AAU surviving in COVID-19 environment

AAU president and CEO Jennings "Rusty" Buchanan discusses an issue with Jack Bethke, the governor of Connecticut AAU, on Friday at The Sound School in New Haven.

AAU president and CEO Jennings “Rusty” Buchanan discusses an issue with Jack Bethke, the governor of Connecticut AAU, on Friday at The Sound School in New Haven.

Joe Morelli / Hearst Connecticut Media

Jennings “Rusty” Buchanan is trying to operate like any other president of a major organization would: he is not only trying to keep things functioning in the midst of a pandemic, but how to remain a top-flight sports organization.

That’s not an easy thing to do with close to 700,000 members and an additional 150,000 volunteers scattered across the country. But that’s how it is attempting to run 41 sports nationwide as part of a large non-profit organization like the Amateur Athletic Union, or, simply, AAU.

And with that large of an organization, you need help. A lot of help.

“So how do we come out of this COVID situation and be able to offer opportunities for kids to compete? What we found is there is no one size fits all answer,” Buchanan said. “We have to figure out how to take the Jack Bethkes of the world to help us be competitive in this environment.”

Jack Bethke has been the Governor of the Connecticut AAU since 1994. He invited Buchanan up from his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla., this weekend to meet with the state’s AAU executive committee and ask their own questions of the AAU’s president and CEO since November.

Buchanan took over for Roger Goudy, who died last fall. Buchanan inherited an organization in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Very few sports were able to be held on a national scale in 2020.

Even when things started to resume, the AAU wasn’t able to use its national headquarters at Walt Disney World — the Wide World of Sports Complex — to host its events.

“We were unable to work collaboratively with Disney because a lot of face to face sports, they weren’t able to host,” Buchanan said. “They weren’t able to have volleyball (indoors), basketball they couldn’t (hold) and obviously wrestling they couldn’t.”

But Buchanan said Disney did help AAU find sites for its national events. For instance, the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando hosted the 48th AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships in June. Over 130,000 spectators attended. AAU held other championships in gymnastics, wrestling and basketball.

“We were able to survive and operate a core of sports. Other places in the country weren’t able to do what we were able to do. What we saw as a result is that demand is out there and kids want to play,” Buchanan said “If we can get through this wave of COVID, the strength of youth sports is there. I feel pretty comfortable going into 2022 if states open up.”

Buchanan, 65, said participation numbers were “up substantially” from 2020 but down 10-15 percent across the board from 2019. Bethke reported similar numbers down from two years ago after having a summer last year where Connecticut AAU was only able to run baseball because it was held outdoors.

So how do things improve for AAU? In addition to empowering the states at the grassroots AAU level, Buchanan feels the need to listen to the participants.

Reaching out the athletes is one way to improve it. How you reach people with your message is of great importance to Buchanan.

“They are a heads-down society. We have to make strides to deliver whatever message it is to them on the platform they want to receive it,” Buchanan said. “That is probably the biggest criticism we have internally. We have to build a business plan and develop that plan over the next year. We have to shift our focus from, ‘This is the way we’ve done it for 133 years (AAU was founded in 1888)’ to, ‘This is how the industry is dictating what we do.’”

Buchanan is unsure whether he will run again when his term as president concludes next fall. It would be a four-year term if he is elected again.

But the priority right now is he wants to get this plan in place by the time his term ends, thus continuing to keep AAU relevant and competitive in the industry.

joseph.morelli

@hearstmediact.com; @nhrJoeMorelli