USA Swimming hired Major League Soccer team President Tim Hinchey as just the third chief executive in federation history this week. He succeeds Chuck Wielgus, who passed away earlier this year after 19 years as Executive Director.
Hinchey found time to chat with SwimSwam today, though he’s still running Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids until he takes over the USA Swimming President and CEO post in July.
“It’s been a little hard to believe,” Hinchey said. “I’m still pinching myself right now.
“It’s happened quickly. I just can’t believe I get an opportunity to go back and contribute with my professional life to something that’s meant so much to me for more than 40 years. I’m still coming to grips with it, I’m still super excited and can’t wait to get started.”
Though he comes to USA Swimming from the sport of soccer, Hinchey is himself a lifelong swimmer. “I started at my first rec swim team in Walnut Creek, California 40 years ago this month,” he said.
He swam through high school and walked on at UC-Irvine, earning varsity letters in all four years, and said he’s continued as a Masters swimmer ever since.
“The majority of my career has certainly been on the commercial side of the businesses of sport,” Hinchey said. He’s worked as Chief Marketing Officer for professional soccer teams in the United States (the Colorado Rapids) and England (Derby County FC of the English Premiere League), along with VP jobs with two NBA franchises.
“The opportunity to really think about how we connect with our fans and engage with our fanbase, specifically with the millennial fanbase, knowing how important that is to make sure that we find ways to create unique digital content to get folks interested in our products, I think those will be the areas where hopefully I can bring some experience into and continue to try to enhance what already is a fantastic NGB [National Governing Body],” he said.
“Nowadays, with our sport, content is king. So I think that’ll be one of the major priorities.”
We asked Hinchey about the biggest challenges he sees in his new role.
“First and foremost, I’m going into a position that was left by a legend in Chuck,” he said. “I’m very fortunate that he’s done an amazing job putting together an incredible culture there with a great staff led by Mike Unger.”
Unger has been a key figure in USA Swimming for several decades, and is currently the interim Executive Director, taking on that role when Wielgus passed away earlier this year. Both Hinchey and USA Swimming spoke highly of Unger and said Unger would remain involved in USA Swimming moving forward.
“I’m thrilled I get to partner with Mike in all things swimming,” Hinchey said, calling Unger “someone that’s going to teach me and work with me on a daily basis and make sure I live up to the expectations that are already built and laid there. And that’s a challenge.”
USA Swimming Director of Communications Scott Leightman didn’t have specifics on Unger’s role moving forward, but said Unger would maintain a key role near the top of the organization.
“Mike’s been the heartbeat of USA Swimming for so long,” Leightman said. “He’ll continue to be at the top along with Tim.”
Hinchey said Unger will help with the biggest challenge facing the new CEO: maintaining USA Swimming’s excellence internationally.
“In many cases, I’ve gone to places where it’s about turning something around or lifting up the commercial side,” Hinchey said. “In this particular case, you’re walking into a best-in-class NGB. So that’s the challenge is to make sure I find ways to create value from the volunteers to the coaches to the athletes.”
We asked Hinchey about his take on USA Swimming’s strengths.
“In terms of what USA Swimming does well, let’s be honest, as we like to say in soccer, the table doesn’t lie. And in this case, the medal table doesn’t lie. This sport continues to be a global leader, best-in-class at the highest levels of its elite athletes. I think my objective there is just to make sure that it continues to go that direction, that I’m there to support that group as much as possible and let the experts continue to do the work on the technical side.
“You’ve got to keep delivering, and that’s going to be the main target there.”
Other issues: College swimming, SafeSport
We asked Hinchey about a handful of the biggest issues facing USA Swimming. On most, Hinchey said he wasn’t yet able to comment in detail, as an outside hire still learning the specifics of USA Swimming’s programs. We asked about moving forward from criticism of USA Swimming’s handling of sexual abuse allegations leveled at coaches. Hinchey said he’s getting up to speed on the specifics of USA Swimming’s SafeSport program, but emphasized that coaching abuse goes against the core values of the sport and the federation.
We also asked about USA Swimming’s role in promoting swimming at the college level in a year where five NCAA Division I swimming programs have already been cut. Again, Hinchey said he couldn’t comment on USA Swimming’s specific policies, but talked about the importance of his own college swimming career at UC-Irvine, a school that no longer sponsors swimming & diving:
“As a former college swimmer, it’s awfully frustrating,” he said of seeing program cuts. “Swimming in college, even though I was an incredibly mediocre college swimmer, meant everything for me to be part of that team.
“It helped me academically, it’s really shaped who I am as a person and as a professional. So I think we’ve got to find ways to support that as much as possible, as do we support every aspect of swimming and the growth of the sport, from the grassroots level all the way through to the college level.”