June 24, 2014–A little more than a decade ago, John Long became CEO of the fledgling U.S. Equestrian Federation, formed after a bitter fight between USA Equestrian and the U.S. Equestrian Team over which would be the National Governing Body for horse sports in America. As a result, there was a lot of bitterness in the equestrian community, and it was the job of USEF President David O’Connor, an eventing Olympic gold medalist, and John, the former executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Churchill Downs racetrack, to forge in USEF an organization that could override the problems and take a broader role in the industry.
It succeeded in that goal and went beyond it to play a vital role in the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which was held at the Kentucky Horse Park–the first time the WEG had been staged outside Europe.
John retired this month, as marketing expert Chris Welton took over at USEF. Immediate plans for John included a summer seeing the countryside in his new travel trailer with his standard poodle, Stella, but before he left, he took time for a reflective chat in the USEF headquarters at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Q: As you depart, what are your thoughts about your time with the organization?
JL: Ten years with David O’Connor have to go down as the best thing in my life. We came into this together, and there was still lots of angst, even after the federation was formed in 2003. I didn’t know what I was getting into.
There were a lot of people that didn’t give this federation a lot of hope for surviving because of the bitterness and the acrimony that existed. We pulled it off and we kept it together.
The way we worked together was part of it; David led with his passion for the sport. What he didn’t know about governance, he learned very quickly. People followed him because he was full of integrity and wanted to do the right thing. I was able to be Mr. Inside to David’s Mr. Outside. That probably has been the most rewarding look back.
Q: Could you address the changes in USEF during your tenure?
JL: When you look through that lens and see the financial condition the federation is in, it’s kudos to everyone who kept the focus to make this federation as good as it possibly can be. We’ve got coming up on $11 million in our investment portfolio, from something like about $1 million 10 years ago. We’ve run the business responsibly. No one would have ever envisioned we would have been in the secure financial position we’re in today.
What we’ve done here, in the center of things, is we have a more professional organization than we had before. We used to be solely the IRS of horse sport. While we’re still the regulatory body, we’ve added lots of facets. We’re more commercial than we’ve ever been, with the introduction of the USEF Network, Club Equestrian and all the social networking and the ability to sell sponsors. That’s been incredibly rewarding.
We were generally known as the worst place to ever call because of our customer service. Now we are widely recognized as being one of the best ever. In fact, our call center got a big award in February, competing with for-profit companies, so that’s been great. The orientation that the call center has, from the outside looking in, is representative of the approach we’ve taken from the inside looking out. There’s a sense of being the best we can be for our members, our athletes and our corporate partners.
Our role in the WEG in 2010 was again another high water mark. I am so proud of what the staff was able to do. Our staff played a very invisible but important role in the operation of the Games. Our call center was operating 1,000 calls a week for the WEG.
The change of government structure we’d been working on for the last couple of years finally came to fruition at the summer meeting last year, when the board voted to approve restructuring and rewrite relevant rules to make it work. We’ve got a smaller, more nimble, more strategic board than ever before. That wouldn’t have happened three or four years ago, but we were ready for it now. That’s reflective of the maturity of the organization, both from the volunteers and the staff.
Q: What do you think about having a marketing expert take over from you?
JL: I think it’s great. I had a lot of marketing experience before I got here, but I think what was required at the time was not so much marketing skills, but administrative skills. Now the federation is ready for someone like Chris with this extensive international marketing background to leverage what we have been able to create over the last decade and build on top of that.
Q: As you depart, where do you see horse welfare in the big picture?
JL: The horse welfare focus that we’ve had over the last couple of years is stronger than it’s ever been and we’re going to see more of that. We can chart the destiny of horse sport internationally and certainly in our country, but we need to continue to be great stewards of it. We can’t let someone or something else take it away from us because we haven’t been diligent in thinking everything all the way through. That’s certainly true for racing, and certainly true for us. We’ve got to take care of our own house.
Q: That brings us to the topic of endurance.
JL: We have been involved in it, but we haven’t been involved in it in a visible way. (USEF International Disciplines Council Chairman) Joe Mattingly’s position on the endurance strategic planning committee, the task force, came as a result of the FEI recognizing the importance of having an American or someone from outside Europe or the Middle East on that task force.
He was hugely beneficial to the work done there. Sometimes the way to be the most effective is not to be the most visible and noisy. We know it’s an issue and it remains an issue for the FEI and I think recommendations coming from the planning committee and this new group headed by (FEI Secretary-General) Ingmar de Vos to manage the recommendations to make sure they are actually implemented bodes well for the sport.
At the end of the day, though, the FEI is going to have to fix this problem for the sake of the discipline and I trust they are going to make this happen. Endurance is still arguably the fastest growing horse sport in the world. With that kind of momentum, growth and interest, the international side of it needs to be resolved so that the growth of that discipline can continue.
This ties to the whole question of welfare generally throughout the world and what can threaten horse sport. We, the international we, have got to not just talk about what we’re going to do, but actually do it. We can’t let one discipline threaten the role and the participation levels of the other disciplines. I’m optimistic that there is the dedication to get this right. The existing rules need to be enforced, and if they’re not, then something very dramatic has to happen, like putting regional groups and countries on notice. Not that the sport would be dropped from the FEI, but perhaps a portion of the world would find itself ostracized, both culturally and organizationally, from participation in the sport. If they want to do their own thing, it can’t be (part of) the FEI.
Q: What are your thoughts on (FEI President) Princess Haya and whether she should have a third term?
JL: I’m supportive. At this juncture, I don’t see any (other) credible candidate on the horizon.
What she has been able to contribute to the FEI has, in a very large way, changed the professionalism of the FEI. The FEI staff has never been stronger and is motivated. The disciplines are operating more transparently and with more collegiality than I can remember. Her ability to make the introductions for new sponsor relationships are huge and important and have ensured economic vitality of the FEI for these last couple of years, and to a large degree, for the next couple of years going forward. I see a very healthy, purposeful organization.
Q: What do you think about the future of the World Equestrian Games?
JL: I’d like to see it all stay together, but the requirements to keep the financial model the way it is are going to make it very difficult to do that. It’s getting increasingly expensive.
I know the FEI is looking at the long-term viability of the World Games. To me, it’s not unlike what the Olympic movement is doing right now. The question has to be asked: Is the model sustainable–by moving the Games, be they the Olympics or WEG, all over the world with massive amounts of capital expenditure that somebody has to pay for and that frequently the venues are never used again? That is at the forefront of everybody’s mind.
Q: How do you see things changing for USEF? Is there something more the organization needs to do to fulfill its promise?
JL: A number of initiatives already are in play that are yet to be fully developed, but they can be–like the USEF Network, the whole issue of media rights and video streaming and the role that the network has played over the last couple of years in terms of making our sport more visible to our members and non-members.
The decision to stream for free and not behind a pay-per-view window was the absolute right decision. Our relationship with the FEI and being able to stream a certain number of FEI competitions and classes in our country is going to continue to grow. We have a stake in the ground and I think Chris (Welton) and the rest of the team will be able to further those discussions, to have something that is going to be meaningful for the future.
Q: Anything you regret or didn’t accomplish?
Rationalizing this building and its ownership and how that’s all going to play out. (The USEF headquarters is owned by USAE Trust, which rents it to USEF.)
The new board has a successful resolution as one of its top priorities. It would have been nice to have gotten that done sooner. The environment at the time did not allow it. I trust the new board is going to be able to get their arms around it.
Q: So they want to own the building and pay it off and not be paying USAE Trust? Sounds like sort of an odd contract.
JL: It made sense at the time. There was the threat that turned into an anti-trust lawsuit against the federation on mileage rules and dates. This lease was constructed so as to protect the building if the federation lost the lawsuit. The federation prevailed, but the lease remains the same.
Q: What role do you think the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation will play going forward?
JL: I absolutely see it as continuing to be a partner. Most, if not all, of the large National Governing Bodies have a foundation as part of their fundraising apparatus and the USET has been nothing short of fantastic since the get-go. I don’t expect that relationship will change, except to get better.
Q: What’s next for you?
JL: I’m staying in Kentucky and Lexington, and driving by the Horse Park a couple of times a week. That alone is going to remind me about what we’ve been doing for the last 10 years.
I’m going to continue to stay involved. I don’t have any specific plans for any professional associations at this point. I’m going to give myself some time to ride my bike, fly fish and drive my “egg” (trailer that sleeps four) around.
I really don’t want to work on a full-time basis. This has been a 24/7 job for 10 years. I don’t want to do that anymore. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m guessing that some of the lessons learned might be of interest to other organizations. I’ve had some preliminary discussions on helping out, perhaps in a consulting role for a number of different organizations.
What will it be like on a morning when I don’t get up at 6 o’clock and immediately turn on my iPhone to see the emails and text messages that have come in since the night before? It’s time to ratchet back a little bit.
I’m chairing Lexington’s fund for the arts organization, Lexarts, and I really like that and being part of the city. It’s a great base. I’m going to spend more time in California with the kids and the grandkids, but this is home.