#SAILING – Can sailing be a spectator sport for a live audience or for direct transmission on television? Magheramore says it is already happening but the challenge is for clubs and classes to find a way to capitalise on the enthusiasm already generated on professional sailing circuits.
Two recent announcements have made this question of particular interest at the moment: the announcement of the course for the next America's Cup and the RYA Tribunal report effectively closing the "Ainslie" affair.
The 34th America's Cup will effectively take place in a nautical stadium along the San Fransico waterfront, with spectators being able to follow the whole race from the shore.
This is good news for owners of any property with a view over the bay. Purists, amateurs of the classic windward-leeward form of match racing may be less pleased.
The new San Franciso 'stadium' for the 2013 America's Cup
Two issues did not come to the fore in the heated discussions concerning Ben Ainslie's "frank discussion" with a camera boat driver. Firstly, the race course was placed close to the shore for the benefit of spectators, in an area where sea patterns were already disturbed as waves reflected off the breakwaters.
Secondly, this was no rogue cameraman and driver. They were media contracted by ISAF to provide television images at events organised by our sport's governing body.
The truth is that sailing is already a spectator sport. Many participants, including Ben Ainslie, and their support teams, earn a living as a result. Their lifestyle (which may not always be opulent) is funded by revenue generated by the sale of images which provide the basis of most sponsorship deals. If nobody gets to see the racing (either directly or though reports, resumes or pictures) then that revenue will disappear. ISAF has been told clearly that either sailing gets screen time or it will be out of the Olympics. Without the revenue generated by the Olympics many national sailing federations will be in financial trouble.
Schull in West Cork turns out for the 2011 ISAF Team Racing World Championships. Photo: Brian Carlin
Some sailing events are naturally spectacular and spectator friendly. Any of you who have witnessed the knock-out rounds of the Wilson Trophy, Europs's premier team racing event, will know what I mean. The course is no bigger than a football pitch, with boats sailing to within a few metres of the packed grandstand. Teams are clearly identified by coloured hulls and sails, with crew assigned to specific boats. In this way the team of commentators know who is in each boat. The running commentary keeps the somewhat partisan crowd fully informed. The atmosphere resembles the famous chariot race scene from Ben Hur. Nothing in Olympic sailing is as exciting and as perfect for television.
Other events are specifically organised to attract spectators and media. The French oceanic races are an example. The media build up can last a week or more, with radio and TV brodcasting live from the quayside. The sponsors of the event and the competing boats vie with each other to attract the attention of the thousands of visitors who come to see the boats, meet the sailors be entertained, and, this is France after all, fed. Sponsorship is facilitated by tax arrangements so that even quite small companies can get involved. The investment in a boat and crew is worthwhile as sailing, and especially the big races, are one of the most televised sports.
The start of a race will, of course, be timed so that the last few minutes before the gun can be shown live on the midday news. The media is omnipresent – helicopters buzz overhead, motor boats flood the start area, whilst the more audacious photographers zoom around on jet-skis, with the camera attached to their helmet. A disparate fleet of spectator boats line up along the edge of the no-go zone; car ferries, tourist boats (the 3 course lunch is included), old gaffers, cruisers, RIBs... anything goes. The scene resembles the evacuation from Dunkirk (without the guns!). In the midst of all this, professional sailors try to manoeuvre their boats to the start line without damage to their own boats or the fleet milling around them.
Crowds turnout for the 2009 VOR in Galway. Photo: Rick Tomlinson
We all remember the Volvo in Galway. The French do this several times a year, forming the basis of a whole industry, from boat-builders and sailmakers to event organisers, coaches, journalists.
Professional sailors will increasingly have to realise that they are in the entertainment business. Their job is not to win races but to win prime time minutes and column inches for their sponsors. Events for professional sailors will be designed to be spectacular and television friendly. Some of these events, such as the next America's Cup, will bear little ressemblance to the racing that we, the recreational sailors, enjoy.
The challenge, for federations, clubs, classes and all sailors is how to harness the enthusiasm generated by the professional circuits to benefit sailing as a whole. – Magheramore