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Building an audience for sailing

Published on April 23rd, 2019

There are a lot of random sports being broadcasted, so why not sailing? And with the internet, television is not the only option. But no option is without cost, and that check must ultimately be written by a sufficiently wanting audience.

Seeking a wanting audience is the newly launched SailGP circuit, a global sports league featuring fan-centric, inshore, high-speed racing in some of the iconic harbors around the globe and culminating with a $1 million winner-takes-all match race.

Billionaire Larry Ellison is writing the check for now, hoping to continue what he began while funding the America’s Cup defense in 2013 and 2017. Larry wanted to deliver the sport and event to the ‘people’, with SailGP designed specifically for that mission.

While the first SailGP event in Australia suffered through light winds and unfriendly show times, those variables ought to be better for the second edition on May 4-5 in San Francisco, USA. Will it find its audience? Who knows, but we heard from two sage voices on the topic of attracting onlookers.

Dick Enersen’s involvement with the America’s Cup dates back 55 years from onboard Constellation, the 12 Metre yacht that defended the America’s Cup for the New York Yacht Club in 1964, and through the lens of his Offshore Productions. Here is his take:

“On the subject of spectators, and, generally, building an audience for sailing, it is wrong to ‘jigger’ sail racing in ways that ‘visionaries’ believe will make non-sailors flock to see our sport, waving money as they come.

“This includes, but is not limited to, multihulls in the America’s Cup (and match racing in general), double-point Medal Races in the Olympics, Volvo Ocean Race course directed into hectic settings such as Hong Kong Harbor, and most ‘stadium’ settings except in very special venues.

“People who watch sailing are people who go sailing, or once did. If the mission is to build an audience for sailing, the execution needs to first build participation the sport!”

Bob Black, a former newsman and veteran of the public relations wars in boating and sailing, began his involvement with the America’s Cup in 1970 alongside Baron Marcel Bich of the French challenge. Here is his observation:

“The movement to make sail racing into a spectator sport started big time in the 1970s with the National Marine Manufacturers Association and its sailing wing at the time, The American Sailing Council, which morphed into the Sailing Industry Association, which should tell you something.

“And that something is ‘sell more sailboats’, and it had not been ignored that America’s Cup years sold more sailing vessels–of all sizes.

“ASC and SIA became my public relations client for many years and part of our exercise was to publicize race results with the hope that it would (through results, features on skippers and crew, and anything else the newspapers of those days would carry) result in more spectators and thus more sailboat sales. It may have had some effect on sales, but not what the industry hoped for.

“In the days of the International America’s Cup Class (1992 to 2007), a lot of great stories came out about skippers and crews, tactics and how the boats were built. It was, indeed, a development class and while it got public interest, it got much more fascination from those who sailed and understood the sport.”

Regarding the live experience, “Spectators are fine as long as they stay out of the way,” notes Enersen, though Black can’t see the advantage given the speed of the boats. “An anchored spectator boat or stationary grandstand only sees the race for milliseconds, and while fast powerboats might keep up, you can’t throw wakes at racing sailboats.”

Is it possible to build broadcast interest in a sport that struggles to deliver live spectating? We understand Larry has committed five years of funding for SailGP to find out. Standing by…

Established in 2018 and headquartered in London and San Francisco, the inaugural season for SailGP has rival national teams from Australia, China, France, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States battling it out in identical wing-powered, foiling F50 catamarans, engineered to exceed 50 knots.

2019 Schedule
Sydney, Australia (February 15-16)
San Francisco, USA (May 4-5)
New York, USA (June 21-22)
Cowes, UK (August 10-11)
Marseille, France (September 20-22)

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