New York State Public High School Athletic Association Executive Director Robert Zayas is looking to implement some of the changes he brought to the New Mexico Activities Association to his new post.
Robert Zayas knows about making bold moves.
Growing up in a military family, Zayas bounced between the state he was born in (Maine), Texas and Turkey.
The day after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Zayas volunteered to talk to an Austin TV station about what he was teaching his O’Henry Middle School history students about the events in New York City and Arlington, Va.
After joining the New Mexico Activities Association in 2002, Zayas remodeled its website, directed the state’s high school soccer, swimming and track meets, worked as the media relations person and established a “Life of an Athlete” program modeled after the prototype created in New York.
Now Zayas has uprooted his young family to the Capital District, where he has been hired to run the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.
Zayas, 36, said being named NYSPHSAA’s sixth executive director is a “dream job” for him.
“I’m a big high school sports fan,” said Zayas. “For me, there’s nothing purer than high school athletic competition.”
Zayas said he wasn’t sure he would get the job when he applied for it.
“Coming into a state athletic association and getting an executive director’s job is incredibly difficult,” said Zayas. “To do that from 2,000 miles away is even more difficult.”
What Zayas had going for him was his work with the NMAA’s tournaments and website. He increased the net revenues for New Mexico’s soccer, swimming and track meets by lowering expenses, and he improved the organization’s web presence by redesigning the site to include more news topics and game results.
“Every time he took over a tournament … he took it to another level,” said NMAA Assistant Director for Marketing Dusty Young, who worked closely with Zayas. “Not only did he make these events first class, but he also did his best to cut costs.”
Zayas said he would like to implement those ideas with NYSPHSAA, but his first task is to learn as much as he can about the organization’s 11 member sections and their needs.
“I want to do three things. I want to listen, I want to learn and I want to evaluate,” said Zayas.
Before Zayas officially took over as executive director Sept. 1, he spent the previous week working closely with his predecessor, Nina Van Erk. The two traveled to western New York for meetings with the Section V and VI directors, and Zayas went over the rules and regulations with Van Erk.
“I have incredibly big shoes to fill in replacing Nina,” said Zayas. “Just in the past four days, I’ve learned the amount of knowledge she has about rules and regulations is incredible.”
Van Erk, who is taking over as Section VIII (Nassau County) executive director, said there are certain aspects of running NYSPHSAA she will miss.
“The day-to-day interaction with the athletic directors of the state and the various sport coordinators,” she said.
One thing Zayas is learning is the financial challenges member schools and sections are facing with funding their sports. With less state aid and cap on raising property taxes, school districts across New York are spending less on extracurricular activities such as sports. And earlier this year, NYSPHSAA addressed concerns about travel costs to state tournaments – even floating the idea of a two-year moratorium on state championships.
Zayas said his goal is to make certain student-athletes continue to have opportunities to play for their schools.
“High school sports are an extension of the classroom,” said Zayas. “You can learn lessons on a football field that you can’t learn in math class. If you eliminate sports, you’re making the life of a student-athlete more difficult.”
“I would hope the economic climate (of New York) would turn itself around so as not to be a threat to the sports community,” said Van Erk.
To address the travel cost issue, Zayas said he will look at where state tournaments are held and consider centrally-located alternatives if there needs to be a change of venue.
“That (meeting travel costs) is always a concern,” said Zayas. “What we want to do is ease those concerns as much as possible.”
Zayas is also interested in making the 36 regional and state tournaments NYSPHSAA runs better across the board.
“One thing is you want the girls field hockey tournament to be treated the same way as the state basketball tournament,” said Zayas. “You want everyone in every sport to feel like they’re being treated well.”
Another item Zayas said he wants to address early in his tenure is NYSPHSAA’s website. He said the current site needs an upgrade – one that includes more statewide sports news and the capability for webcasting state tournaments.
“I want New York to be one of the more technologically-advanced states in the country,” said Zayas. “That’s what I want to do over the next three years.”
Young said Zayas’ work on the NMAA website helped increase traffic.
“I don’t have the figures (number of page hits) for the old site, but within the first year of the new site (2005), we probably had about 600,000 visitors,” said Young. “Since then we’ve seen a steady increase, and it was probably around 1.3 million visitors last year.”
As Zayas looks to implement his changes, he said he’s aware there will be a learning curve for him as he becomes acclimated to New York high school sports.
“With me being so new to the state … I think it will take me a few months to fully understand all of the various challenges,” said Zayas.
Young said he believes Zayas will meet the challenges of running NYSPHSAA.
“He’s going to be a great leader,” said Young. “He’s always been someone the (NMAA) staff looked up to as being someone who always knew what was best for the state and its athletes.”