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SailGP: Venue choices confirm three teams at risk - a top five team to be chopped

by Richard Gladwell/Sail-World.com/nz 9 Jul 11:03 PDT 10 July 2024
Three teams have been put on Notice of their pending departure from SailGP for 2025 © Bob Martin/SailGP

The announcement of SailGP's Season 5 racing schedule and venues, along with the publication latest edition of video 'Racing on the Edge' says a lot about the shape and momentum of the professional sailing league.

Racing on the Edge makes much of the fact that there will be 11 teams in Season 5, one more than for Season 4 - the persistent line from League bosses that with two new teams be coming in, taking two boats least one of the existing teams who rely on the SailGP League for funding, will be cut ahead of Season 5 starting in November.

Early in the video there is a sequence with SailGP Managing Director Andrew Thompson, saying on a phone call, purportedly with CEO Russell Coutts, where Thompson says "that's great for the League, but the bottom line is that, we'll have to let one of the teams go for next season."

Coutts responds saying "well that's going to have to be either Canada, France or Spain, right now."

French skipper Quentin Delapierre says that one team will go with two teams coming in. The three teams mentioned as being under notice all draw partial funding from the League, along with the Kiwis. Although no sponsor/ownership announcement has been made, Australia appears to have found full funding. Currently the sale prices for a team, stated in the video are currently between $45-80million. While funded on a completely different basis, an America's Cup program comes in at around $120million.

The exit of at least one team is a continuing theme in the video, with SailGP Canada skipper Phil Robertson saying "our neck is on the chopping block - we could be one of those teams that could be kicked out."

In the video. Thompson seems keen to put the boot into the Canadians, saying in another conversation clip - for which the cameras just happened be in position to pick up - Thompson takes Robertson aside in a crowded function in Canada SailGP telling the former world match racing champion that "we've got two or three people coming for your team in the weekend. So you guys are going to need to win, that would obviously help."

The Canadians failed to qualify for the three boat Final in their home regatta in Halifax.

Later in the video, Thompson recants saying "things have changed big time for Canada. After Halifax and New York [the following event] there was an explosion of interest from different groups of Canadian owners, and I would put Canada as favorites to stay in the competition for next season."

Later in the video Robertson confirms they have some interest in buying the team, previously owned by a group of crypto-currency entrepreneurs, who dropped out after the first year, leaving the Canadians to be funded by the League. "We have a fish on the hook" says Robertson of their sponsorship progress, the Kiwi skipper in addition to his SailGP duties is co-helming/coaching Alinghi Red Bull Racings training boat, along with fellow Kiwi Dean Barker.

Continuing to hypothesise over the line up for Season 5, Thompson points out that Spain have the least number of sponsors. "France have a way to go, as well. They need to start making some inroads quickly. These sponsorship decisions don't happen overnight."

The announcement of a 14 event circuit hasn't done the 'on notice' teams any favours. None now have a home venue that they can offer potential sponsors as part of their package. That puts sponsors in the position of having to fly in and host VIPs, and limits the opportunities for local fan engagement. In the Season 4 schedule, France and Canada both had home SailGP events.

As in F1, a home regatta results in a very public demonstration of support for the home team, that in turn encourages potential sponsors to be swept along by the fan enthusiasm - as happened for Canada SailGP team - after Halifax, and nearby New York events. A week or two earlier their future was under a financial blowtorch.

France are the only team to be running a dual SailGP and America's Cup team - and would seem to have a strong sponsorship offering, but are probably more focused on what is happening in Barcelona in 44 days.

"Certainly there is one team that is going to have to leave the League," says Coutts. "Right now the teams that have been notified. Right now the team that have been notified are Canada, France and Spain, but if they all found funding. Then that leaves one other team that could be dropped - New Zealand."

Not mentioned is that fact that those four teams occupy the top five places on the Season 4 leaderboard, going into the $2million Grand Final this weekend in San Francisco. New Zealand and probably Spain are each assured of a place in the Final, with Australia sitting in second spot, and like the Kiwis will be in the Final.

Teams coming in are Brazil which is already announced, and maybe Italy - headed up by double America's Cup champion and Luna Rossa co-helm Jimmy Spithill.

Of course, a 12th boat would solve the dilemma completely. All F50s are owned by the SailGP League, and were built in the former SailGP construction facility in Warkworth, an hour's drive north of Auckland . However that facility has now been sold to RocketLab, who retained most of the staff. A new facility for SailGP has been set up in Southern England.

The contrived discussions around who will come and who will go is a great talking point ahead of the San Francisco regatta, and one which no doubt will be milked at every opportunity over the next few days by League mandarins and their media. For all their harsh words and grim expressions, it is hard to see the League giving one of the top five teams the boot to allow the entry of two new teams. Because of the limited practice allowed to all teams in the F50 wingsailed foiling catamarans, historically new teams have found it difficult to get traction in the high-octane competition against the established teams.

Even the British team which counts four Olympic Gold medals between its helmsman and strategist, to say nothing of another four Olympic Golds won by its CEO and previous helmsman, languishes in seventh place on the Season 4 leaderboard.

The schedule of venues gives some inkling as to who might make the Season 5 line-up.

The new Season 5 venues are Brazil, Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland. Gone are Chicago - reducing the USA circuit to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. The only French venue, Saint Tropez is gone, as are Halifax (Canada), and Bermuda - venue for the 2017 America's Cup - where the then AC50, now F50 class had its genesis.

Significantly none of the three teams said to be "on notice" (France, Spain and Canada) have been allocated a home regatta in SailGP Season 5.

As previously announced Season 5 will start and finish in the Middle East, with the opening regatta in Dubai, on November 23-24, 2024. There is one Middle East venue yet to be confirmed, and with the Grand Final being sailed in Abu Dhabi, UAE at the end of November 2025. Starting in mid January 2025, there is essentially one regatta every month, with a tight three regatta circuit in Europe, starting on September 6, in Italy, and ending on October 6 in Spain, with a third European circuit regatta on Lake Geneva on 20-22 September.

Despite not having a team in the regatta, the Middle East has been allocated three regattas. The League has a difficulty getting new teams established when the team only has a small sailing base to draw on. Only a small percentage of sailors are capable of stepping up into the F50. Increasingly the teams are being padded out with sailors of fortune - losing their national flavour. In any pro sailing event it is hard to build a local fan base, when there are only one or two nationals are on the team.

The New Zealand event will now be held in Auckland from January 18-19, 2025. That regatta will be preceded by the International Moth Worlds in Manly - about 40 minutes drive to the north of Auckland. The Moth Worlds, starting on January 4, 2025, attracts the Worlds top foiling sailors in what is the premier single handed world sailing championship. Many of the top SailGP sailors have their names on the Moth World Championship trophy, or have stood on the podium at the event.

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