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Gladwell's Line: SailGP gets turbo'd for Season 2

by Richard Gladwell, 9 Feb 03:20 PST 8 February 2020
Tom Slingsby - Final - Sail GP - Marseille - September 22, 2019 © Sam Greenfield for SailGP

SailGP was very much at the forefront of the sailing stage this week - and not for what happened on the water.

The first SailGP regatta for the 2020 circuit gets underway on picturesque Sydney harbour at the end of February.

It will be the first hit-out between two very good "America's Cup" teams - one past, the other present.

The 2019 Champion, Australia SailGP, is stacked with members of Oracle America's Cup crew. The Tom Slingsby-led crew won the Final in Marseille and took away the winners purse of $1million -after a very close race with the Japan Sail GP.

What was surprising in that 2019 event was the performance of the two Asian teams from Japan and China, finishing second and third in the six-boat event. Nathan Outteridge, best known for his role as skipper of Artemis Racing in the 2017 Louis Vuitton Trophy and 2012 Olympic Gold medalist stays in the skipper's seat for Japan SailGP. Japan contested the SailGP Final in Marseille and missed winning the US$1million winner take all cash prize, after leading for four of the five legs. They only lost their grip on the Million dollar winner takes all prize, when they failed by a few centimetres to maintain an overlap on Slingsby, who quickly seized the advantage, snatched the lead and was off like a dog that's just grabbed the family roast.

In the SailGP musical chairs played ahead of the new season, Outteridge's long-standing sailing partner Iain Jensen, moves across to Ainslie's team. The Australian Olympic Gold and Silver medal winner signed on with Ainslie after the 2017 America's Cup when Outteridge moved to New Zealand and switched the Nacra 17 class with his sister Hayley as crew. Whether Japan SailGP will be the force that it was in 2019 SailGP remains to be seen.

Former China SailGP skipper Phil Robertson will helm the new Spain SailGP team until August when designated skipper Jordi Xammer returns from Olympic duties in the 470 class.

One of the new teams in town - Great Britain, was taken over by INEOS in November. The SailGP program will run alongside their America's Cup campaign and will put some serious needle into the F50 competition. Denmark is the other new team on the 2020 SailGP circuit.

Last year, the SailGP had an aura of being an exhibition sailing event. The competition was very much feeling its way, with a new concept, new boats, new crews and a new circuit of venues. The series rapidly progressed through sailing-puberty in the space of 10 months, culminating in a very tight Final, between the two Australian skippers - who both had the most foiling experience of the six skippers. They were only two helms of the six, who'd competed in the Bermuda AC.

This season, with Ainslie, Outteridge and Slingsby going head to head, the circuit will have a much harder edge. It should be taken much more seriously by fans outside the regatta venues.

SailGP sits in the same slot that the America's Cup World Series occupied in the 2013 and 2017 America's Cup cycles. Both made a big impact on the venues but didn't have the same size footprint on TV.

That's a combination of a couple of issues - of not being free to air or available live, and in replay on Youtube.

Its other issues were that everyone seemed to come away happy at the end of each regatta - when the fans all knew there were winner and losers - and the latter naturally had a right to be publicly grumpy with their performance. But that impression never really came across to the audience outside the venue.

For some reason, sailing events seem to be over-managed by their PR people and the outcome is very sanitised coverage - which doesn't happen in other competitive professional sports. Overzealous PR can soon rip the flair out of the sailors and has achieved this in most events, with the desperately needed characters of sport being neutered.

You don't see a losing captain or coach running around with a smile on their faces after a match. They usually have some acerbic comments for the post-match media conferences. In other sports, the loser of a game who walks off the field smiling, has their body language picked up quickly by the fans who ask "do you enjoy losing?" You could see the real reaction, in Nathan Outteridge's body language immediately after losing the critical race. That says volumes to fans about the intensity of the competition, and that the sailors have given their all.

But that reaction also has to be taken into the post-race interviews and media conferences (if there is one).

Sailing desperately needs more Jimmy Spithills and Grant Daltons, who can fire up an event with a couple of straight-shooting comments.

The same applies to the commentary team - who also make or break an event. The 2019 commentators Shirley Robertson and Jody Shiels may have been the Odd Couple - but it worked. He with the quick eye, and words to back it up. She bringing a superb technical understanding, and connections within the sport that are second to none.

Shiels and Robertson have not been re-signed for 2020, and their replacement will be faced with trying to clear a very high bar. Sitting in a commentary booth, often thousands of miles away from the sailing venue and providing live commentary to a video passing and changing in front of you, is a very challenging task. The best exponents of this Black Art are few. Of whom, just two, PJ Montgomery and Jody Shiels are in a league of their own. It's a role that relies completely on raw talent and can never be learned or taught.

A great sailor doesn't make a great commentator, for the simple reasons that they won't call out their mates, and they lack the ability to recognise a storyline and develop it during the commentary.

Commentary is an occupation that requires constant practice. You can't step out of the boat park, get behind a microphone and do a good job for the listeners/viewers.

The injection of Ben Ainslie into the SailGP circuit should be the antidote for any impression of laissez-faire performances in 2000. While the takeover by INEOS of the British SailGP was announced last November, on Friday, the team announced its lineup which includes the winners of six Olympic medals and a couple of Silver.

As we saw in the ACWS series in 2017, Ainslie plays for keeps and always keeps squeezing for that final centimetre of advantage which might get him an extra point. It's an approach that often has the dual effect of tying his opponent in knots - increasing Ainslie's advantage.

The SailGP series will be a vital part of the workup for INEOS Team UK in its America's Cup campaign - adding to the needle that Ainslie, the four-time Olympic Gold medalist will bring to the 2020 SailGP regatta circuit. Further, the six INEOS crew are getting racing practice in a foiling apparent wind class, which means they should be race-sharp coming into the Prada Cup starting a couple of months after the SailGP circuit concludes.

The announcement of a minority shareholding in SailGP being acquired by Endeavor, a Hollywood based global, entertainment, sports and content company, is believed to be a first for sailing.

While the acquisition of professional sailing circuit by a new owner is not unusual. Endeavor taking a minority stake in SailGP is a sign that professional sailing has turned the corner, and is now positioned alongside other top-shelf sports and events. The F50 sits in the same genre as the AC72, the AC50 and now AC75. There is no doubt the mainstream sports fans "get" these foiling boats, even if some regular sailing fans might like a return to highly tactical racing in relatively slow keelboats.

Endeavor's buy-in before the start of the second season of racing in SailGP is significant. Endeavor is known as a very aggressive company, which takes risks, and picks winners. The shareholding acquisition also puts an interesting value on SailGP at US$200million.

Buy-in by a partner, into an event that is still very much in its youth, must be measured in terms of the added value they bring to the event rather than the dollars injected. It would seem that SailGP is looking for the know-how and connections that a partner like Endeavor can bring.

Endeavor should be able to open doors more quickly for both SailGP and the teams to get sponsors involved for the event and teams.

SailGP needs to get its TV model right.

As with the last America's Cup, the rights-based model doesn't work. It might provide income to help offset production costs, but the issue with the rights payments model is that the subscription channels have the ability to up the ante and beat the free to air channels which provide the biggest audiences.

In New Zealand, with the proliferation of SkyTV, the issue is not so acute with around 750,000 subscribers. However overseas without such a dominant player in the subscription TV market, sailing fans are often forced to take out a six-month subscription to a channel, just to watch a month of TV coverage of the America's Cup.

Regardless of where SailGP is held, it will always be out of a convenient timezone for viewing by regular fans. Replay on-demand on Youtube is the best way for fans to have access to an event, and most importantly be able to see it at a time convenient to them without being aware of the result.

The free to air model for the next America's Cup will be of real interest - not just to the fans - but also to event organisers.

Endeavor is the owner of the International Management Group, founded by Mark McCormack, who was one of the first to understand how to manage players, events and sponsors. He started with an unknown golfer, Arnold Palmer and grew the business into the dominant force in the sports market. His book "What they don't teach you at Harvard Business School" should be the basic text for anyone contemplating a professional sports career. Endeavor is also the owner of one of the first talent agencies in Hollywood, and one would expect to see SailGP quickly build on its 2019 foundations.

For the sailors, Endeavor is a good deal, as with radical changes coming in the Olympic events for the 2024 cycle starting in six months, above average weight male sailors will be excluded. If they want to stay in sailing, the 85kg plus males will probably head for the professional sailing events beyond the reach of the tentacles of the Panjandrums of Paddington.

Endeavor should be able to work with the existing teams, new teams and venues hopefully will be the oil in the SailGP engine.

Maybe it should be no surprise that Russell Coutts, was one of two speakers featured at Global Sports Week, held in Paris and which finished on Friday. The Olympic Gold Medalist and five-times America's Cup winner featured in the segment "Meet the Athlete-Preneur".

SailGP in 2020 will be watched with a lot of interest. It will pick up from where the Final in Marseille left off. The Endeavor involvement while it is good for SailGP, it will also be good for the sport from Professional Sailing down to kids wanting to join Sailing Clubs inspired by their TV sailing rockstars.

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