Interview: MTBA’s new CEO, Shane Coppin

Words by Flow | Images by MTBA

MTBA, the national body for mountain biking in this country, has had a rough ride these past few years. As MTBA’s new CEO Shane Coppin puts it “MTBA has done a very good job at upsetting a lot of different people.”

From our perspective here at Flow, we’ve struggled to understand what it is that MTBA actually does and how it serves the mountain biking public. But with a new CEO at the helm we thought it was time to get a better understanding of the direction MTBA is heading, as well as giving MTBA a chance to answer some of the questions and criticisms that we so often hear about the organisation.

We asked you, our audience, to submit your questions and we put them to Shane Coppin recently over a couple of hours at Flow HQ. What are our overall thoughts? Shane Coppin is a realist; he knows that MTBA has lost its relevance for many riders, and he’s thinking about long-term solutions. Read on to learn more about how MTBA plans of righting its course.


So Shane, how did you come to be the new Chief Executive Officer of MTBA? What’s your background?

 

I studied sports science many years ago, worked in basketball, volleyball and commercial gym environments, before I moved into family businesses, construction mainly. I spent 15 plus years in the commercial sector, which teaches you a lot.

Shane Coppin 2

 

You’re pretty upfront about the fact you’re not from a cycling background. Why do you think this will be of benefit in this role?

 

Well sport is business, let’s be honest about it. It’s a service business, mountain biking is the vehicle we use for delivering the service. Times change and I think you need to have a much more commercial approach to running the sport. A lot of the partners you deal with in this role are running commercial businesses too, so it helps to have that understanding, that likeminded attitude. I think it gives you that external perspective.

Also, I don’t bring any baggage into this role. I don’t have a past, or any preconceptions or predefined ambition except to make the organisation as a whole function better.

 

So if MTBA provides a service, what is it?

 

The value of a national sporting body is that they should be a facilitator for the sport, the whole sport. They shouldn’t be consumed with just the high-end, the athletes going to the Olympics; the eight year old, the sixteen year old, the sixty year old – they’re as much a part of the sport as any athlete at the elite level. Our job is to ascertain what they want, so we can deliver the services important to them – this could be education, coaching, pathways for development, commissaires, opportunities to participate at a national and international level, insurance, providing a safe environment for racing. Our job is to centralise the sport around one point, so we can speak with one voice.

We’re going through the process of establishing loyalty programs, member discounts and the like. And those are things that we can leverage with volume. But they’re not what membership is all about; membership is about trying to create a national voice for mountain biking. Because without a national body, no one else will take those responsibilities for rider development or developing the sport. All the big promoters run great events, but they don’t have that responsibility of developing the sport, and that’s the ‘hidden’ side of membership that people don’t sometimes really see.

 

Late last year it was indicated to us the MTBA was on the way out, and CA was taking over. But then suddenly there was an about-face and MTBA was back running the national series. What happened?

 

Well I think it’s been on the agenda for many years to form one single cycling body for all the disciplines – similar to what all the other overseas nations have done. I think there was just a belief that this would just happen. But you’re dealing with three individual boards, with different corporate structures. MTBA doesn’t have state bodies, it’s a national membership body, whereas for the other disciplines they have state intermediary bodies which make decisions. With us, it’s the membership direct. So the theory of having one body is good, but how you go about it isn’t simple.

Last year there was no intention that Cycling Australia was going to consume mountain bike, I’m sure there weren’t some people in CA who thought this was the case.

MTBA had been struggling with the National Series so they had given the running of the National Series back to CA because it was losing money. Then of course CA also did a poor job of it and had lost money too, and financially they weren’t in a position to run the National Series again, so it was passed back to MTBA. It was obvious that it was happening – red flags should have been seen far earlier. Anyhow, CA terminated the agreement to deliver the events and the series was handed back to MTBA.

 

If CA and MTBA have both been losing money running the National Series, is it really viable to continue to do so?

 

It’s true that at the moment we don’t make money on National Series events. But it’s one of those hidden investments that mountain biking needs to make for its membership, so its members can attain UCI points to compete at international events. We’d love to get these events profitable, but we have a commitment to allow our riders opportunities to attain UCI points, and I think this needs to be recognised a little more.

We’ve gone for a very different model now which we think will reduce the costs. We’re working with suppliers now across the series, rather than ad hoc. Last year was terrible because we had no time. We’re trying to identify venues that can cope with the needs better, and we’re trying to make sure the financial risk is entirely with our organisation and not with the clubs at all. In fact, we’re making sure the clubs will walk away with something in their pocket at the end of the day. We want them to run these events and finish up with a few thousand dollars which they can then reinvest back into the sport. I can tell you, the National Champs at Bright, that club walked away with a lot of money. We’re not into trying to financially cripple clubs.

 

You did mention venues then. We hear a lot about the south-east centric nature of the series.

 It’s not currently a National Series – two states do not make a National Series

Oh yeah, it’s terrible. It’s not currently a National Series – two states do not make a National Series. Moving forward, we want to have every state and territory involved between the National Series and National Marathon Series. The thing is getting from where we are, with two or three states, to making it truly national. The next thing is trying to lock actual weekends away, so people and promoters will 100% know that there will be a national event on that weekend and can plan as such.

 

When we started out racing, the Nationsl Sereies was huge, but now it is much, much smaller, particularly amongst the non-elite riders. Why?

 

It’s lost its appeal. These events will only be a success if they’re supported by the general rider base – the juniors, masters, the general public. Why they lost their appeal, I don’t know. How do we regain that appeal?

As a first step, it has to be about running a cost-effective, more-affordable event for the masses. We have already lowered entry costs, and we’re offering discounts for people who enter all events. We’re taking the approach of making the events more family-friendly too. We want stuff for the kids to do, jumping castles, entertainment – I want to see clubs get inventive to see what they can bring to the table to make the events more appealing for families too.

Notice periods around the race calendar have been terrible too. We want to improve this, so people can actually plan their lives. As part of this we’re overhauling the calendar aspect of our website too. I mean this year has been hard, I spent almost three weeks purely negotiating with other events around the dates for our national rounds. In the past I think we had a very arrogant approach: ‘we’re the national body, you fit in with us’. That doesn’t work, we need to be far more coordinated with other events.

 

On the events side of things, there is now quite notably two competing marathon series in Australia – the National Marathon series and the Maverick Marathon Series. What are your views on that, and is this a realistic state of affairs?

 

It’s a bit of a shame. I think I can understand why it’s happened. I think it’s a bit of national level arrogance, and I think there are some personality clashes too. I don’t know all the players; I do know one event promoter well, Alan Vogt, and he has now re-affiliated his events with MTBA. And I put out an offer through Alan to the other event promoters to see if they wished to talk about aligning. Unfortunately nothing has come back at this stage.

Ideally of course I’d prefer to see one series. We want to deliver a great National Marathon Series, these people run extremely good events; it makes sense to be aligned, we just need to find away we can work together. We need to sit together at the table, and I’m open to it. Marathon fell apart, it needs to be rebuilt.

On the subject of series, I see someone asked about Gravity Enduro. We’re not interested in running a National Gravity Enduro series – we may look at a National Gravity Enduro Championship, but not a series, we just don’t have the manpower to do it.

 

Now, trails, a matter close to every mountain biker’s heart. What happened to IMBA Australia, and what’s happening in this area going forward?

 

Along the way I think IMBA Australia lost its core focus of what it was about, and we ended up in trail development, it became commercial. And no disrespect to Nick Bowman, I think he did a fantastic job, but I don’t think IMBA Australia becoming commercial was necessarily the right fit. It was all a bit disjointed, and with the commercial aspect it was perhaps a bit murky how it all fitted with MTBA.

In the past, IMBA was competing commercially with the same trail builders they were meant to police, and it wasn’t working. To me, that’s why IMBA lost a bit of respect. We’re the national body – what are we doing trying to build trails?

When I first came to this job, I realised the commercial trail building space wasn’t the area that IMBA should necessarily be in. In the end, Nick moved on, but the whole experience allowed us to ask if the program was really doing what it’s supposed to do, is there a need for IMBA Aus to be out there on its own?

In the past, IMBA was competing commercially with the same trail builders they were meant to police, and it wasn’t working. To me, that’s why IMBA lost a bit of respect. We’re the national body – what are we doing trying to build trails? There are dozens of companies that can do that, we don’t need to be there. I think as a national body, we’re far better off helping clubs understand the process of, say, leasing land, or promoting the great trail building work that has already been done in so many destination across Australia. We need to sit above the commercial aspect and make things better for everybody.

Ultimately we’ve decided that we’re not going to go with the IMBA name – Australia has progressed to a point that it’s entitled to have its own representative trails and advocacy body. So we’re bringing things right back under MTBA’s umbrella. Every member of MTBA will be a member of our trails and advocacy body. But our core focus now is to try and legitimise the governance of the trail building industry. We want to establish guidelines and standards around trail development and sustainability and the like. And that way, the curriculums of any trail building courses can be related back to that, and certifications can be related back to that.

From there, we want to recognise all those who work in the trail building industry, create a service directory or trail builders that will be provided to clubs. We’re less interested in master-plans and trail concept plans, and more focused on building a consensus around trail building standards.

 

For many riders, their only interaction with MTBA is as a provider of insurance so they can race. But what is the situation with MTBA’s insurance? What does it cover?

 

We have a combined policy with Cycling Australia, which means we can leverage pretty good premiums and cover. If you’re a member, you are covered for $5000 personal accident insurance, and that is a 24/7 policy. If you fall off riding to work you will be covered for that up to $5000. There’s a public liability aspect, so if you run into someone’s car or a pedestrian, you will be covered. There’s an element of income protection too. From November, we’ll be giving people the option of boosting up their own levels of cover too, if they want more than the standard $5000 cover.

Where you aren’t covered as an MTBA member, is if you’re racing at a non-MTBA sanctioned event. You’re covered to and from the event, but not when you’re racing.

In terms of day licenses, they also cover personal accident and public liability. The model of day licenses is changing though, so the pricing will increase. The idea is to recognise and reward our members more, so the day licence price will probably be doubling. At the moment, you can ride five or six events a year and it may still be cheaper to use day licenses, but that is changing and if you ride two or three events a year, a full membership will be the cheaper option.

We want people to feel and understand that by being a member, they’re helping facilitate the development of the sport, in racing, in trails, in every area.

We felt the model was wrong – it should be more valuable to become a member than use day license – so we’re trying to make membership more valuable. For instance, members now get other benefits, like clothing vouchers from Scody and discounted movie tickets. The aim is to encourage people to become MTBA members, not just buy day licenses.

A few people on your Facebook asked about dual licenses for mountain bike and road. We’d love to offer that, and we’re trying to work towards that. There are lots of things in play, and one of the difficulties is that CA has state bodies and we don’t; we’re trying to work out a way that doesn’t increase the costs for either party too much.

 

A more basic question; how is MTBA funded?

 

MTBA is funded 100% from members. There’s no government money directly. We don’t receive any funding from the sports commission. We receive a very minor amount via Cycling Australia, but it’s miniscule. MTBA is really quite unique – most national sporting bodies would receive 60%+ of their funding from the government.

 

We hear often that enough money isn’t spent by MTBA on supporting high-performance riders. Where does this funding come from, and how is it allocated?

 

Under the government’s Winning Edge concept, it’s all about results. Mountain bike is unique as the government only really recognises the cross-country discipline as it’s the only one you can win Olympic or Commonwealth Games medals in. Australia does extremely well in downhill, but we don’t receive any high performance funding, as it’s not an Olympic Sport. Even in Olympic XCO we didn’t receive any funding as the powers-that-be deemed that we didn’t have a strong enough chance at a medal.

I liken mountain biking a lot to surfing or snow boarding. Surfing does get funding, even though it’s not an Olympic sport, so we continue to lobby for that same kind of recognition.

So in theory, we don’t have a funding pool to contribute to all these developing athletes, which is why we lose so many to road teams. There aren’t so many big mountain bike teams that can afford to support developing Australian athletes as there are on the road either, so the lure of the road is strong. I don’t blame the riders for going.

But basically, your day license fees, your membership fees, they’re what gets used to support these elite riders. There is no separate source of funding for the elite program, so we’re trying to create a balance between supporting these people, creating a pathway underneath for development, at the same time as delivering everything else. You have to have a balanced approach to high performance. In the past, I feel there wasn’t enough money being put into development, I couldn’t even guess where the money was spent.

What we want to do is run upwards of 10 state-based junior development camps, from there we run an Australian camp, from there we run a National junior development camp

Our approach now is to invest significant funds back towards the grass roots level, so this year we’ll be employing one or maybe two development coaches. The role of these coaches will be to work with kids in this country and not spend all their time overseas travelling with one or two particular athletes.

These development coaches will work with riders all across the country, particularly juniors who may not have their own coaches, and they’ll be MTBA funded, not user paid. Through these coaches we can establish a database of promising junior riders all across the country; rather than just seeing these promising juniors once a year at the National Champs, we can go out to them, and have more regular contact

What we want to do is run upwards of 10 state-based junior development camps, from there we run an Australian camp, from there we run a National junior development camp. Now a lot of these camps will still be user-pays, but hopefully these camps will allow us to bring all our talented juniors together and will give us a groundswell pushing up, and that will give us more ammunition when it comes to lobbying government for funding, we can say ‘look at this, look at what’s coming, look at the swell of junior talent – we need you to step in with some high-performance funding’.

 

So there is no high-performance coach as such any more?

 

Yes and no. We did have Donna Dall and Jared Rando on contract, not full-time like Chris Clarke was, but on a more casual contracted basis. In truth, we don’t coach a lot of elite athletes – most of the riders we’re working with have their own coaches and we don’t want to force them to work with anyone.

So our coaching focus will be on the development coaching I mentioned before, and having a head coach at events like the World Championships.

 

One of our questions from our audience was about the split of how member funds are used. Can you provide some detail?

 

MTBA would spend, on insurance, staffing, organisation structure/operations, about 35% of its funds. 65% is then spent on camps, programs, events, payment for commissaires, trail development, everything else. So it’s a normal sort of business split. We have a small reserve, just like every business, to ensure longevity.

 

A lot of our audience commented on MTBA’s poor communication.

 

Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that MTBA has been very bad at communicating. In fairness, before my time, MTBA was really Tony Scott, Una Mackay and Nick Bowman. So things were stretched very thin, trying to service a wide range of activities. So I’ve made a conscious effort to expand our staff base. And communication is one of the first things we’re working on; I’ve engaged Stu Plant, and we’ve bought one of the CA communications staff across, so we now have a full time communications department. We now issue a fortnightly newsletter, our social media is now properly utilised. We’re making some big steps forward here; in everything we do, communication is key.

But I also want to stress, MTBA doesn’t have secrets, we’re a transparent organisation – if you want to know something, just ask – we work for members, and that’s who we answer to.

 

Finally, why should someone who is not a member become a member?

 

I believe in a wider community – I don’t like to get lost in the discipline splits of cross country, downhill, trials etc – the value of membership is creating an atmosphere that every member is part of something.

We want to create value for our members, by helping them know what’s happening in the sport, but keeping them informed about events, by making them feel part of the achievements of our elite athletes. Yes, there are insurance benefits and loyalty benefits of being a member, but it’s much bigger than that. We want people to feel and understand that by being a member, they’re helping facilitate the development of the sport, in racing, in trails, in every area.

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