Quick Spin with NICA Director Matt Fritzinger
The past 12 months, various members of the NICA board of directors have been interviewed, shedding light on what brought them to the main table of high school mountain biking. Splitting his year between the NorCal League and the fledgling NICA, the fairly rested and exuberant 39-year-old Illinois native and former high school math teacher answers some questions from various League directors and board members in the interview below.
What are the main challenges to achieving NICA’s goal of having leagues from coast to coast by 2020?
Coast to coast programs could happen sooner than later, but the real challenges are the quality of the programs and consistency of the risk management. The challenge is met with enough training, finding the right people, setting up efficient training and communication channels, and striking the balance between self governance and oversight.
With the NorCal League having just completed their 10th season, many alumni have completed college and/or undertaken a wide variety of different activities since cycling in high school. Any particular stories that you can share as to how participating in high school cycling has affected some of the kids you have seen?
First, the direct benefit is having two of our best employees – former NorCal racers – who got a degree and are now working for NICA and NorCal. I run into young adults out there, most recently one working in the film industry and another working in a hospital who told me that their NorCal League experience helped give them direction in life.
I'm sure you have been asked “why not start a road racing program?" How do you respond to this and what is the motivation for keeping the program off-road focused?
First and foremost we’re having a bunch of fun on the trails! Training on the road is a different thing; riders with different abilities present a challenge in maintaining a cohesive and safe training environment. The consequences of accidents are much higher, and it’s harder to manage without much stress so our coaches and volunteers vastly prefer the trails. Some of our student athletes discover road racing as well, and many do both, and some even do quite well on the road. Keeping the support of schools, while controlling the risk management aspect – means staying focused on the dirt.
Is one of NICA’s goals to get cycling into schools as an official school sport, rather than a club sport?
It’s an ongoing progression that goes on school by school; what’s more important is meeting the needs of the club. We’re more interested in fulfilling these needs which focus on the development of the student athlete than a superficial change in status. Becoming an ‘official school sport’ doesn’t necessarily benefit the program.
We realized early on that team sports are governed by the California Interscholastic Federation, which in itself is a non-profit organization, and schools are not mandated to recognize those sports, rather than others. It’s a misconception that becoming an official school sport means money becomes available; other sports rely on fundraising for coaching and equipment just like us. It’s easier to focus on the support one thing at a time: want varsity letters? Let’s buy some! Want to pay coaches? Raise some money! Our team directors are doing schools a great service by providing a quality programs that brings so many members of the community together; and with time school administers value that.
With the growth of high school cycling, how do you see future growth and opportunities at the collegiate level in terms of NCAA recognition and scholarships?
Those are two different things; scholarships are already going on at schools like Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, who realize this fast growing sport is attracting outstanding students. As for NCAA, I think it’s a myth that we’d need their recognition. If we cyclists choose to build varsity-like collegiate programs, then the skies the limit. It's great to see how more collegiate cycling clubs have dedicated leaders taking that club-to-team transformation into their own hands.
What did you hear about the Colorado League races from either riders, parents or coaches?
It was an incredible opportunity, especially in a rich cycling culture like Colorado’s, to build something with an experienced audience. To see all the students and parents and kids loving the League, especially the opening race being the largest in Colorado’s history, reflected the sheer joy we witnessed that day. We get compliments in the field and through email following the races, so we must be doing something right. There’s always room for improvement, and we know the 2011 season will be even better.
There was an initial fear that Colorado would be too competitive and too serious with so many nationally ranked riders. But we saw those same kids having fun and supporting their fellow racers, while racing quite aptly in the thin air!
What are NICA's biggest challenges or hurdles?
The challenge for NICA is similar to what NorCal had: nothing is so constant as change. Because of rapid growth and what that includes (changing the org chart, needing new levels of advice, having to restructure things). Working with two new league directors last year, and now six, means my work style (and staff) needs to change once again. Three years from now it’ll be different again. It’s also where the excitement in my role as director comes from.
A potential hurdle for NICA is transitioning to a long-term financial model, which depends more on fees and less on start up capitol that’s been provided by our generous sponsors.
When did you know you needed to make the leap and start NICA?
Gary Fisher really was the first one talking about high school mountain biking going national, long before I thought it was possible. He’s been one of our best spokesmen over the years.
After six or seven years with NorCal, then SoCal, there were aspects of the work that were time consuming, plus large expenses for services that were only used once a year. Adding new leagues made sense to help share that load, and replicating the effort with the SoCal League proved it out. That’s about the time when Specialized said they were interested in sponsoring us at a higher level if we could go national. The idea evolved over a two-year period between the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
We’re fortunate to have an experienced board of directors and keen advisers come along side, guys like David Curtis, who is an exceptional designer and brand manager (whose son won the 2010 California State Championship), Rick Spittler, who’s worked with several national sporting associations (and whose daughter raced for NorCal a few years ago), and Nat and Rachael Lopes who've worked on trail and mountain bike park projects all over the nation. And the national work is opening new doors, like meeting Lee McCormack who is both elevating skill curriculum, and helping us upgrade our data management, how awesome is that? We couldn't do this work without such an outstanding team.
Where will the next rounds of expansion be?
The current hotbeds include New England, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee/Kentucky, and Utah. Ultimately it depends on which regions submit the strongest bids, due in June 2011.
Where are Texas, Minnesota, and Washington in their development?
Washington has its first leader’s summit in January and they’re planning two races in spring 2011. Texas will churn some interest this coming summer, and will follow with its first spring season in 2012. Minnesota is an emerging league, building support in its community for a fall 2012 season. Support has been high there, and there’s some discussion about using pre-existing races to promote high school racing next summer to build momentum.
From a sponsor’s perspective: what's in it for them? What's the ROI?
We’re very happy to see our bike industry supporters reporting good returns on their investment. Of the grassroots advocacy movements out there, the turn around between money invested and families in the bike shop is said to be the fastest out there. But we’re now turning our focus on companies outside the bike industry that also benefit from growing community of active students and families who are choosing a healthy lifestyle through mountain biking and that see the potential of good environmental stewardship and advocacy as part of the NICA reach.
How much do the leagues depend on local and private sponsorship and donations?
More and more as leagues mature, and early sponsors become significant partners, and it takes years that's an important part of achieving financially sustainability. I always recommend that potential sponsors and donors get in early and become a key partner to these new leagues and share the success. There's still a couple weeks to get on board with our Spring Leagues (SoCal, NorCal and Washington), and plenty of time to get involved with Colorado and Texas. Interested parties should contact Nat Lopes (firstname.lastname@example.org).