SailGP: A Spectacle Sport
Published on June 25th, 2019
For the inaugural season of SailGP, while the six teams on the water are sorting out how to sail the F50 catamarans, there is an equal effort in how to present the competition. While the Holy Grail is broadcast numbers, sporting events need validation with live fandom too.
Witnessing the third stage of SailGP in New York City was Meg Reilly, a circumnavigator who runs an international sailing team, Ocean Racers, with her partner Morgen Watson on their Pogo 12.50 Hermes. Meg, an NJ-native, shares her impression as the event took over her hometown harbor:
On June 21-22, flying sailing machines once again graced the Hudson River. But this time it was different. I knew it was a level up from the America’s Cup World Series two years ago, but from a spectator’s perspective, it was nothing more than making a spectacle of sailing. But maybe that’s all it needed to be.
SailGP in NYC wasn’t for the sailors, that’s for sure. The narrow course is plagued by shifts and gusts that can’t be easily read on the water— not to mention competing on a RIVER! Other than frontrunner’s Australia and Japan, the rest of the teams moved around the course in preservation mode. The mood might have been set by Team Great Britain capsizing 30 minutes before the start Day 1.
However, it sure was a spectacle.
SAILGP covered Brookfield Place in red, and put the word SAIL on the world’s biggest (and most critical) stage: NYC. Cue the press conference in the Winter Garden, so it’s official. Next, build the race village, gear shop, sponsor booths, prize giving stage, media zone, VIP areas, a few big screens, and voilà— we have an international yacht race.
While SailGP put on a big show, there were a few missed opportunities to engage new fans and give the public a little bit of a better idea of what the “F” was going on.
Sure there were spectator boats offering a high-end ($$$) viewing experience, but the real opportunity was the general public that lined The Battery along Manhattan’s southern tip.
Here was a chance to put sailing in front of thousands of new fans, but you had to stand in front of the one Race Village screen, in earshot of the few speakers, or download the app to get a hint at what was going on. (P.S. the app was pretty good, if you knew about it)
Really, there were several fantastic view points, all the way down to the leeward mark at Pier A. But the further you moved from Brookfield Place, even just a hundred meters away, the sports-game arena thrill fizzled into a more casual experience. No announcers, no visible start clock, no gripping sport storylines, no real excitement. And the sailors deserved more than that.
The front row was often the only row, and for a free event in NYC, that’s kind of absurd. It’s mainly because people didn’t know what was going on. Aside from the race village and a few ads in Brookfield Place, there was no build up or warning that this event was going to quite impressively take over the Hudson River.
I definitely got the targeted Facebook ads, but saw nothing in any of the public transit that all so conveniently led to the most beautiful and accessible sports arena in NYC: The Hudson River?
The Hudson River has been and should continue to be a host to international sailing events. But we need to make them more… New York. The flash of the Brookfield Place Race Village and the posh “Adrenaline zone” that took over the celebrated saloon PJ Clarke’s just barely scratched the surface of what will wow a New Yorker.
Yes, flying sail boats will, but you want me to stick around for more than a few seconds of boatporn, well then you need to give me something more! Although I have to say, Team Australia seemed to really understand the showmanship of it all.
I’d like to first volunteer the monstrosity that is the floating ad barge, which recently became a Hudson River resident. Why wasn’t this behemoth used to broadcast the action onboard the boats right in the middle of the race course?
We need faces, the feel of the ride, the action! Why weren’t stadium-level speakers broadcasting from barges, instead of me having to listen to that turd teenager blast rap music from his daddy’s super yacht in North Cove? We were missing the jumbotron!
I cannot for certain say that SailGP didn’t already try to do all of these things, and just were denied the opportunity. From personally working with the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), I know it is very difficult to obtain permits for large scale events and anything that may disturb the peace or accessibility of Battery Park.
So all things considered, it was a pretty spectacular feat to shut down the Hudson River for a sailing race two nights in a row. It was an extraordinary opportunity to showcase our sport, and hopefully inspire some people to take a second look at sailing…because damn it looks cool!
Established in 2018 and headquartered in London and San Francisco, SailGP seeks to be an annual, global sports league featuring fan-centric, inshore racing in some of the iconic harbors around the globe and culminates with a $1 million winner-takes-all match race. Rival national teams from Australia, China, France, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States battle it out in identical wing-powered, foiling F50 catamarans, engineered to exceed 50 knots.
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)