America’s Cup: Who will be sitting in the stands?

Published on December 8th, 2014

The 2017 America’s Cup will be in Bermuda, with the plan to include a riveting broadcast in a suitable time zone to attract a world audience. The race location will be in the Great Sound, continuing the stadium-type venue to allow for convenient spectating. The question, however, is who will be sitting in the stands.

The 2013 event was held in San Francisco, the third ranked destination in the USA, with nearly 17 million visitors annually. The America’s Cup racing, at the doorstep to downtown, was literally brought to the people. Bermuda, by contrast, has a smaller base to work with. Approximately 600,000 tourist visit each year, with the hotel rate in June 2015 at $220-$1000 in a search on Hotels.com. Rates should be at a premium in 2017.

With its tropical weather, pink sand beaches, and turquoise waters, Bermuda will provide the America’s Cup with a stunning landscape. But what type of audience will the location attract? While the event village in San Francisco had a family atmosphere, Bermuda is appearing more suited to the Moët & Chandon crowd.

Chicago boat dealer Lou Sandoval, active in the leadership of the sport of sailing, is concerned that a venue such as Bermuda will reinforce the stigma of sailing being a sport reserved for those who ‘have the means’. Here Lou comments…

Coming off an exciting finish for the 34th America’s Cup in 2013, the sport of sailing could have used this momentum to engage a whole new generation of American youth in the sport. But now with the island approach, the attraction will be limited to those already in the sport.

I’m sure there are many advantages to holding the event in Bermuda, Here is my take on how access to the America’s Cup may affect interest in sailing:

1. Exclusivity: Placing the sport in a remote location, means that only those that follow the sport will watch it on web relay and tracker. While the 34th AC revolutionized this via the wizardry of Stan Honey, it presents a very one-dimensional appeal to the sport.

2. “Too rich for my blood”: The remote location of Bermuda furthers the perception that you have to be someone special (albeit wealthy) to travel to participate and watch the sport. A rich man’s playground if you may. After the last AC, I was amazed at the number of ‘non- sailors’ who got caught up in the final races. People in “car washes” recognized Team Oracle gear. Comments on how picturesque the San Francisco backdrop was for the race were echoed by many ‘non-traditional’ fans.

3. “Sailing is too god-like”: The distance of a remote island and accompanying perception seek to further alienate the engagement of a younger diverse generation.

As the 76.4 million baby boomers (born 1946 -1964) edge towards retirement at a rate of 10,000 per day they leave a participation void. Behind them, the engagement and participation rates for the sport of sailing among the over 50 million Generation X (Born 1965-1980) and over 56 million millennials (Born 1980-2000) toils in the single digits for historically mainstream participants. The National Marine Manufacturer’s Association reports overall participation rate for 18+ year olds at 26-32% . This figure includes small craft and power boats as well.

Coming from someone who was exposed to the sport in my youth , but learned to really love it in adulthood, I see the move to Bermuda as one that may undo the work that many of us have been engaged in – exposing a whole new younger bloodline to the sport of sailing. Engaging a new generation of sailors who look and think much differently than those currently in the sport. But this task seems to be a bit out of reach for now, far away on an island.

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