Sep 29, 2011, 1:47 PM
Post #1 of 7
THE BIGGEST QUESTION OF ALL
Race format: Theatre or Regatta
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This column by Rod Davis was in the October issue of Seahorse magazine, which covers the cutting edge of the sport like none other. Seahorse is extending a subscription discount to Scuttlebutt readers. Plug in the promo code SBUSA722172 when purchasing your subscription here: http://tinyurl.com/6db3tjg
The show versus the competition. There is a new breed of regatta that I call the 'show', because they have stepped into that murky bog that separates competition from theatre. The Extreme 40 and America's Cup World Series are the leaders in 'show' regattas, and if you believe everything you read in the media you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the way of all sailboat racing. Thankfully the vast majority of regattas are all about the competition.
To distinguish between the two, just answer this one simple question: who is the regatta run for? If your answer is the sailors, you have a regatta, if your answer is the sponsors, TV and the general public, then you have a show.
It all sounds so wonderful. Get some sponsors to pay for regattas around the world and for our sailing, then we can pay all our expenses and pay ourselves too. It will be like getting money for jam. The sponsors want to maximise their exposure, so we seduce the media and the public!
Nice concept, but never forget this is a business deal... your sponsor will want his pound of flesh and more. You have now entered the entertainment business. You might not think of it that way but your new boss certainly does. You will perform on their terms, not yours.
In the new world order of show regattas, sponsors' ROI, TV airtime and engaging the public are the prime targets. Fact: the yachting fraternity is simply too small to justify the big money it takes to run events like the America's Cup World Series, or to participate in them. Just too small a base. Thus the need, and recent obsession, with taking yachting to the masses.
Many have tried, and few have been successful. The leaders are the Extreme 40 series, the Volvo Round the World Race and, new to the scene but with BIG ideas, the AC World Series. The game plan is pretty basic: give the sponsors a viable return on their investment. The bigger the sponsorship the bigger the payback will have to be.
And how do you do that? Make it spectator friendly and exploit the magic of television. And that, my friends, is a tough nut to crack.
It's all about getting on TV. Sailboat racing is not a mainstream sport, so getting a prime time slot is not easy. More like almost impossible. You need WOW factor. But if you can get airtime, get on the evening news around the world, then it is fantastic exposure and free! Capsizes, great big collision - all good. Drama at sea - yep. Race results by themselves - nope, won't make it to the airwaves.
Another emerging medium is live telecasts via the internet. Far cheaper than TV but reaching people who actively seek out the event. Making one hand wash the other is part of the new world of professional sailing.
If you thought professional was just about being paid to sail... sorry; in today's world it has become all encompassing. The Coutts vision is a wholly professional take on our sport. Not just paying a few sailors, but a hundred people on the payroll to run all aspects of the event. Then buy enough powerboats to fill a marina to serve as marks, TV camera platforms, press boats, tents, cranes, the list is endless. We are talking big money here, which comes from people or companies who want serious entertainment to justify their investment.
When a sport or a section of a sport, any sport, dives across the line that distinguishes amateur, with foundations built on volunteering, and professionalism, then you are in for some interesting times.
Are these events selling our sport out in terms of a competition? Yes, to a point. It's still yacht racing, but not as we have known it. Races are started regardless of how little wind there is, or how 'fair' the conditions are because the TV slot does not move for anyone. Time trial stages, like Formula 1 qualifying... you each start in a timed window over a 500m course (just hope there is a nice puff when your slot comes up).
But the showmaker, the guaranteed rating booster, is the capsize. I am waiting for the day (no, it has not happened yet) for the paymasters to say, 'OK, Rod, it's our day for maximum exposure. We need the team to roll the boat over, on camera and in front of the grandstand. Nothing personal, just a business deal.'
So, you are thinking, where does all this take the sport of sailboat racing? These 'show time' regattas still make up no more than one per cent of our sport; by their very nature they get 90 per cent of the media coverage.
The bread and butter of sailboat racing has and always will take place at club level. The local yacht club weekend race around the bay. Boats of all sizes and shapes, sailed by accountants, secretaries, normal people of all levels of sailing skill. They sail for the outdoor experience, camaraderie and just because it is fun, really fun. Imagine that... fun. Not one person outside that club race will ever know about it, or needs to know for that matter. They are doing it for themselves.
Without the yacht clubs and all the people who volunteer their time and expertise, it would not happen. And if racing at the club level doesn't happen, the erosion of the base will undoubtedly cause the collapse of the entire sport.
Sailing clubs still make everything happen, from the Etchells Worlds to the Wednesday night beer can races. From Oppi racing to distance racing. Without the sailing clubs we, as a sport, are sunk. Just like the Titanic.
It is heartening to know that competition remains the catalyst for the vast majority of sailors. Not everyone sings the old song 'I am the entertainer, and I know just where I stand...'
PROMO: This column was in the October issue of Seahorse magazine, which covers the cutting edge of the sport like none other. Seahorse is extending a subscription discount to Scuttlebutt readers. Plug in the promo code SBUSA722172 when purchasing your subscription here: http://tinyurl.com/6db3tjg