there.

What’s the key to protecting child athletes?

The biggest thing is getting as many people trained on safe sport as you can. It can’t just be officials and coaches. We’ve got to go beyond that, to the level where athletes themselves understand safe sport and how to identify peers and friends that have abuse issues going on and understanding how they can report that to an adult. It’s better to make a mistake and report something rather than not report it at all. I think you may see some bylaw changes with NGBs to go in and make things a little clearer to their membership and board of directors on reporting and how to handle bigger cases like what happened at Penn State and Michigan State.

Skateboarding will be an Olympic sport come 2020. What role does USA Roller Sports play in that?

We have a committee that's been formed here and have submitted our proposal to be that governing body of skateboarding. Then there is the skateboarding community as a whole that existed through a variety of different organizations throughout the country and the world, and they have formed something loosely based around an NGB and submitted a proposal. It’s between that group and us—the USOC will ultimately make that decision. If it wants to go with history and the tradition of governing a sport, then it will go with us. If that were to happen, it would be big deal for us.  We would hire a lot more staff and have a lot more budget to work with, so I hope we get it.

Do any of your other sports stand a shot at the Olympics?

The one that is positioned the best is speed skating. A lot of ice speed skaters at the Winter Olympics might be looking for an alternative way to medal. I could almost guarantee you that there’s be lots of crossover of those athletes from ice to roller skates.

What’s the USA Roller Sports’ national championship like?

Traditionally, the championships are held in Lincoln for two years and move to another city the third year. That seems to be the model that’s working. What we save in the two years staying in Lincoln helps us take the show on the road. With hotels and meals, the championships bring in around $7.5 million into Lincoln over six weeks. To put that in perspective, a football weekend in Lincoln does about $4 million. We’re basically equivalent to two football weekends when you think about it.

Where do you hope to see the NGB in three years?

I hope to see growth in our sports—that’s number one because membership dictates revenue. Number two would be increased membership benefits and better communication. That’s why we made a small investment in new technology. Living out of Lincoln, we need to reach all corners electronically. Number three is maintaining the integrity of the sport and evolving as need be.