Public interest in sailing tends to peak around America’s Cup where, traditionally, super-rich team-owners invest heavily to build hi-tech boats and to attract crews assembled from around the world.
At its conclusion, the whole circus is put away until next time, with the winners able to decide the location, format, and type of boat to be used in the contest. The result is a lack of cohesion and continuity, which makes it a difficult sell to sponsors – outside a relatively small group of B2B and luxury brands – and a tough job to re-engage the public every time.
It’s why Sir Russell Coutts – the New Zealander who skippered Team Oracle to victory in the 2010 and 2013 America’s Cup competitions – and his old Oracle team principal Larry Ellison have teamed up to launch SailGP, an ambitious nation-versus-nation ‘sailing league’.
Coutts believes the league addresses some of the fundamental flaws in the America’s Cup business model, and in doing so can attract a new breed of fan and, consequently, open the field to draw sponsors from many more consumer brand categories.
“What has been missing from the sport, from a business perspective, is that although there have been some great (team) brands over the years, they were there and then gone.
“In sailing the teams don’t have longevity. Australia II won America’s Cup but then was gone. Same with Dennis Conner’s Stars and Stripes after they had put all that investment into creating a brand.
“We wanted to create a platform where the team builds build brand equity and run at a profit that gives them longevity. The owner can sell or trade the team but the brand lives on. That’s one of the reasons the national affinity is so important and why there will be no title sponsors for the teams.”
SailGP will initially be contested by teams representing Australia, France, China, Great Britain and the USA, sailing identically specified and constructed F50 catamarans that can fly over the water on hydrofoils at speed close to 100km per hour.
Coutts says close racing is the key to success: “In the past one team has had a technological advantage and the racing can get dull if you more or less know who’s going to win. By sailing the same boats each team has the same tools to work with…so it comes down to skill, tactics and athleticism,” he explains.
The decision to race national boats is designed to build a support base and provide a reason to really care about the outcome and, perhaps uniquely outside the Olympics, the boats will not simply be flying flags of convenience.
The crew of each boat will have to qualify as nationals in the same way as they would for an Olympic team, a concept that provides a pathway for sailors and competition for places on the boat.
Then there’s the racing itself. In-shore racing in full view of ticket-buying crowds will create a genuine live event experience, and each race is designed to deliver around 16 minutes of high-intensity action which will appeal to broadcasters – who will also benefit from much-improved production.
“The transformational moment was when we were able to put graphics over the live television pictures,” says Coutts. “It meant we could frame and brand the racecourse and show clearly who was ahead and behind, as well as presenting the technical data coming out of it.
“That changed sailing from a sport that a few avid sailors would follow to something that racing fans could follow. Now it is a racing product not just sailing. People can understand and engage [with SailGP] even if they’ve never sailed before.”
Unlike America’s Cup, in which secrecy is key to owners’ quests for technical advantage, data from the boats will be centralised in SailGP. This means that not only can it be evaluated and used by rival crews, but it can also be made available to the public to enrich media output.
“We have such great possibilities with OTT and short-form content,” says Coutts. “In the past Team A and Team B have been very secretive about what technology they had. That meant that as broadcasters you couldn’t get access to the data coming off the boat. We will have all the data and be able to share it with the viewer. You’ll be able to know why A is Beating B. We’ll tell the story in a much more effective way.
“We will also be delving into the athletes’ personalities and backgrounds so that people get to know them better. It’s not enough to show cool tech and high-speed boats on screen. It has to be in-depth content and analysis. We want people to follow SailGP as they follow football and to do that, they have to get to know the people and, believe me, they are athletes not passengers.”
With identical boats, technical costs can be centralised and the cost of running a team brought down to about $5m (€4.4m), excluding the capital cost of the boat. With each team working on a business plan to generate $7m, Coutts says profitability is more than a pipe dream.
SailGP is being built on what most sports marketers would agree are solid and well-tested foundations; give people something to identify with and a reason to care about the outcome and make it an exciting show.
But, says Coutts, the most important ingredient is consistency. “It’s about going back to the same venues with the same format,” he said. “Consistency is absolutely fundamental. That’s not new in sport, it’s just new to sailing.”
The launch season gets underway in Sydney on February 15 and 16, and will be followed by events in San Francisco, New York, Cowes (UK) and Marseilles.