The USOC did right by selecting a woman as CEO.
But did the board select the right woman?
Sarah Hirshland has an extensive background in Colorado, sports marketing and media, executive administration, TV contract negotiations and securement of corporate sponsors — all qualities that will benefit her substantially in heading the multibillion, nonprofit Olympics sports organization with headquarters in downtown Colorado Springs and its tentacles spread throughout the nation and the world.
But the 43-year-old Hirshland has very limited experience with the Olympic movement (golf) and none with overseeing the U.S. Olympic Committee’s paramount problem — the multitude of sexual assault and abuse charges, negligence and mismanagement claims and ongoing critical concerns filed, and expressed, by the Olympic lifeblood athletes.
Can she handle the pressure, repair the USOC’s ruined reputation and deal with the myriad complex difficulties?
It’s much to ask of a chief executive officer who said, rather vaguely, Thursday that she is a Colorado native and looks forward to returning to the state.
My research and interviews revealed:
Hirshland, whose maiden name was Sarah Caitlin McDougall, was born in Silverthorne in 1975 and moved with her parents to Littleton as a youth. She graduated from prestigious Kent Denver private high school in 1992 after playing for the girls’ state soccer champions (1990-91).
McDougall then would graduate from Duke University in 1997, with a major in biology, and remained in Raleigh, N.C., to join in the founding of Total Sports, an online sports media company, as general manager. Four years later, as the modest dot-com was floundering, she was hired by OnSport, a sports consulting and marketing firm, as senior vice president. One of the partners, Casey Wasserman, left to form Wasserman Media Group, and McDougall would follow him in 2007 as a senior VP.
She was on a fast track — and enjoyed happy hour at Bandido’s restaurant, talking with another young woman about their rapidly rising careers.
Wasserman later would lead the Los Angeles bid for the Summer Olympics, which the city would land for 2028. The former employee will be working closely with her ex-boss to develop joint marketing plans for the Games.
However, she already had departed the company in 2011 to become one of the top executives (senior managing director of business affairs) for the U.S. Golf Association. In April of this year she was promoted to chief commercial officer. She had brought the USGA lucrative partnerships with several major corporations and negotiated a billion-dollar deal with the Fox TV network to take over coverage, from NBC, of the major USGA events, such as the U.S. Open and the recent U.S. Senior Open at The Broadmoor.
In the meantime, Sarah McDougall had met and eventually wedded Keith Hirshland, who had spent three decades in sports TV coverage — primarily as a prominent sports producer for ESPN and The Golf Channel. Hirshland, now 63, has written three books and is the father of three adult children from former marriages.
On Feb. 28, Scott Blackmun, who served as the CEO of the USOC for eight years, resigned, citing his serious health issue (prostate cancer surgery, which forced him to miss the Winter Olympics). However, Blackmun had been under extreme stress (from Congress, media and current and former Olympians) to step down, or be fired by the board, because he and the USOC didn’t respond promptly enough and strongly enough for years during the avalanche of sexual abuse cases, especially in women’s gymnastics and, at last, surrounding the trial of former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Neither Blackmun nor any of his representatives attended the proceedings to offer the abused accusers support.
Did Blackmun jump, or was he pushed? Probably both.
The USOC board then picked an executive recruitment company, Spencer Stewart, to conduct a search-and-assessment of potential Blackmun replacement candidates. The decision on the next CEO would be the most vital in the organization’s history.
A committee (number and names still unknown) composed of present and past Olympic athletes and several others linked to the USOC was to deliberate the applicants advanced by Spencer Stewart.
The committee chose two finalists. One was Hirshland; the other has not been revealed, and a request by The Gazette to a USOC executive for the name and gender was denied.
At the board’s most recent meeting last month in Washington, D.C., the two front-runners were interviewed, and their qualifications and backgrounds were reviewed.
The board — under the leadership of Larry Probst and acting CEO and board member Susanne Lyons — debated and decided on Hirshland. Vote results were not released.
It would seem that Hirshland’s proficiency in TV deals, corporate fundraising and sports marketing, and her position with the Wasserman Group, were priorities in her hiring, particularly because of the Summer Olympics in L.A. in 10 years and, likely, the Winter Games returning soon after to the United States. And the USOC certainly needed a woman’s leadership in light of the mass of complaints from female athletes.
But Hirshland’s lack of experience as a CEO or in confronting anything as dire as the USOC’s damaged trustworthiness should have been more significant in the consideration.
Of course, Probst said: “We think we have selected the very best candidate for this very important position.”
He and Hirshland acted on a conference call with some reporters as if they had rehearsed the same speech together.
“The USOC is at a critical time in its history and requires an energetic, creative and inspiring leader who will ensure that the athletes we serve are protected, supported and empowered in every possible way,’’ Probst said.
Hirshland said: “I recognize the challenges ahead. We have a critical moment in time in the USOC’s history that must be navigated. We must protect, support and empower all athletes.’’
Let’s hope the USOC made the right choice, and that she will get it right for many years.