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U.S. Olympic Committee names golf exec its new CEO

Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - July 12, 2018 - Updated: July 26, 2018

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This June 20, 2015, photo provided by the USGA shows Sarah Hirshland during the third round of the 2015 U.S. Open golf tournament at Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash. The U.S. Olympic Committee has hired Sarah Hirshland as its CEO, placing the executive at the U.S. Golf Association in charge of stabilizing an organization that has been hammered by sex-abuse scandals spanning several Olympic sports. (Darren Carroll/USGA via AP)

COLORADO SPRINGS — ​The new woman atop the U.S. Olympic Committee is a marketing expert who revolutionized how the United States Golf Association sells itself to the public.

Sarah Hirshland is the first woman to claim the Olympic Committee’s long-term CEO title and was lauded as a strong leader who can clean up the sexual misconduct issues that have plagued Olympic sports, most notably gymnastics. She’s known in the sports industry as a hard-nosed negotiator who got the Golf Association its historic $1.1 billion television rights deal from Fox. She also brings close ties to the top organizer of America’s next Olympic games: 2028 in Los Angeles.

“The USOC is at a critical time in its history and requires an energetic, creative and inspiring leader who is capable of building on past success while making sure that the athletes we serve are protected, supported and empowered in every possible way,” Larry Probst, who heads the Olympic Committee’s board of directors, said in a statement.

The Olympic Committee in February parted ways with eight-year CEO Scott Blackmun, who faced a storm of criticism for not doing more to stop sexual assaults, including those committed by disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Since Blackmun’s departure, the ruling body for American Olympic teams has faced congressional scrutiny and launched an internal probe into its practices.

The five-month process to replace Blackmun was kept from the public eye. While many expected the committee to find a leader with a record of stamping out misconduct, Hirshland is one of the nation’s top experts on sports marketing. She came to the USGA from a top post at Wasserman, which represents thousands of athletes in marketing and product endorsement deals.

Hirshland is a mother of three and a Colorado native who began a career in sports marketing after graduating from Duke University. She’s honed brands ranging from NASCAR to tennis and has often used sports history to attract new audiences while keeping the old.

In a prepared statement, however, Hirshland didn’t shy away from the Olympic Committee’s struggle with sexual assault.

“I also recognize the challenges ahead as we navigate this critical moment in the USOC’s history,” she said in a statement. “We must protect, support and empower athletes, young and old, elite and beginner. Olympic and Paralympic sport in the United States must be a shining example, able to provide athletes with the benefits of participation in an environment free from abuse of any kind.”

Asked what key skill she brings to the fight against sexual assault, Hirshland pointed to her ears.

“The most important thing in the world is to be a strong listener,” she said.

She’ll have a lot to listen to after she takes over the Olympic Committee next month. After Blackmun’s departure, the Olympic Committee under interim CEO Suzanne Lyons kicked off a review of its policies to protect athletes from sexual assault.

Probst said a report examining how the Olympic Committee handled the reported assaults — more than 200 in gymnastics alone — is due by the end of September.

“They are getting close to finishing all of the interviews they intended to have as part of the process,” Probst said.

Lyons says the committee has done much to fix its woes in recent months.

“My goals were to stabilize the organization, develop an aggressive action plan to increase athlete safety and respond to the challenges currently facing the organization, and to assist in hiring the very best person who can take those plans forward and redefine the role of the USOC in years to come. I feel we have accomplished those goals and I’m absolutely committed to helping Sarah in any way that I can.”

While fighting sexual assault remains a top priority, the Olympic Committee had good reason to pick a marketing guru. The committee is gearing up for the 2028 summer games in Los Angeles. The man leading the charge for the 2028 games is organizing committee boss Casey Wasserman, Hirshland’s old boss at the sports marketing firm that carries his name.

“I know firsthand that Sarah is a visionary leader and exactly the right person to lead the USOC as we collectively build to the LA 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games,” Wasserman said in a statement. “I look forward to re-teaming with Sarah plus the entire team at the USOC to deliver a new Games for a new era that benefit athletes and our communities alike, and connect the Olympic and Paralympic movements to the future.”

The committee is in the final stages of cutting a joint marketing agreement with the LA games, making Hirshland’s skills a prime commodity.

She’s still revered for her accomplishments at USGA, where she penned a mammoth television deal — 12 years and $1.1 billion — with the Fox networks.

And golf has nothing like the popularity that comes with the Olympic brand. Hirshland described her opportunity as something unique on the American sports scene.

“It is truly one of the few things in history that brings the world together,” she said.

So far, the pick has drawn nothing but praise.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who heads that Senate’s committee that oversees Olympic sports welcomes the pick.

“Congratulations to Sarah Hirshland for being named Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee,” he wrote on Twitter. “There is a great deal of work ahead on @LA2028 and other challenges.”

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers was more effusive.

“On behalf of the City of Colorado Springs, we’d like to congratulate and welcome Sarah Hirshland in her new role as CEO of the United States Olympic Committee,” Suthers said in an email. “As Olympic City USA and home of the USOC for the last 40 years, we are very proud of our partnership with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Movements, and we look forward to extending this relationship under Sarah’s capable leadership.”

Tom Roeder, The Gazette

Tom Roeder, The Gazette