Last Friday, Richard Worth, newly appointed to the role of Chairman, Management Board America’s Cup Event Authority, was on stage at the Briefing for Prospective Competitors for the 34th America’s Cup.
The meeting took place in Paris, behind closed doors, and was the first chance for many of the prospective teams to hear from first hand Worth, and Regatta Director Iain Murray.
Worth heads the body charged with the marketing and media aspects of the 34th Match and its supporting events – if a World Championship could be called a supporting event. Murray controls the racing side of the America's Cup events.
There was a good walk-up audience for the one day session at the Crowne Plaza – a much larger attendance than the critics expected.
All told 45 representatives of 24 teams heard Worth and Murray outline the planned workings of the regattas, boats and media to the audience - many of whom are expected to become Challengers for the 34th America’s Cup, for which entries will open in less than a week’s time.
Along with newly appointed ACEA CEO, Craig Thompson, Worth is recognized for having a pivotal role in the growth of the UEFA Champions League, which over the space of 20 years has become one of the most successful properties and most watched competitions in world sport.
Their task is officially described as 'to re-position the America’s Cup to attract more fans and commercial interest, while delivering the events in new and exciting formats.'
Both worked together at sports marketing agency, T.E.A.M, and in that capacity worked closely with the governing bodies for the Olympics, soccer and athletics – the IOC, FIFA, UEFA and IAAF plus other leading sports federations and rights holders.
In a previous life, Worth earned his spurs as a lead sports producer with Britain’s ITV network.
Their appointment comes at a time when the America’s Cup is in a state of change – maybe the most radical change in its 160 year history.
Those changes have not been gladly received by the sailing fans, who in response to a questionnaire
say they would rather watch matchracing in monohulls than multihulls – with a massive 72% favouring the monohull option that has been used for 32 of the 34 Matches. Perhaps surprisingly 55% of the respondents wanted to see racing continued in a displacement boat.
Speaking from his London home, Worth gives a quick take on the survey result.
'You can’t walk away from your fan base – I don’t think that is in anyone’s interest.'
But Worth and Thompson are no strangers to overseeing radical changes in sporting events - having done a similar job on European football, to that envisaged for the America’s Cup. Often those changes are not initially supported by the aficionados.
'20 years ago UEFA decided that the current European Cup could become something different. There were voices then who didn’t think that anything different was required,' Worth recalls.
'Back then, the fans of certain countries in Europe would be very focused on their own team, and wouldn’t know anyone else. But now, the interest has exploded and the sports and football fans take a great interest in what is happening in other teams and their individual players.
'The competition has grown to the point where you could argue that the money is crazy and the investment required is detracting from other sports.
'The point is that 20 years ago none of this existed, and now, looking back, the effect has been something quite dramatic.'
'We want to set up a springboard for the America’s Cup that will last beyond the 34th America’s Cup, and beyond Golden Gate Yacht Club being the Defender', he adds. More about Ambition than Certainty
That’s a bold aspiration for an event that has suffered falling ratings, particularly in the USA, to the point where TV rights were given away for the 33rd America’s Cup, earlier this year.
Sure there was some real success with the 32nd America’s Cup, which returned a record dividend to the competitors, however the combination of world recession and two protracted litigation wars in 20 years have hosed down sailing previously loyal fanbase, and has completely evaporated the general public’s interest.
Against that backdrop, what was Richard Worth able to tell the Propspective Competitors, which would enthuse them to fill out a Notice of Challenge come 1 November?
'I think Paris was more about ambition than certainty, because we are not yet into the Television Rights market.
'There are some things that have to come first - the number of teams that are going to enter, then where the venues will be, and the dates.
'Once we have more certainty around those parameters, we can begin to construct packages for commercial partners who are interested in the America’s Cup, and related Series, over the next three years.'
Obviously there is a key date coming up - November 1st being the first time that teams can formally enter. Currently there are also negotiations underway to select venues for the World Series regattas and the venue for the America’s Cup Match itself.
'It is very hard for potential commercial partners to commit, when we are without certainty on those key issues. What was presented on Friday at Paris, to the competitors, was really our ambitions. We also wanted to relay the message to the potential teams that they have to play a part in this, as well', Worth adds.
The ACEA Chairman has a simple theme that he keeps coming back on – which is that the bigger the event, the better for all. In other words, the more teams who enter – the more synergy there is for the wider America’s Cup professional circuit.
'Simply, the more teams that enter, the more commercial power there is for them, therefore the event potential is also stronger,' Worth says. 'On Friday, we did deal with projection of audience figures. Our ambition is to create programming that is suitable for broadcasters of all types – big powerful broadcasters, sports channels, web based broadcasters or whatever. Our belief is if we can construct the right framework of World Series venue regattas, then the potential for audience growth is pretty substantial.'
'The future success of the America’s Cup relates to the willingness of all the parties to work together. That includes the people who are running ACRM now, the teams themselves, and the individual sailors.
'If you want to move your sport forward, if you want to make dramatic strides, then we all have to contribute somehow. That means embracing the things that need to be done. And if everybody embraces the need to make these events work, then I think the potential is there, for sure.' Was Fremantle - the zenith of the America's Cup?
Throwing a cold bucket of reality on Worth’s vision, we recall one of Michael Fay’s great comments, that 'the 12 metres were very lucky to find Fremantle', and note that the America’s Cup has never since reached those heights of 1986/87, or captured the general public’s attention in quite the same way.
Worth doesn’t respond directly to the line, but takes a much wider view of the development of sports broadcasting generally.
'I think one of the keys is technology. If we just go back to 1987 and what television looked like in those days, what has happened since is dramatic - the explosion of channels, and the different forms of media that exists today. That didn’t exist 20 years ago.
'Technology is the key here, not only just the range of outlets – but also the way that television is created these days.
'I think that the Formula 1 racing model, is parallel to what we could achieve for the America’s Cup, in the sense that F1 have worked really hard to get cameras really close to the action - together with the sound – you can hear what the drivers are saying to the pit teams, within seconds of them having said it. Those very kinds of things add to the potential for much more dramatic pictures – boosted by the level of investment we can put into this.
'If we can use the best technology available – then we can make some substantial strides in television coverage. We can make sailing, and this type of sailing particularly, a truly attractive proposition for broadcasters.
'We shouldn’t be naïve, but at the moment it is very hard to walk into any traditional broadcaster’s office and convince them that sailing, as it is today, will work on television and should be screened by them.
'It doesn’t for all the reasons we know being a lack of certainty of race start and finish times, and the inability to judge what is actually going on. I think a lot of the technology that is being developed now will begin to answer some of these issues - and gives the potential platform for traditional broadcasters to take a real interest in the America’s Cup.'
We picked up on Worth’s comment about the 'inability to judge what is actually going on', given that for almost 20 years, sailing, and America’s Cup in particular, has been notable for the development of real-time animation and replays which have been incorporated into the broadcast of many sports. In fact, sailing has been the world leader in this regard.
'That technology might be becoming a thing of the past,' replies Worth. 'Stan Honey who is very well known in the sailing world, is working very hard on something known as 'live-overlay-graphics'.
'This means that we can take the actual picture of what is happening – whether it is shot from a helicopter or from the shore or wherever, and make a production signal that is much more easy to follow, and doesn’t necessarily rely on animated technology to give you an indication of what is happening.
'You will be able to see what is happening with the live pictures and graphics-overlay.
'In sailing you are shooting from a helicopter, the boats are moving, the water is moving – and what Stan Honey is doing is to put the right lines on the actual picture which gives us the ability to have graphics helping to tell the story, better than ever before. It is quite revolutionary,' he adds.
'In all views you will have a super-imposed line, which is telling you at all times what is happening, such as who is leading. This will be laid over a live picture, not an animated picture.
'The technology is definitely there to do it. But it does take time to do specific development related to the sport that you are considering. One size does not fit all sports. It does need the people to understand what is going on in a sailing race, like Stan Honey does. Those people need to be the ones that are working on it, and that is absolutely the case with the 34th America’s Cup.' Shifting from the Flintstones to the Facebooks
One of the clichés of the 34th America’s Cup is the comment from Russell Coutts, at the first media conference in Rome in early May, that the organizers wanted to move the event from the 'Flintstone generation to the Facebook generation'.
In America’s Cup terms, Richard Worth see this more as an expanding of the audience, rather than just shifting to a younger age group of die-hard sailing fans.
'It is our view that whatever changes we make to the event and television coverage, the sailing audience is going to watch it anyway. They 'get' the sport and they understand what is going on. The sailing fans will be there because it is important to them and they want to watch the America’s Cup.
'There is a way to impact a much bigger audience who are not necessarily weekend sailors or fans of sailors. This audience is casually interested in sports, and they are the people that we are trying to embrace and grow with. A lot of that audience attraction and growth comes with general television and sports channel television.
'What Russell is saying is there is a far bigger audience there that we can appeal to, and I think he is dead right. For an example, look at some of the sports that were introduced to the Winter Olympics – like the Snowboard Cross. Kids come charging over mountains on snowboards, making leaps, and it looks both different and interesting. There are things like that which can wake up an audience that haven’t previously had an interest in the America’s Cup. We have to do to bring in a wider and broader audience.'
Worth sees the web-based media having a strong role in America’s Cup broadcasting, both of the America’s Cup World Championship events using the AC45’s and the AC72’s, and the America’s Cup Match itself.
He sees the web as being the broadcast backbone, if you will, in that it provides the day in day out, full live coverage that satisfies the die-hard sailing fans, but is not commercially viable for the general broadcasters or even the sports channels – who might come in for live coverage on the final day of a nine day World Championship regatta, or the final days of an America’s Cup.
Worth comes back to one of his themes about the re-vitalised America’s Cup which is need for all media to be worked together as a complete event offering.
'The ability of the web based media to be supportive with that the mainstream media is pretty significant. A strong, rigid internet web-based coverage is a very formidable asset', he adds.
'The whole media landscape should be taken as one. Each aspect should all be supportive of everything else. Overall, the event must have a significant presence, whatever type of media it might be. All of it should be looked at as free publicity.
'On Facebook they claim some 500 million viewers users worldwide, and while not every one of those is going to get behind the America’s Cup, it is an enormous medium for free publicity and free promotion. We can use the social media to drive event publicity and promotion.
'We have to use smart moves to try and coordinate all these media. We can get these Facebook, social media and web viewers to move across to become part of the regular live TV audience.
'It is a pyramid of the media landscape, if you will. Everything supports everything else,' Worth adds. The Battle for the USA
USA is the big television challenge for Richard Worth, Craig Thompson, Iain Murray and their teams.
Worth believes they can reverse the falling ratings, helped by the United States being the Defender of the America’s Cup once again, and with the additional prospect of a Defence on home turf, so to speak. 'It’s not hard to generate a compelling story from that, coupled with a production of outstanding quality,' he says.
The conflict between the traditions of the sport and the needs of a television production are something that Worth and Thompson have had to cope with on an ongoing basis with European football, and others sports broadcasts.
'In my view, you can’t interfere with the tradition of the sport and the end-bit', as he interestingly describes the America’s Cup Match. 'With the America’s Cup you have to let it unfold so that the participants feel that the sailing challenge they have got is appropriate.
'You could have one race and it is all over – but the America’s Cup has to be played out in the way that it has always been done. You have to balance the integrity of the sport with new ideas for coverage, and for the enjoyment of fans at the actual regatta venue.
As for the introduction of some very basic changes to a long standing sporting event, Worth notes that the advent of 20/20 Cricket has not killed the One Day game or Test Matches – even though most cricket aficionados believed that the introduction of the new forms, was the beginning of the end for the traditional cricket game.
'Somehow the AC World Championships will have to fit in to both develop its own format, and work alongside the America’s Cup itself. But no matter what the change, you have to protect the unpredictability of 'the end bit' – be it an America’s Cup World Series Final, or America’s Cup Match.'
The America’s Cup World Series/Championship, consisting of 13 rounds spread over 2011, 2012 and 2013 will provide the ACEA with some challenges, particularly to develop a new television and media package and make it work in a way that suits the requirements of the venue, the ACWC broadcast, and yet still supports the America’s Cup itself.
Part of role of the AC World Series is to develop a fanbase for the America’s Cup itself, by building interest in the teams initially, then develop the game’s characters, and then keep the new fans coming back for more.
As head of the America’s Cup Event Authority, Worth is not daunted by the task ahead – even though the America’s Cup might be starting with a crumbling toe-hold at the bottom of a cliff.
'In a way the task ahead is quite easy', he says confidently, and seeing the parallels that with the development of European football. 'The sailing fans want the America’s Cup to work; general viewers and broadcasters want it; sponsors want it; and everyone wants to be involved in it.
'The America’s Cup is glamorous. It’s compelling, and usually something happens.'
But is this the formula to pull the new fans?
We'll know in late 2013.