Sailing and the media
The image of sailing as a media sport has been under the microscope recently, and has led to some interesting reactions from many parties. Analysis of sailing competing against other sports for media attention is interesting. It is also of great concern to purists and traditionalists as some proposed solutions have totally undermined the understanding of the qualities needed to win a sailing regatta.
There are obvious “competitive markets” that sports compete to attract attention, sponsorship and participants. The sport doesn’t have to be mass participation to attract huge money, but it helps – a good example of this is Formula one motor racing, low participation and mass audience, along with huge sponsorship. The “beginner market” is viewed as vital to a sport’s success, and whilst we would concur with this, it certainly is only one factor that sponsors will consider. This leads to a consideration of what is attractive to sponsors, and vitally important to establish the differences and strengths in each market – mass participation, national events and international performance sport.
Media coverage is viewed as vital to be successful in promoting the sport, but what is media coverage, and who is it aimed at? We may consider that media follows spectators, so the fundamental driver to sponsors may be considered to be live spectators, or those who will drop everything to watch an event live on television – we then have a strong sport with a strong event. Maybe this analysis is the basis of the rationality in trying to make the medal day more exciting?
The scoring of regattas has been altered for World Cup events in a trial manner. Essentially the idea is to bring more excitement to the final day – so the winner is totally unknown until the last day of the regatta. Is this attractive to spectators? We would guess that it IS attractive to the minority of totally uninformed spectators, but should we let their desires corrupt the sport? One comment about this new scoring system probably encapsulated the feelings of the majority of top sailors – “We don’t see the Tour de France race for 3 weeks, slog up mountains, push themselves to the edge in the heat, rain and snow, and then contest the overall title by the leading six or ten riders having a sprint on the Champs Elyse’s”. It’s a fair point according to the people we have talked to – no sailors appear in favor of this last day lottery blitz to decide major titles in a sport where it is historically deemed necessary to have protracted examination of skill under a variety of conditions in order to determine real Champions.
This debate may rage for some time, and there is probably validity in most viewpoints. There is little doubt that in a sport of infinite variables the best sailors do not always win individual races. There is no doubt whatever that audiences love to see a close race, but that doesn’t mean that the Champs Elyses is low on crowds when everyone always knows the overall winner in advance of the finish, or that people switch off the tv when Vettel is a clear leader. So maybe the answer lies in the way that the spectacle of sailing, one of THE most exhilarating sports to participate in, is conveyed to the audience?
Probably the most successful media appeal sailing is the Extreme 40 class. This now attracts multi million $ coverage, has massive reach and is still controlled by a sailing origin company that has massive talent and creativity yet from a sports promotion viewpoint has always been a poor relation when compared to motor racing, athletics and other city center sports promotions who compete for much the same market. Yet Extreme series attracts people and has massive media appeal. Why? Probably because it is staged close enough to the crowd (within meters very often) to give the audience the feel of sailing big, powerful boats. They provide some crash and burn, some physical prowess appeal, and probably equally important the crowd appreciates the sheer beauty of powerful sailing boats from a close range. They bring the city centers to a standstill. Success!!
When we compare Olympic sailing and World Cup racing to these Extreme guys we have neither the environment of the course surrounds nor the audience contact to promote sailing in the manner that they do. The scoring is not the key. We need only to look at the best media coverage awards that sailing has won from 2008 and 2012 to see that sailing CAN be media friendly. The atmosphere on the Nothe in Weymouth was clearly top notch – an indication of what may be done in an imperfect setting. Many major regatta locations have better settings, and more of them – we just need to move the course closer in. The cost of big screens, trackers and visual aids is coming down. There are more competent commentators. We are on a path that is proving to be appealing.
Our opinion and question to World Sailing is this: We have already seen sailing being fantastically media and crowd friendly in both the Extreme Sailing series AND at Weymouth. Should we acknowledge that sailing is a complex sport and should not be dumbed down at the expense of the skilled champions, and work instead on development of the strengths that we have already begun to exploit, or should we change the game fully to a less skilled, more chance driven one that will appeal to a very different market of spectator, and probably more importantly a very different and more chance driven type of competitor?