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New ownership moves The Ocean Race away from title sponsorship model

Photo: The Ocean Race

  • Race seeks long-term presenting partner deal as new ownership want to make the race itself the master brand
  • Authentic focus on sustainability and oceanic environmentalism shapes offer to current and potential partners
  • Commercial team sees increased interest from brands planning for a post-Covid-19 sports industry

The new owners of The Ocean Race – once known simply as ‘The Volvo’ – are leading the multi-stage global sailing competition on a commercial pathway away from title sponsorship and focused on sustainability.

The Ocean Race 1973 SLU is a Spanish company that acquired the event from its previous owners, Volvo Cars and Volvo Group, in 2018. Volvo was both rights-holder and title sponsor for such time that the race became synonymous with the brand.

Now the new ownership, led by race chairman Richard Brisius and managing director Johan Salén – both former competitors and team managers in the event itself – are building a new commercial proposition.

No more naming rights

Most notable among their changes is the removal of the title sponsor position, driven by three beliefs within the company: One, that it would otherwise be impossible to build the event’s own brand; two, that it limited the event’s appeal to potential sponsors in lower-tier slots; and three, that it would colour the race’s perception as a commercial vehicle, when sustainability is the watchword.

Instead, The Ocean Race is seeking a principal partner, one prepared to make a long-term commitment of at least a decade.

Helping them do this is Ekrem Sami, former chief executive of McLaren’s commercial arm, McLaren Marketing, who tells SportBusiness: “With one focus being the building of the event as a brand, the idea was for it to be known as The Ocean Race, as opposed to being known by the brand name, as was the case with Volvo.

“It puts the race itself as the master brand of the competition, it’s a similar idea to the model that is used by the Olympic Games.”

The company’s commercial division is also working with agency CSM Sport & Entertainment, which helped develop its marketing strategy and tactics – The Ocean Race identifies the sectors and brands it thinks would be a good fit, and CSM takes an active role in going to market.

As well as landing the key presenting partner, the short- and medium-term goals are to close out the lower tiers or the portfolio.

Under the presenting partner will sit the premier partner tier, where former owner Volvo still resides alongside founding partner of the sustainability programme 11th Hour Racing.

Below that is an official partner tier comprising water purification specialists Bluewater Group and five other brands that the company is waiting to announce post-Covid-19. These deals often contain an element of value-in-kind, though this can be significant; Sami tells SportBusiness that The Ocean Race is looking to add three brands to the tier.

Typically, sponsorship deals with The Ocean Race start at a fee of approximately £1.5m (€1.7m/$1.9m) across a three-year race cycle. Key to The Ocean Race’s offering to brands is the geographical spread of locations in which to activate. The Race recently released its schedule for the 2021-22 edition, which sees it visit 10 host cities across the nine-month event.

Of the 2021-22 host cities, Alicante, Spain; Cape Town, South Africa; Auckland, New Zealand; Itajaí, Brazil; Newport, USA; Aarhus, Denmark; and The Hague, Netherlands have all hosted the race before, with the Republic of Capo Verde; Genoa, Italy; and Shenzhen, China new additions for the race.

Explaining the importance of this, Sami says: “Those cities represent tremendously important associations for the brands that we are attracting,” adding that water tech partner Bluewater has begun working with Cape Town and Genoa on the back of its involvement with the race.

Though The Ocean Race itself it a triennial event, the owners are keen for it to offer activation opportunities throughout the three-year cycle. As Sami explains: “There’s sometimes a perception that The Ocean Race is a nine-month race around the globe; one of the things that we’ve looked to do is broaden that out into a three-year program.”

One of the ways it does so is via its Ocean Race Summits, most recently its Hague Summit, held virtually on May 27, 2020.

The events are an opportunity to draw its partners into The Ocean Race’s core message of oceanic environmentalism; representatives of both Volvo and 11th Hour Racing spoke at the Hague.

The Ocean Race European Tour corporate sailing event in Kiel, Germany, June 19, 2019

Sustainability focus

It is hard to overstate the extent to which sustainability has been put at the heart of The Ocean Race’s messaging. “It’s embedded within the whole organisation,” says Anne-Cécile Turner, the event’s sustainability programme leader. “It has significantly increased since change of ownership. You can see that in the commitment of the management and the number of people working directly for sustainability.”

Turner and others worked alongside 11th Hour Racing and Volvo to develop the event’s ‘Racing with Purpose’ initiative to practically deliver on the message. It incorporates the Summits, the race’s education programme, and even the oceanographic data collection tech now embedded on all competing yachts.

Turner explains: “The idea is not only that the race is collecting the data, we are creating a working group, a collaborative platform that will engage external stakeholders including scientists, we are enlarging the discussion to include the private sector and media to ensure that the science has a destination.

“We want reports, modernisation, the idea is that the policy makers can create laws to accelerate restoration based on science.”

It is also vital to the commercial proposition. As Turner says, The Ocean Race will no longer sign sustainability partners because “every partner joining will be included and integral to this”.

Sami adds: “What’s happened in the last three-to-five years is that sustainability, diversity, those topics are now centre stage on the agenda of every major corporation, and they occupy the attention at board level.

“We are effectively an enabler for those brands to authentically claim that they are making a difference. What we and they know is that stakeholders, such as consumers and employees, value those brands that visibly show that kind of commitment.”

The Ocean Race is keen to emphasise the authenticity of its message, and has built sustainability into the entire edifice of the competition, working with the teams to create a sustainability charter they must all sign, stating their commitment to make sustainability part of all parts of their operation.

Turner says: “We are creating rights and benefits for the teams around sustainability. We have changed the rules of the race to integrate renewable energy on board, all the teams will have to renewable energy and the data collection science on board.

“It’s a new narrative and a new story for them. They can all offer sustainability to brands, as well as the education programme.”

Brisius can draw on his own experience when talking about what provides added authenticity to the race’s commitment to the health of the ocean.

He said: “I think it is the sailors, if you are out there for so long as they are, you become part of the Ocean almost, you have this relationship with it. You just start caring for it, it’s so natural.”

“The brands that we work with they really value these athletes because they are pretty unique people, they get access to utilise them for activation.”

Beyond Covid-19

The ongoing pandemic has delayed the announcement of new sponsors and led the company to consider postponing the 2021-22 race until 2022-23. But – even as a global event – it is hopeful that its retooled commercial proposition will thrive in a post-Covid-19 world.

Sami tells SportBusiness: “There are brands in some sectors that feel they want to plan ahead for 2021 and beyond and we’re fortunate to be talking to a number of those.

“I think that Covid-19 has also made companies, individuals, families, the world stop and rethink about the importance of core values and they will have a different perspective going forward. I see that as an opportunity for us, I think that in a post Covid-19 world the platform we’re talking about will be attractive.”

Brisius believes the nature of the race’s operational structure means it is well placed to negotiate the period.

He said: “Many organisations around sport are formed around big federations, it’s quite a big governance problem. It can take more time to create change, in a fast moving world, that doesn’t help.

“Many sports are trying to reorganise governance model but it’s not easy. Since we have changed the governance, despite being a global organisation, we’re organised in a way in which we can change extremely quickly.”


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