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The real game changer

by Mark Jardine 21 Mar 11:00 PDT
New Zealand partially lifted on her L-Foils and sailing on the Waitemata Harbour, Auckland, New Zealand © Swan Images / www.sail-world.com

Back in 2012, Sail-World.com's Richard Gladwell posted a story and photos of the Emirates Team New Zealand's AC72 foiling on Waitemata Harbour. At the time, the first reaction of many observers was 'this is photoshopped'. How could a 72-foot-long catamaran foil?

As we soon knew, it wasn't the work of a graphic designer; the Kiwi team had worked out how to get their cat foiling within the AC72 rules, something which left the other challenging teams, and the America's Cup defenders ORACLE Team USA, desperately scrambling to catch up and implement themselves.

It led to the remarkable 34th America's Cup in September 2013, where in the first-to-nine series the Americans came back from 8-1 down to the Kiwis to win, with what many within in sport regard as the greatest comeback of all time.

Jimmy Spithill was lauded as a hero. Ben Ainslie - who stepped on the boat from race 6 onwards, replacing John Kostecki as tactician - was regarded as pivotal, and a certain Tom Slingsby was quietly going about his business as strategist. The ETNZ skipper Dean Barker cut a dejected figure, but as we know the Kiwis again changed the game a few years later to win the 35th America's Cup.

So, this was a game changing moment, and the point that the America's Cup turned into a foiling event, but the real game changer has happened more recently. It is far more under the radar, and on the face of it doesn't evoke the kind of excitement that a maxi catamaran fully clear of the water does.

The real game changer for sailing is happening right now in the SailGP, and it's all about franchises. The America's Cup has always had owners buying in to trying to win the Auld Mug, but they are often transient, becoming disillusioned with the four years required to develop a competitive yacht, the huge team of personnel required, all for a single event.

With SailGP, franchise owners are buying in to the concept of the circuit and what it stands for. In John Curnow's brilliant interview with Russell Coutts, the process of building an engaging product, attracting fans and investors, is all laid out in detail.

As Russell said, "Prior to this, sailing was viewed as being in some ways a pretty cool sport, but slow, hard to follow, hard to understand, hard to get access to, and all of this has now changed. It's almost as if you'd consider it as a brand-new sport, where all of a sudden you can actually watch it. It's not too long, it's a 90-minute timeframe, which is similar to any other televised sport. You can access it, you can actually get close to the racing, watch it, and now with technology providing graphics that means you can readily understand it."

For sure we've had televised sailing circuits before, such as the Ultimate / Ultra 30s, and the Extreme 40s, but the key difference was that the investors were sponsors of the boats, rather than franchise owners. Sailing now has its marquee asset, a series which is up there with the likes of Formula 1 in motorsport, the Premier League in football, or the NFL in the other kind of football. Sailing is in the process of hitting the big time, and it's exciting.

This was all summed up beautifully in John's interview, when Russell Coutts added, "As the product gets in front of people, they start to realise what it is; they start to make a comparison between other racing products. All of a sudden there's this new property that's obviously got a fantastic tagline - powered by nature - and thereby an amazing connection to some of the major challenges that the world's facing now. It's pretty appealing to a lot of companies, and in my experience in sailing I've never had a situation where companies have been approaching us like I've got today."

'Powered by Nature' is a big draw when talking with corporate investors who are trying to portray a clean image, and the SailGP is also thinking ahead with a women's league in the pipeline as well. To be successful in the long-term SailGP needs to be at the forefront and setting the trends. There are of course things to iron out, and ideas need to reach fruition, but remember we're only in Season 2 of the circuit, and it's been a massively disrupted time. SailGP is something sailing should be proud of.

This upcoming weekend sees the Grand Final of SailGP Season 2 in San Francisco. The afterguard of the ORACLE Team USA AC72 are three of the skippers of the F50 catamarans and, together with the likes of Nathan Outteridge and Peter Burling, are the go-to personalities, where rivalries are the name of the game.

Jimmy Spithill is the master of the mind-game. Back in 2013, at 8-1 down in the America's Cup he famously said, "Mate, you can be a rooster one day and a feather duster the next," and he's already turning up the pressure ahead of the weekend's racing now that he's skipper of the Unites States SailGP Team:

"The event is almost sold out and I can't wait to see that huge turnout on the weekend. It's just great to see how much interest there's been; it's going to be a massive event in front of our home crowd, and I am really looking forward to it. We are the underdogs, but that's not a bad thing in San Francisco."

His former strategist Tom Slingsby is at the top of his game, and also top of the SailGP leaderboard as helmsman of the Australian SailGP Team. He is no stranger to Jimmy's press conference quotes, but he's confident in his own skill and the sailors around him, as he said after the team's first practice session on San Francisco Bay:

"It was really beautiful conditions out there today. We had a great session; our boat handling was good, and we were practicing a few moves for this weekend. The level was high on the water, and it was tough to gain advantage over our rivals in speed. The U.S. team looked strong, but we were certainly in the mix, so it bodes well for the Grand Final."

If you're lucky enough to be in San Francisco, then get yourself a front-row ticket to watch the action live. For the rest of us, we can watch all the action unfold on Youtube, the SailGP app or TV, depending on which territory you're in. We'll embed the racing on the Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com homepages. In some countries the Youtube feed is blocked, so take a look at sailgp.com/watch to find your options.

This is the future of mainstream sailing, presented to the world and bringing the sport to a whole generation of current non-sailors. Those with vested interests in the America's Cup need to take note to ensure the Auld Mug doesn't become a footnote in sailing's history.

Mark Jardine
Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com Managing Editor

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