Philly guy looks to grow luge popularity in U.S.

Posted: February 05, 2014

Every four years, as the Winter Olympics reenter the atmosphere, Americans are bombarded with quirky stories meant to interest them in obscure sports they'd ordinarily ignore.

You know, the bobsledder who supports himself selling artichokes; the biathlete with three ears; the snowboarder raised by Hasidic hippies.

But of all the odd story lines to surface in advance of this month's 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, few are as head-scratching as this one:

The Veterans Stadium security guard who became USA Luge's CEO.

Luge - sledding down mountainsides on one's back at 90 m.p.h. - is not a sport that resonates in Philadelphia. The closest track is 300 miles away. There are no hotly recruited lugers, no Luge Channel, no Luge Bowl.

And while plenty of experiences at the now-vanished Vet involved lugees - and perhaps even a German luger - it's doubtful luge discussions arose very often in the 700 level.

To be fair, Jim Leahy was otherwise well-qualified for the job he assumed in September.

Leahy, 56, who works in Lake Placid but still resides in a Northeast Philadelphia townhouse, has a resume that reads like the sports pages he devours each day.

A 1981 business grad of West Chester State College, he's worked with the Phillies, 76ers, New Jersey Nets, Buffalo Sabres, Trenton Devils, Trenton Titans, Lowell Lock Monsters, New York/New Jersey Metro Stars, New Jersey Red Dawgs, New Jersey Jawz, New Jersey Rockin' Rollers, plus soccer and lacrosse teams in Rochester, N.Y.

"Whenever I've told people what I do," Leahy said, "they often responded by saying, 'You're so lucky.' Now I'm CEO of an Olympic organization. I'm truly blessed."

Frankly, though, this man whose father used to sneak him into Phillies, Flyers and Big Five games is faced with an uphill task in a downhill sport.

Leahy must grow a sport that few know about and even fewer have tried. He's got to compete for dollars with a world of better-known sports. And somehow, with only two luge tracks in the United States, he needs to develop world-class talent for the 2018 Games and beyond.

"My responsibility," he said, "is to put American kids on the podium."

How someone whose concept of winter sports was once confined to the Spectrum became the most important figure in American luge is a worthy Philadelphia story.

Opportunity

Born in Brooklyn, Leahy moved to Newark, Del., at 10, when Conrail transferred his father to Philadelphia.

To help pay the Catholic school tuitions of his six children, the elder Leahy moonlighted as a Veterans Stadium usher.

(Ironically, one of Leahy's classmates at Holy Angels School in Newark was Frank Masley, a luge competitor at four Olympics and the U.S. flag-bearer at Sarajevo in 1984.)

When his boys were old enough, Leahy's dad took them along to the Vet, the Spectrum and Palestra.

"He would sneak my brother and I into games. We fell in love with Philly sports," Leahy said. "I was in the Spectrum the day the Flyers won the Stanley Cup [in 1974].

"Then in college I got an opportunity to work summers in security at the Vet. My father was working there anyway so the commute wasn't a problem."

Eventually, Leahy was stationed outside the box occupied by the Phillies owners, the Carpenter family. Among the club executives he befriended was Bill Giles.

In 1981, when Leahy was a West Chester senior, Giles made a bid for the ball club.

"He told me, 'If I'm successful, you'll have a job here,' " Leahy recalled.

Giles got the team and not long afterward Leahy and another new Phillies employee, Dennis Mannion, found themselves in the office of David Montgomery.

There were two openings, Montgomery, then executive vice president, informed them, one in the ticket office and one in sales. He flipped a coin and asked Leahy to call it.

"I called heads. It came up heads and that's how I ended up in the ticket office and Denny [now the Detroit Pistons business CEO] got into sales," he said.

Six years later, when 76ers GM Pat Williams took his talents and half that team's front-office staff to Florida, Leahy made the switch to the NBA franchise across Pattison Avenue.

The experience would prove invaluable for the future USA Luge CEO since it exposed him to a sporting entity headed downhill.

"That was a challenge," Leahy said of selling Sixers tickets. "It was the end of the Dr. J era and the beginning of the Charles Barkley era. We went through trials and tribulations, including a threat to move the team to Camden."

Over the ensuing decades, the peripatetic Leahy moved to new and established sports franchises throughout the East Coast, accumulating skills in sales, marketing, advertising, broadcasting and fund-raising.

Last summer, after the Trenton Titans folded, Leahy was contacted by a fellow ex-Sabres employee who now headed an executive-search firm.

Was he interested in a job with USA Luge?

"He sent me a job description and said, 'Before you say no, take a look. This is a unique opportunity. It's a lot different from what you've been used to but the skill set they want is exactly what you have,' " said Leahy.

"It seemed like a neat opportunity. I'd always thought that if I ever went outside pro sports, it would be either in the college world or the Olympics."

USA Luge, founded in 1979, was in need of a fresh perspective.

Last March, just 11 months before Sochi, Ron Rossi, an 1984 Olympic luger who had held the position for 28 years, resigned as CEO, reportedly under board pressure.

During Rossi's long tenure, USA Luge had operated almost entirely within the small sport's small confines. Its modest budget - $2 million in 2010 - was funded almost exclusively by its U.S. Olympic Committee allocation and minor sponsorships.

At the time, Rossi said his leadership philosophy was "helping our athletes achieve the very best they could."

"And the hope is that this has set up the athletes to excel in Sochi," he added.

Leahy arrived at his upstate New York offices unaware not only of the sport but of the organization's history and needs.

"I was an outsider," he said. "I brought a fresh set of eyes. I just kept asking why, why, why. The people in this sport have a passion like nothing I've seen. And they've embraced me because I bring a different mentality, a more businesslike approach, not that of a fan."

Tough sell

Americans began competing in Olympic luge in 1964. With no U.S. track, the nation's first team consisted primarily of soldiers who had luged recreationally while stationed in Europe.

In anticipation of 1980's Lake Placid Games, a track was built there and, in 1979, USA Luge was created. Not until 1998, at Nagano, did an American land on the podium.

The first American medal came in 1998. And it's been 12 years since the last. Overall, U.S. lugers have earned two Olympic silver and two bronze, but not yet a gold.

That's unlikely to change at Sochi where none of the 10 American lugers will be favored in the European-dominated sport.

Few Americans have ever been on one of the tiny sleds. While millions of youngsters play baseball or football, the only lugers tend to be those few dozen athletes on national teams.

There are only four permanent runs in North America - Lake Placid, N.Y., and Park City, Utah, in the United States, and Whistler and Calgary, both in British Columbia.

"If you look at the barriers to entry to our sport, it's access," Leahy said.

Leahy has been tasked not just with broadening access, but finding new sponsorship and marketing dollars, remaking USA Luge's board, and creating a pipeline of young talent.

That latter job may be particularly tough. If you think football encounters resistance from concerned parents, consider luge's difficulties.

How many will want their sons and daughters risking their lives by hurtling down mountainsides at 90 m.p.h.? It's been just four years, after all, since Georgian luger Noda Kumaritashvili died in pre-Olympic practice.

"Through our Slider Search program, we're looking for young kids so they can lose their fear of the speeds," Leahy said. "It takes a special person to be on their backs, going 90 miles an hour on ice, over bumps and through turns.

"Bobsled has developed a pipeline of ex-track stars and football players who are built for the kind of speed you need at the start," said Leahy. "We need to do the same."

USA Luge's Slider Search program, initiated before Leahy's arrival, brings wheeled sleds to hilly areas across the nation, offering a mild taste of the sport.

The organization is also scouring ski areas. On Feb. 1 and 2, for example, at Blue Mountain in Palmerton, Pa., youngsters can ride luges down ski slopes.

And Leahy has partnered with firms like Dow Chemical to create faster sleds.

Progress likely won't move at 90 m.p.h. But anyone who grew up a Philly sports nut has to be stubborn.

"Luge is not top of mind," Leahy said. "We run into the same challenge biathlon or bobsled have. We're not hockey or skiing or even snowboarding. We're never going to create national exposure for our athletes. And to compete at a world-class level, requires lots of money.

"But growth is why I'm here. I've got to find ways to move our sport forward."


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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