What else can SailGP do?

Published on September 13th, 2022

by Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt Sailing News
The effort to get sailing on television has led to creative formats that have changed the sport from what occurs on most weekends. But sailing is unlike any other sport in that it offers that option, and it is up to the viewer to watch what they like.

The most aggressive effort now occurring is the global sports league SailGP, now in its third season with 11 events on the schedule. Event venues are huge and eager to provide attendees with a memorable experience, but the Holy Grail is the broadcast. Viewership translates to money, and the league needs money. It’s funding by Larry Ellison will soon expire.

I watched the France Sail Grand Prix on YouTube which recorded 98k views for Day 1 and 64k views for Day 2 (as of 8:33amPT on Sept. 13, 2022). Views are counted after someone watches for at least 30 seconds, and one person can be counted more than once. While there are many other channels to watch the broadcast, are these numbers enough? I don’t know.

Is the SailGP format as good as it can get? Maybe, or maybe not. There certainly has been a lot of effort creating it, with Ellison’s team led by Russell Coutts using the 2013 and 2017 America’s Cup to develop the product. And while I have full respect for the sailing skill on display, it is not often easy to see that talent to make for a compelling show. So what else is there to do?

The French team hit the highest speed ever on their home course – 53.96 knots – with the league planning to make the F50s go faster. I suspect this effort is to fit more races into the broadcast window, makes for good marketing and quicker crosses, but does it make the races better to watch? The faster you go, the less you want to maneuver.

With fewer maneuvers, and all teams soon perfecting them, the commentators lose a talking point other than reporting how a team won because their bottom speed in a turn is faster than their opponent. This is not nearly as riveting as watching a team fall off the foils and get passed.

Maybe the blades should be designed worse, not better. The sailors push for improvement, but does that make for a better show? What if cars had bad tires? Fear of slipping on a turn would hold me watching.

Figuring out how to keep the boats side-by-side is the challenge. The lines on the course give context but they don’t create the same anxiety and interest as when two boats are next to each other. Splits with tacks/gybes at boundaries as opposed to covering or attacking gets a bit mindless. Maybe remove the upwind and downwind gates.

The start and Leg 1 provide great moments, so maybe Leg 2 needs to be a tight reach too, and then have Leg 3 aim to the leeward mark. The race finishes with a tight reach, and one of the most compelling moments in France was when New Zealand and Australia were side-by-side and the Kiwis gave a luff which led to an Aussie crash.

That moment also led to some fiery quotes from both skippers:

“We were overlapped for a very long time and they were closing down to us so we were fully within our rights to do what we were doing,” noted Kiwi helm Peter Burling. “It was exactly the same situation with Canada and they got out of the way.

“I think as drivers we might need to pitch in for some anger management lessons for Tom (Aussie helm Tom Slingsby), I think it’s out of line, the swear words he was saying afterwards on our race management channel.”

Slingsby said the work of the shore and tech teams to repair his boat after the crash in between race one and two was remarkable, but was heavily critical of New Zealand.

“All of this damage over something so stupid. We would have happily given the position and now we have all this damage because Peter Burling wanted one extra point. It’s ridiculous,” noted Slingsby.

“To me, Pete just coming up at us like that is just unsafe, we are just trying to finish the race here, I just don’t think what he did is worth it for one point, but no doubt he has a different opinion he’s always had a pretty warped view so would be interesting to hear him explain it.”

The league needs more of this. As sailing has become professionalized, it lost the big personalities that created controversy. People like Tom Blackaller, Ted Turner, and Dennis Conner don’t exist and we miss it.

While the better YouTube viewership on Day 1 might have been because of the high winds and crashes, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the lighter winds on Day 2. The strategy and sailing skill was more evident.

More so, with the F50s nearly all in displacement mode, there wasn’t randomness of foiling and non-foiling. It kept the boats close. As the league uses bigger foils in light air to promote foiling, maybe they should use the small foils all the time. Keep the boats low, and the reduced drag may promote maneuvers.

SailGP has gone to great lengths to understand their audience, and as the league refers to wind and boat speed in kilometers rather than knots, they are likely shooting past sailing enthusiasts. Maybe I am way off with my opinions. What’s yours? Send it to editor@sailingscuttlebutt.com.

 

SailGP informationFrance detailsSeason 3 scoreboardFacebookHow to watch

2022-23 SailGP Season 3 Schedule
May 14-15, 2022 – Bermuda Sail Grand Prix presented by Hamilton Princess
June 18-19, 2022 – United States Sail Grand Prix | Chicago at Navy Pier
July 30-31, 2022 – Great Britain Sail Grand Prix | Plymouth
August 19-20, 2022 – ROCKWOOL Denmark Sail Grand Prix | Copenhagen
September 10-11, 2022 – France Sail Grand Prix | Saint-Tropez
September 24-25, 2022 – Spain Sail Grand Prix | Andalucía – Cádiz
November 12-13, 2022 – Dubai Sail Grand Prix presented by P&O Marinas
January 13-14, 2023 – Singapore Sail Grand Prix
February 17-18, 2023 – Australia Sail Grand Prix | Sydney
March 17-18, 2023 – New Zealand Sail Grand Prix | Christchurch
May 6-7, 2023 – United States Sail Grand Prix | San Francisco (Season 3 Grand Final)

Format for 2022-23 SailGP events:
• Teams compete in identical F50 catamarans.
• Each event runs across two days.
• There are three qualifying races each day for all nine teams.*
• The top three teams from qualifying advance to a final race to be crowned event champion and earn the largest share of the $300,000 prize money to be split among the top three teams.
• The season ends with the Grand Final, which includes the Championship Final Race – a winner-takes-all match race for the $1m prize.
* Qualifying schedule increased from five to six races at France SailGP.

For competition documents, click here.

Established in 2018, SailGP seeks to be an annual, global sports league featuring fan-centric inshore racing in some of the iconic harbors around the globe. Rival national teams compete in identical F50 catamarans for event prize money as the season culminates with a $1 million winner-takes-all match race.

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