Fencing Wish List: Tournament Structure

This is the third of four posts in which I’m expanding on the four areas I listed on my candidate info sheet, which I think are crucial for USA Fencing  to address:

These are not so much separate items, though, as different aspects of one gigantic puzzle. With the exception of the fourth item, which may well happen on its own as the other three are addressed (though I think there is much we can do deliberately in that direction as well), you make any major changes in one area and the others will be drastically affected.

So while I’m tackling each of these areas in separate posts, there will inevitably be some redundancy among them, because so much is so interrelated and interdependent.

Create a tournament calendar and structure appropriate to our fencer demographics.

This is an easy post for me to write. I’ve worked a lot of tournaments in the last 15 years—local club  and circuit events, divisional qualifiers, section championships, regional events, and national events. I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t at each level, and I’ve had plenty of time to think about how we could improve almost every aspect of our tournaments, and along with that time, plenty of fencing people to bounce those ideas around with. We’ve changed a lot in how we run tournaments: some of those changes are obvious, like the change of software to Fencing Time or the standardization of venue layouts to pods of 4 strips. Others, like changes to BC internal procedures for managing events, are mostly invisible to competitors.

This is also a difficult post to write. I’ve fairly firm opinions about changes we still need, and I’ve more than a few victims who’ve asked me a simple question about tournaments and been inflicted with a lengthy lecture in response. Once you get me started on tournaments, I can go on for hours, a phenomenon with which several of my tournament roommates are familiar. (At least they are usually BC people, who tend to do the same.)

Since it’s no secret that I think our national events are too big, I’m not going to spend any time rehashing what I’ve written before here and here and here and even here, for example. Instead, I’m going to list some of the things we can’t do because our national tournaments are so large, and follow that up with a few ideas that we ought to be considering to replace our current tournament structure.

  • Scheduled finals. I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve attempted to schedule and showcase the final rounds of NAC and championship events. The idea is that with scheduled final bouts, the local organizing committee (LOC) or sports commission can promote the tournament to attract local sponsors and local spectators.  An LOC like that in Detroit could work wonders with scheduled finals to promote their local clubs and the sport in general. But with our huge events, we can’t reliably schedule finals at times convenient for local TV news crews, or when we do try to schedule finals, some minor early slowdown cascades through the day into a 2-hour delay. (Always makes me think of what a CHP friend told me years ago, about how a single car slowing 10 mph at the right time of day on the SF Bay Bridge can result in complete gridlock on the bridge a couple of hours later.)
  • Training, part 1. You’d think giant tournaments would offer lots of opportunities for training new tournament personnel, but for BC, at least, it’s the other way around. Most of our trainees are familiar with basic tournament operations, so what they need is hands-on experience with national procedures. We’ve learned over the years, that trainees need to be additions to regular staff, so they can be paired with someone who they can observe and then be observed by. Our huge events, though, are so tightly scheduled that we can’t allow trainees the little bit of slack, the slight extra amount of time they need to do tasks themselves, and because of that cascade effect, we can’t afford to let them make what would be minor, relatively harmless errors at smaller tournaments.
  • Training, part 2. At last season’s JOs board meeting, I presented a BC recruiting and development plan developed by a small group of experienced national BC staff, complete with timelines for developing training materials and workshops, a BC website, and lots of other useful goodies. We’ve not made much progress with it, though—far less than we’d expected to have completed by now. (Other areas within USFA have the same problem.) Why? Because the people with the knowledge and experience to do the work are the same people who work national events (and regional events and serve as division officers and regional tournament organizers and/or officials), and we’ve also got jobs and families and for some peculiar reason even take non-fencing vacation days now and then. If we could train more people, we ‘d have the time and energy to train more people.

Which brings me to tournament restructuring. The USFA is at the stage of its growth where we’ve got too many competitive members for our current tournament structure—too many entries to fit into our traditional number of national tournament days. What we need is a structure that we can grow with, so we won’t need to keep inventing a new structure every 15 or 20 years as the old one becomes too unwieldy. Some ideas I’d like to see us considering:

  • A permanent national top level. This could be championships only or include a series of national tournaments like the current NACs. Either way, entry would be determined by points and limited to a predetermined number of competitors, ideally 160, which with an 80% promotion rate would result in a DE table of 128. This would make the schedule, staffing levels, and equipment needs predictable and consistent, and allow us to return to a whole range of venues we can no longer currently use because they are too small. This would also allow more effective promotion and showcasing of our top-level competitions, eventually even paying spectators eager to see our increasingly popular sport. As the sport grows, this top level would remain stable and adjustments to the tournament structure would be made at the intermediate and lower levels without necessitating a complete overhaul.
  • True regionalization. Eventually, I think we’ll need to go to a true regional structure, similar to the way divisions and sections used to work. The current disparity in size and competitiveness of divisions (as well as the old sections) requires realignment with our current demographics, though. Given the size of the United States and the longer distances between fencing centers in many parts of the country, there will never be geographic parity throughout the country, but we can certainly do better than we do now at achieving some sort of competitive parity. Several sports use regional affiliate associations to create their structure—we need to investigate how other sport NGBs have negotiated this stage of growth.
  • Tournament operations spun off from the national office? We should consider which tasks are best-suited for the national association to perform and which can be delegated to other entities. Both the ROCs and the SYCs are beginning to show that large NAC-size tournaments, with the proper standards and support, can be effectively organized independently. Eventually, we could bid out all national events to independent organizers and let the national organization concentrate on developing materials and resources to support the overall infrastructure of fencing—coaching development, club development, regional affiliate support (finances, website development, etc.). With the national organization providing guidance and resources, the divisions (or whatever lower level we have) could and should play a much larger role in identifying and developing new coaches and officials.

If we go to smaller national events, license tournaments to independent organizers as ROCs and SYCs are, or both, we’ll have to make up the revenue lost from tournaments fees, with an entry head tax, a percentage of tournament revenue, sponsorships and grants, or—more likely—some combination of all of these. Again, we should look to see how other NGBs generate their revenue.

Last in the series: “We versus Them

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