What Are National Tournaments For?

That many fencing referees like to race to see who can finish their pools or direct elimination quadrants first is not surprising. After all, most start out as—and many still are—competitive fencers. Rare is the event when I don’t get at least a couple of calls asking for permission to use an adjacent strip “so we can make things go faster.” Most of the time, I say yes, because I usually need events to progress as quickly as possible—there’s a different event that needs more strips for its DEs or another just closing registration that’ll need a dozen or two strips for its pools.

We—bout committee, assigners, referees—are focused on keeping things moving, minimizing wait times during and between rounds. Most épée fencers are familiar with the “Alperstein Method” for running a DE quadrant, in which fencers are called early to test their weapons so that they can hook up immediately to fence as soon as a strip opens up. Grouping strips by pod has made it easier for assigners to group referees by quadrant with enough geographic diversity that conflicts are seldom an issue, significantly reducing the amount of time it takes to turn events from pools to DEs. We expect to reduce that time even further as FencingTime’s auto-assign function becomes more usable and assigners learn how it works.

A couple of years ago, there was even the Process Improvement Task Force, which looked at and analyzed BC procedures to see where there was room for streamlining tasks. Figuring out how to make tournaments go faster is not just a matter of  friendly rivalry among referees or the obsession of detail-oriented BC geeks—it’s  become institutionally ingrained as our entry numbers have grown ever larger.

There are a few limits: a pool shouldn’t use more than one extra strip for doubling, and pools of 6 or fewer shouldn’t be doubled at all. And there’s not much point to one DE quadrant using extra strips to finish up more quickly when extra strips aren’t available to the other quadrants—that simply means that the faster group has to sit around and wait for everybody else to catch up.

Which brings us to a question worth asking: how does this emphasis on going faster affect our athletes?

Now it may well be that fencers don’t perceive much of this push for speed, that the amount of waiting built into our tournament formats feels about the same as it always has. Maybe when you balance our increasingly streamlined procedures with our increasingly large tournaments, it’s essentially a wash.

Or perhaps we’re all just frogs simmering in a huge pot and haven’t noticed how much our tournament experience has changed over the past decade or so.

In a perfect world, fencers at a well-run tournament should expect to be able to watch all of their pool competitors, to get a look at their different styles, to see which actions they tend to use and how other fencers react to those actions. Getting pulled away from this information-gathering to test weapons or to fence one opponent while others in the pool are still bouting inhibits this learning process and may even damage a fencer’s prospects in the tournament. A long succession of tournaments under such constrictions could even hamper our fencers’ long-term competitive development.

In a not-so-perfect world, we ought at least to be able to have this discussion, but right now running national tournaments in a way that provides competitors with a high-quality experience is not an option. Running national tournaments is all about survival.  It’s not merely fencers surviving eight rounds of DEs, or officials surviving two six- or seven-hour events in a single day, or bout committee making it through three or four conecutive 14- or 15-hour days—it’s the survival of the USFA itself.

We don’t have the option of adopting a more sensible tournament structure right now because the USFA’s finances are so dependent on tournament income. Membership dues bring in around $1 million and tournament income a little over $1 million, approximately the total international programs deficit for 2011–2012. (These are very round numbers—for more precise figures, refer to recent USFA financial reports.)

Were we to reduce the size of national tournaments to more reasonable size, to allow, say, 8- to 10-hour competition days and a more civilized pace, we would lose income essential to keeping the USFA functioning.  Our shaky finances have trapped us in a broken tournament structure, pressured to keep growing events that are already too big, already stressing both our personnel and equipment resources.

We can’t simply keep going on the way we have for the past few years—the way we are going is unsustainable, and we’re losing too many experienced people to the stress and frustration. We desperately need a new revenue model to support a more workable tournament structure, but can we—will we—develop both before the whole rickety USFA contraption collapses under its own weight?

(Jenga photo from Google Images)

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10 comments on “What Are National Tournaments For?

  1. No. We won’t. There seems to be an idea to gather revenue from “deeper” in the tournament process, building bigger qualifying paths and charging fees for them. This has limited utility and even some bizarre situations that put additional pressure on local fencing: Virginia was just given a ROC we didn’t ask for, for instance.

    These revenues won’t, in the long run, add much to our income stream, and probably add additional conflict between the National Organization and it’s local governance.

    This fixation on one “product” also indicates to me that other revenue streams have failed to produce, or no one has come up with additional revenue ideas. This problem has become more and more obvious in the last three quads, and while we (as an organization) are finally starting to discuss solutions, we need to accelerate this process by a factor of 4-10 in order to have an impact.

  2. The obvious way to grow our revenue is to grow our membership. The obvious way to grow our membership is grow our clubs. The obvious way to grow our clubs is grow our coaches. We have deprioritized that over the past quad.

    People who talk about a per tournament fee haven’t taken a serious look at how much that would bring in I think. It’s very small compared to what we’re looking for.

    • We used it a bit in Anaheim, but it doesn’t deal well yet with flighted events and doesn’t assign more than one ref per pool. Using it also requires that the assigners do a little more prep work ahead of time figuring out which referees will be working which events so we can get those lists into the computer.

      • I had no idea, so that’s good to know. The prep work shouldn’t be too onerous given the hurry up and wait demands on assigners now. The thing assigners need is an easy way to interact with the system directly so they can trade/deal with other events running late/etc without going back and forth with anyone else. I think this could be implemented on iPads perhaps.

      • The big thing assigners need to do is determine their weapon groups well before they arrive at the BC stage in the morning. Some already work at this; others do not at all.

      • So you mean assigning is actually a skill, some people are better at it than others, and we don’t tend to pay attention to that when selecting FOCs?

      • Some assigners are more conscientious about preparing for tournaments, just as some BC chairs do more prep work and some referees spend more time revising the rules or warming up before events begin.

  3. I totally agree with Andrew.There is a great demand for coaches in the US, but no one is training them adequately. Marx’s Coaches Institute just had it’s first session after a three or four year lull with Coaches College. 15-20 people attended, probably because it was moved twice in the course of a few months, leaving many people unable to plan.

    There are large untapped markets in the US that are lying fallow because there is no one being trained to meet the need for coaches and clubs in the US.

    • I’m big on increasing the opportunities for professional coaches because it gives our elite athletes something to consider if they want to stretch that competitive career a bit and not go be a lawyer or wealth manager etc. Saying, “Hey, be an assistant coach here for a few years, lending us your stature and then retire to be head coach of a private club somewhere” seems like a more compelling offer than “Jump into the job market at 30″.

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