It's a shore thing

Olympic sailing entertains its first paying audience next month, as the sport reaches out to a wider public with races closer to land and next-gen media coverage. But not everyone is on board. Matthew Sheahan reports.

Oracle Racing’s Spithill taking part in the America’s Cup World Series in Plymouth Sound last year, where spectators were little more than 100m from the action and the boats sometimes only 10m from shore
Oracle Racing’s Spithill taking part in the America’s Cup World Series in Plymouth Sound last year, where spectators were little more than 100m from the action and the boats sometimes only 10m from shore | Image: ©2011 ACEA/Gilles Martin Rage

More than 60,000 visitors have chosen to pay up to £55 to attend a temporary venue 130 miles outside London with nothing more than grass to sit on. The lack of amenities has done nothing to deter sailing’s first paying audience. In fact, the strength of demand for tickets for the Olympic sailing events in Weymouth and Portland made the sport’s mandarins sit up and take notice. Sailing, which has struggled to overcome a visual handicap of delivering small, slow-moving white triangles on a distant horizon, has never witnessed interest like this before.

The rush for tickets has also been a huge relief to those who had gambled on one of the biggest changes to the sport in its history. “If you wind the clock back to just after Athens in 2004, sailing was under pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the media to become more televisual and spectator friendly,” explains Rob Andrews, Locog’s (London Organising Committee for Olympic and Paralympic Games) sailing manager. His comments touch on a familiar message from those at the top of the sport’s hierarchy: that Olympic sailing had to deliver more to the public if it was to remain in the Games.

“Within Locog, I sit alongside 26 other people, each representing a different sport. Some of these sports are very structured, and have found a model that works. At the bidding stage their plan is set and they know that in seven years’ time they can deliver a working model. Sailing is in more of an evolutionary stage and still pretty unsure as to how it can present itself. For example, plans for spectators were never in the budget that was presented to the IOC in 2005. Now, for the first time, we have an audience that has paid good money to be there and we need to create a great day out. That is a new challenge.”

Professional sailing is playing to the crowds on a scale never before attempted. It is no longer enough to take spectators out to the sport; the sport must come to the spectators. In the Extreme Sailing Series, fleets of high-speed 40ft catamarans race within metres of the shoreline, where spectators view from tiered seating as they listen to fervent commentary on the chess-like tactics of the Alpari World Match Racing Tour competitors. Other events take spectator sailing even further, with giant television screens streaming a combination of live coverage from on board and sophisticated real-time computer animations illustrating every move of each boat.

Tracking devices, on-board cameras and microphones mean that sailors are wired for sound and vision from the minute they leave the dock until their remote interviews seconds after crossing the finish line. In-between, spectators are entertained with every puff, grunt, command and expletive of the crew. At the same time, race reporting has become more sophisticated over the past decade, using on-board media crew members to film and report, while shore-based writers and commentators make sense of the data streaming in.

The third leg of the America’s Cup World Series in San Diego last November, where short courses inside the Bay kept the racing close to the audience.
The third leg of the America’s Cup World Series in San Diego last November, where short courses inside the Bay kept the racing close to the audience. | Image: © ACEA/Gilles Martin-Raget

Satellite and cellular technology has played a vital role in bringing the data and stories ashore, while the web has provided the distribution platform where live and recorded shows are broadcast and fed back to land and into the homes and smartphones of sailing’s growing audience. There has never been so much of it to watch and, until now, most has been free.

But, for some, these advances threaten to compromise the quality of the actual racing. At the Olympics, the final double-points scoring medal race for each class will take place just metres from the stadium. With the course tucked in under the shore, there are concerns over the gusty winds in certain conditions that could make a lottery of the races. Among those who have expressed doubts is Britain’s most successful sailor, three times Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie.

“In prevailing conditions, the stadium course is pretty fair, but if the breeze is northerly, I hope the organisers will be sensible and not race there. They need to set a fair race course, even if that means it being less close to spectators,” he says. “Organisers want more races closer to the shore because that is the future commercially. But at the Olympics the purity of the sport should come first.”

Olympic teammate and windsurfing world champion Nick Dempsey is more outspoken. “The course has to be fair. It’s not about spectators, television audiences or the atmosphere – it’s about providing the best sailing course for those athletes who have worked their entire lives for that moment. The stadium course in a prevailing southwesterly is great, but any northwesterly wind direction and it’s a nightmare. It’s very difficult to sail and compete fairly. It makes the race virtually a lottery.”

Bringing the action closer to land often means shorter, 30-minute races. Again, not everybody is happy, yet among the younger professional and Olympic sailors many have become accustomed to this quickfire format.

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“Tight short courses feel completely natural, it’s what I’ve grown up with,” says Australian two-time 49er World Champion Nathan Outteridge, who is one of the medal favourites at the Games. “You have waves bouncing off the wall, big shifts in the wind and, just like where I sail at home on Lake Macquarie, you have to learn to turn these details into advantages. I get a bit bored when we sail long straight lines offshore.”

In just a year, Outteridge and others among his peers have been enticed from Olympic-class dinghies into the America’s Cup World Series, where the high-speed, overpowered catamarans scorch around a 30-minute course close to shore. The boats and course format alone mark a huge departure from the heavyweight single-hulled yachts used in previous America’s Cup racing.

Since software billionaire Larry Ellison won the last America’s Cup in 2010 with the Oracle Racing team, the world’s oldest international sporting trophy has gone through radical changes in its quest to engage what his team’s CEO Russell Coutts describes as “the Facebook rather than Flintstone generation”. As a result, the ACWS, which started in 2011 with events in Europe and the US leading up to the America’s Cup match in San Francisco in 2013, is the most ambitious project in yacht racing.

Each race has the needs of spectators firmly in mind. For those watching on a TV screen or the internet, grids and sectors overlay the live pictures to help define a course that doesn’t have the benefit of chicanes or touchlines. To keep the racing tight and exciting, the course has electronic boundaries to help corral the fleet, and teams are dealt a penalty if they stray. Even some of the most fundamental rules of racing have been changed to help the sport become commercially viable.

“One of the biggest issues was that we had to become reliable for television,” explains America’s Cup Race Management CEO and regatta director Iain Murray. “It’s unacceptable to TV not to start or finish a race on time. That has meant the development of craft, technology and racing rules to achieve that.”

Extreme Sailing Series for the Doublestar Cup in Qingdao, China
Extreme Sailing Series for the Doublestar Cup in Qingdao, China | Image: Lloyd Images

But less than a year into the first season of ACWS racing, large cuts have been made to its infrastructure. There are now fewer backroom staff, and the number of on-board cameras and commentary teams have been cut before the Cup has fully engaged with the public. The target number of racing venues has also been reduced significantly as deals with host cities failed to materialise.

Teams came under pressure, too, especially those without a private benefactor, who were looking to support their campaigns on a purely commercial basis. Costs of between €1.5m and €5m per year, depending on the size and ambitions of a team, proved too much for some who, despite competing in the early rounds, fell by the wayside before the first season was complete.

Had the plans been too ambitious? “Yes,” admits Murray. “We tried to run before we could walk. The fact is that we have undertaken the largest number of changes in any sailing event, ever.”

Stephen Barclay is the interim CEO of America’s Cup Event Authority, concerned with negotiating venues and generating revenue. “The commercial environment is a lot harder than in 2006-2007,” he says. “Then, about €12m was spent on TV and €14m earned. Our TV expenditure this time is much bigger. In this economic climate it has been difficult to get people to buy into the World Series. But the upside is that we’ve moved from selling something that hadn’t been shown in 2011 to where broadcasters have seen the product and want it.”

While securing television deals lies at the heart of the America’s Cup project, Barclay sees other opportunities to link to the new audience. “The next step is to extend our reach via apps on devices such as iPhones and iPads,” he says. “By the time we get to San Francisco later this year we hope people will be able to sit on the shore and interact with the racing on their handheld devices. If we can convert people into fans and commercialise the event it will transform the sailing industry.”

Ben Ainslie, after winning a gold medal at the Weymouth and Portland International Regatta last August, racing on the new medal race course in Weymouth, designed specifically with spectators in mind
Ben Ainslie, after winning a gold medal at the Weymouth and Portland International Regatta last August, racing on the new medal race course in Weymouth, designed specifically with spectators in mind | Image: 2011 Getty Images

Elsewhere, signs are encouraging. Extreme Sailing Series has been successfully tapping into the world of spectator sailing for several years. Its 2012 tour, run by Cowes-based OC ThirdPole, includes eight venues across three continents. Its model is simpler than that of the Cup, yet it consistently draws large crowds.

“We are now going into our sixth year, and I would say that 2011 was pivotal for us,” says executive chairman Mark Turner, who is quick to point out one of the biggest differences between his circuit and the America’s Cup. “We are in a different place budget wise. We run a global event with just 2-3 per cent of the budget the America’s Cup has. That’s a difficult challenge,” he says. “At the same time, we are still a reasonably small event and we have a package that works well for the cities – what they have to pay is hundreds of thousands, not millions.”

With one of the longest track records in spectator sailing, does he believe the sport can charge people to watch it? “Charging for a ticket and limiting the entry would be in conflict with the aim of maximising the value of sponsorship,” he says. “If you are talking Wimbledon, that’s a different thing. You have different levels of desire and you can put a price on that. Potentially, we could have the equivalent of an airplane with first-class passengers with a higher level of hospitality. But I think that most organisers would struggle with the idea of charging because our principle aim is to get more people to come and watch.”

Perhaps the real test will come in July and August when more than 60,000 ticket holders arrive in Portland and Weymouth hoping to see a show. Thousands more are expected to be watching at the free site on Weymouth’s beach, which will have large screens and race commentary. To pay or not to pay? Stadium sailing is about to be put to its ultimate test. ?

Matthew Sheahan is racing and technical editor of Yachting World magazine.

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