Dinghy racing sailors took another small step along the route to a full-on professional circuit recently. The six named events forming the basis of the new (revamped) ISAF circuit for the Olympic classes have made their presentations and the scheme awaits ratification by the ISAF Council in November.
Presented as a Tennis ATP type circuit, the ISAF World series will link the major Olympic class’s regattas of Australia, America, Spain, Holland, France and Germany in a fledgling professional series.
With many aspiring Olympic sailors already sailing full-time, backed by a mix of national funding and sponsorship, this circuit formalises the existing ad hoc regular circuit route. And it would also seem to provide an opportunity for increased event and personal sponsorship, with performance bonuses, as the series gains acceptance and prestige.
Unlike other major sports, which already had iconic events - Tennis with Wimbledon, Golf the various Opens etc - which formed the basis for a professional circuit, dinghy sailing remained an 'amateur' sport, with a small number transferring to the professional big boat circuits (Volvo, AC).
The only recognised pinnacle for dinghy sailors was the Olympic Games, where yachting clung as a little reported sideshow to the glamorous athletics events. While the old european communist block took sailing in its usual organised manner, most western countries saw dinghy sailing as a weekend pastime and the Olympic classes as a last minute diversion.
The introduction of more readily available classes and the efforts of the ISAF to ensure that sailing remained an Olympic sport, with the steady development of Olympic classes regattas and 'world' championships has encouraged the growth of the 'full-time' dinghy sailor. And in the case of Briton the parallel development of a state (lottery) sponsored system of development - resulting in sailing becoming the most successful British Olympic sport.
Can dinghy sailing (Olympic classes that is) support a professional circuit? Will the proposed ISAF circuit attract new sponsorship and prize money and prove to be the catalyst for an ATP Tennis type circuit?
Possibly not without the development of improved media (TV) coverage, which drives most other professional sports and is only a factor for dinghy sailing at the four yearly Olympics. The improved visibilty of the ISAF World Series circuit could go some way to filling in that gap.
To ask is this what dinghy sailors want is to miss the point. It is what the organisers of dinghy sailing want. The sport has moved on from the club based weekend pastime - few Olympic classes are regularly sailed at any sailing clubs in Britain - and most likely the top sailors of that class would not even bother with the class nationals once they are on the 'circuit'.
It is now two sports, one a weekend pastime sailing in your chosen class and attending the annual championship. The other a full-time sport in a designated international class, involving continuous training and travel to events.
Olympic dinghy sailing is a full time business if you expect to stand any chance of winning medals. It is also becoming harder to break into these specialist classes unless you have followed the prescribed route and been 'spotted' by one of the coaches.
The likely outcome from the arrival of a full-time professional circuit will be the break-up of the nationality driven concept and the formation of a 'players' association, separate from the organising association, to negotiate and represent the competitors. If it follows the other professional sports this will also mean personnel managers, coaches and media/sponsor teams.
By the time of the 2012 games in the UK we could be looking at a very different set-up.