The new leader of USA Swimming knows he’s got some big shoes to fill.
And, barring another comeback, he won’t have Michael Phelps to make the job a bit easier.
USA Swimming turned to Major League Soccer for its new leader on Thursday, picking Colorado Rapids president Tim Hinchey to succeed Chuck Wielgus, who died in April after a long battle with cancer.
Hinchey is a former college swimmer who had been with the Rapids since 2010. He will start his tenure as USA Swimming’s president and chief executive officer on July 12, two days before the start of the world championships in Budapest, Hungary.
Wielgus guided USA Swimming for 19 years, overseeing huge growth in the sport, and was the longest-tenured leader among U.S. Olympic organizations.
Hinchey’s job is to “take what’s already a great culture and a great organization and simply try to keep it moving forward.”
“Most of my career, I’ve probably stepped into the opposite situation, where I had a real chance to grow things,” the 49-year-old told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “In some ways, that’s easier. The pressure’s off. There’s no question there’s going to be pressure on Day 1 in this job. That’s certainly a little intimidating.”
Over 25-plus years as a sports business executive, Hinchey has also held positions in the English Premier League, NBA, NHL and with several junior and minor league hockey teams. At USA Swimming, he takes over an organization that captured 156 Olympic medals during Wielgus’ tenure but also was rocked by a widespread sexual abuse scandal.
Wielgus was planning to retire when he died April 23 of complications from colon cancer at age 67.
His top assistant, Mike Unger, has been serving as interim CEO and will remain on staff to work under Hinchey, who has no plans for a major overhaul.
“Chuck’s legacy speaks for itself,” Hinchey said. “I’m really excited about the culture there.”
During Wielgus’ tenure, USA Swimming’s revenue increased by about 600 percent, and its four-year, Olympic-cycle budget grew from $35 million to nearly $160 million. Membership more than doubled, to 400,000-plus, and Wielgus helped turn swimming’s Olympic trials into a showcase event that sold out more than 200,000 tickets in 2016.
The growth coincided largely with the career of Phelps, who became the winningest athlete in Olympic history with 23 gold medals. He retired for a second time after the 2016 Rio Games, though he recently told the AP that he’s eager to see if he gets the “itch” to swim again when he attends the world championships.
With or without Phelps, Hinchey sees no reason why swimming can’t continue its push to become more of a mainstream sport, not just an every-four-year phenomenon.
“When I look back on my career in basketball, no one said we could replace Michael Jordan, but now we have LeBron James,” Hinchey said. “There are stars for every decade, every generation.”
While Hinchey has yet to set any firm goals, he will likely focus on ways to bolster sponsorship and marketing partnerships, which has always been his specialty. Also, he wants to finds ways to reach out even more to the membership, “which I look at as our season ticket holders.”
“How can we engage them on a regular basis?” he asked. “We have large staffs in professional sports that do nothing but take care of season ticket holders. Maybe that’s something I can bring to the table.”
Hinchey looks at his new position as not just a job, but a chance to spend the rest of his professional life giving back to a sport he loves. He was a varsity swimmer at UC Irvine and remains active today through the U.S. Masters program. In July, he’ll be swimming for charity in a 10-kilometer open water event in Ireland as part of a four-man team.
“I love what I’ve done being part of sports entertainment,” Hinchey said. “If I can take that same interest and energy and put it toward a vocation and a passion, it allows me to contribute a little bit differently. It’s not just about driving revenues to pay for the big athletes. I can help give back to a broader community.”
With the Rapids, Hinchey oversaw a more than 300 percent increase in season ticket accounts and increased sponsorship revenue, including the team’s first jersey endorsement. He was named the MLS executive of the year in 2016, when the Rapids reached the conference finals and posted the highest average attendance since their move to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park a decade ago.
Jim Sheehan, chairman of USA Swimming’s board, said Hinchey’s experience “at multiple levels will be invaluable to help us embrace the opportunities that can take swimming to the next level.”
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