Changes ahead for the SGMA under incoming president Tom Cove

Although a month away from the retirement of longtime SGMA President John Riddle at The Super Show and the welcome of Tom Cove to lead the association, the wheels of change have been in full churn for months. Staff, events, offices, structure, committees, policy -- nothing has been sacred since the announcement in May that Cove, who has been working government affairs for the sporting goods group in Washington, D.C., since 1991, was elected to take over next year as president from 16-year CEO Riddle.
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Although a month away from the retirement of longtime SGMA President John Riddle at The Super Show and the welcome of Tom Cove to lead the association, the wheels of change have been in full churn for months.

Staff, events, offices, structure, committees, policy -- nothing has been sacred since the announcement in May that Cove, who has been working government affairs for the sporting goods group in Washington, D.C., since 1991, was elected to take over next year as president from 16-year CEO Riddle.

"I want eyes wide open going into this," Cove told SNEWS® recently about all the changes that will and may be. "Transition is a wonderful opportunity to look at yourself."

And everybody is indeed looking, watching and waiting. In the last decade, the SGMA has slowly lost hold of the power position it once enjoyed in sporting goods -- partly because it hadn't responded to the changing face of the industry and partly because it had less and less money to work with. The group still even housed its headquarters in a massive building it actually owned on the beach in West Palm Beach, Fla. -- far from any business, financial or public policy urban center. The Super Show had slipped into a battle of survival after years of being a glamorous, must-be, must-go event that dominated everything the association did and could afford to do. And the industry was consolidating, with specialty shows springing up to serve segment needs, again draining membership, dollars and interest.

Some involved with the SGMA have told SNEWS® that Cove has a big job ahead of him to try to reinvigorate the association, while not necessarily trying to make it what it was in the glamour, powerhouse and money-filled days of the '80s and early '90s. That's not to say that they don't believe in his energies -- everyone raves about the positive spirit and vision -- but the industry has changed. With that change, he must help find a new path the SGMA can walk to remain vital in the years ahead.

"If anybody can do it, Tom is the guy," said Jack Lacey, longtime industry consultant and former SGMA board member. "He's setting a brand new direction."

The direction began from the moment Cove was elected executive vice president at a SGMA board meeting May 6, tapped to assume the association's lead role officially on Feb. 1. That's when Cove started what he calls "a very aggressive listening campaign." Although still listening, he hasn't hesitated to start making decisions and taking actions. He's also expressed his strong belief that the fitness industry can and should be a more important part of the association, partly because of the rising interest in the problem of obesity. In fact, he's already announced a new SGMA-sponsored fitness advocacy and educational event March 1-2, 2005, in Washington, D.C. (See SNEWS® story, Nov. 29, 2004, "SGMA plans fitness advocacy event in D.C.")

Meanwhile, the changes have begun, just a year before the eve of the SGMA's 100th anniversary in 2006:

>> Headquarters -- The West Palm Beach headquarters will be closed and the SGMA will make its main office in Washington, D.C. Of the about 20 people left working out of Florida, knocking around thousands of unneeded square feet of space, only Mike May, now communications director, and Gregg Hartley, vice president of marketing, will remain with SGMA, both working out of home offices in Florida. Cove said he's not sure yet what will happen with the valuable three-story Florida building on the waterfront that was built under the pre-Riddle regime of Howard Bruns. The group is discussing leasing it or even selling it outright.

>> Public policy push– Partly because of Cove, the association has been become a force to reckon with on the D.C. front, and he said it plans to make this area a huge portion of the group's raison d'etre.

"There are all kinds of opportunities for us to impact public policy and to contribute to society," said Cove, who has a master's degree in public policy administration from George Washington University and an economics undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland. "We're in a unique moment in time where obesity is rising to the top of the public policy agenda. It's unprecedented."

To that end, the new Fly-In For Fitness event is slated for spring 2005, although one challenge will be to define the fitness industry as well as to define the sporting goods industry.

"Fitness is a big and growing part of it," he said. The association will continue to be involved with the advocacy of the PEP bills and physical education in schools and for youth.

>> Communications -- Cove said the association wants to build on its successes as a source of research and statistics, as well as a place to help the broader sporting goods industry gain widespread and national media exposure.

"We'll go after influencers and policy makers," he said. "We want to be a national leader."

In addition to research, the SGMA will likely also make sure that personalities, celebrities, stories and new products are held up before the media to draw more buzz and to make sports and physical fitness appear more accessible to the masses.

>> The Super Show -- In January 2005, the show will morph slightly from strictly an exhibiting show to one that is trying to offer several days filled with mini-workshops and educational events as well as parties and networking opportunities. Without committing to anything, Cove said everything about the show, including timing and location, are up for discussion.

"For years, we had The Super Show, and The Super Show dominated everything we did," he said. It's because of the money earned for grants at the show that the Fitness Products Council existed and when the money dried up, so with it went the council, as well as other segment-specific groups. Cove said the SGMA gave away "tens of millions of dollars" for a decade or so, but in the long run didn't stop to develop as much vision or strategy to go along with it.

He'd like to see an opportunity for the industry's leaders, including a group of up-and-coming younger ones, to get together and talk about what they need, where the industry is going, who the participants are, and how they should get where they want. That doesn't mean the show will be abandoned.

"The show must go on," Cove said. "The SGMA exists to serve our members and our industry and we own the show as a venue for our members to do business and to gain the benefits" of activities like education and networking. He also said a large number of its approximately 1,000 members want the show. But one problem is determining when the best time of year is to make the most industry segments satisfied.

"We are open to all ideas to make the show better," Cove said, and that includes taking a solid look at the best city for it.

With that raft of changes and likely more to come, some still shake their heads at the work that lies ahead, especially in regard to the show.

"Tom Cove has a hell of a hill to climb to keep this show alive," said Michael Savage, president of Savage Fitness and CEO of Fitness EM. "The fault is not only the Super Show management, but sporting goods industry changes and consolidation. A smaller number of stores mean smaller numbers of buyers; a smaller number of manufacturers mean smaller number of sellers. The direction of this show needs to be quality, not quantity."

Kevin Lamar, now president of new fitness equipment supplier Lamar Health, Fitness & Sports, said he wants to support the SGMA, already plans to attend the Fitness Fly-In, and will continue in his new position on the board.

"The SGMA has been a strong association for a long time," he said. "It's in a great position to help affect some change in the industry for the better…. Cove has got a lot of good things going for him. He just needs to pick his battles."

Lacey, who was on the SGMA board in the late '70s when the group held a show in New York, was chair of the government relations board when Cove was hired nearly 14 years ago. He said Cove's skills as a listener, getting people to work together and seeing larger pictures are what will serve him well.

"His leadership is non-threatening and non-opposing," Lacey said. "He collects (information), then creates a vision.

"He looks at problems inside-out, the whole problem, investigating it," he added. "The solutions you're looking for are usually in the problem but you don't see them" until you turn it around and look at it from a different angle.

"The dynamics of the marketplace have changed dramatically," Lacey said. "Tom will be that dynamic leader."

SNEWS® View: Having seen Tom at work at events -- the energy, the passion, the integrity -- it's hard not to believe that he won't be the one to grab a graying and staid SGMA and turn it inside-out to make it viable again. Heck, we've wanted to jump on the table ourselves after listening to him and exclaim, "Yes, I'll drink the Kool-aid! I believe!" Not to say that everybody will be leaping on tables because his job will be a tough and, at times, painful one that may hurt some people and in fact may really piss off some people. Nevertheless, if the SGMA is to survive and confront the future, it needs to change the way it looks at everything it does and that includes the structure and location of The Super Show, which has long lost its luster. The SGMA has in some regard still been trying to do business as it did it one or two decades ago. Heck, in today's world, if you're doing things the way you did them five years ago, you may as well hang up your hat. The official handing-over of the gavel at The Super Show in January will be mostly ceremonial, since everybody knows that Tom has basically already taken over the reins. It will take a bit of time just to scrape the rust off the wheels and get them inching forward again. Perhaps by January, he'll have gained enough momentum that the wheels can truly grind slowly forward -- again gaining speed on the way to finding industrywide solutions.

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