The Future of Grand Prix Sailing

The demise of the Audi MedCup for 2012 not only ended one of the most successful and long-running commercial events in sailing, it also led us to ponder the future of high-profile sponsored sailing. Can it actually deliver good value for sponsors?
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The demise of the Audi MedCup for 2012 not only ended one of the most successful and long-running commercial events in sailing, it also led us to ponder the future of high-profile sponsored sailing. Can it actually deliver good value for sponsors? Is it sustainable, and if so, at which levels? And how will it affect the non-grand-prix crowd–does any of this really matter to them?

Grand prix sailing is indeed a game for the rich and super-rich, and always has been, right from its roots in the 19th century. Spectators, sponsors and media interests are secondary to the pursuit of the game on its own merits. Some sponsors are quite happy to associate their brands with this traditional paradigm, and will continue to do so.

Today, though, the technology is also available to show this game to an wider audience, which creates valuable opportunities that can be packaged and sold for sponsorship. Even government money can be lured in with the promise of tourism development, as in Asia, or through incentives like the 10 percent tax break that the Spanish government gives to sailing-related enterprises. This has helped the bottom line of sponsored sailing in these cultures.

Prior to the recession, it proved successful. In 2007, for example, sailing was the third-largest sponsored sport in Europe (behind soccer and motor sports), thanks in large part to the success of the 32nd America’s Cup regatta in Valencia, Spain. This created a massive trickle-down effect for numerous other sailing events and programs, from local levels, where sponsored boats are more the norm than the exception, all the way up to the Audi MedCup, the Volvo Ocean Race and the Barcelona World Race, among others. With burgeoning budgets these events offered new spectator experiences, ranging from race villages at the venues to live TV coverage, mostly on the Internet, but occasionally on broadcast and cable TV as well. In 2007, America’s Cup Management actually made money from the 32nd America’s Cup, which was then dispersed back to the teams. 

Large budgets allow for not only a large internal media staff to push the messaging out, but also invitations and hospitality to prominent media members, who are then obliged to tell the stories that keep readers interested in the show. Unlike most mainstream sports, where a mass audience has already been created through many years of investment by teams, leagues and local governments, minor sports like sailing have to beg, borrow and steal to get attention. This is why America’s Cup 34, even with its U.S. venue and U.S. defender, will have to spend millions to get the attention needed to create value for the team and event sponsors. In the largest media market in the world, the America’s Cup remains small potatoes compared to ball games and NASCAR. 

But is this all bad news? Maybe not. For those passionate about the game, the added pressure stimulates creative solutions to make sailing a better “bang-for-the-buck” proposition than other sports. This goes not only for sponsors and spectators, but for sailors as well, where new equipment and formats have been devised to keep the game interesting and exciting.

The new AC format, including the America’s Cup World Series, is one example of this paradigm shift. Another is the rapid growth of match racing. There are now more match race regattas spread among more venues in the United States than ever before, ranging from local Grade 4 all the way up to a new World Match Racing Tour (WMRT) event to be held in Chicago. 

Fast races, no waiting, evenly-matched boats, a simple format, intense sailing and immediate results are all reasons sailors are gravitating to this form of the game. As an added benefit, races held close to shore facilitate access for spectators and the media, where broadcast methods seen on the America’s Cup and MedCup stages can be all be used to help spread the word.

Local regattas have also begun using the tools developed in grand prix sailing to make the game easier and more accessible. Organizing tools such as online registration, documentation and scoring templates have become commonplace, as has a greater awareness of the value of using media resources to promote and publicize events. 

So fear not: There’s still a lot that’s attractive about the grand prix game that will benefit us all.

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