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SailGP - Question Time with Russell Coutts

by John Curnow, Editor, Sail-World AUS 5 Mar 09:28 GMT
Sir Russel Coutts observes as igneous Team GBR come in to win the final of the SailGP season opener on Sydney Harbour. © John Curnow

As we mentioned briefly in Yes Minister, it has been 12 months since we spoke with SailGP's CEO, Russell Coutts. Below is what he had to say about the intervening time, and you can also read the original item, Whaddya reckon?

JC: Last year was a massive capital exercise. You have invested in new wings (18, 24 and 29m), with all of them available in San Francisco, and there are new foils to come. You have also had new partners come on board. You must be happy that everything has been a success so far, given that this has been a huge undertaking?

RC: Yes, it's growing quickly. There have been a lot of things happening. We will be making some announcements over the next few weeks. It is now moving forward rapidly, and I think the Endeavour partnership is a big deal for us. It's a big deal for sailing.

JC: We saw that some opportunities were afforded some of the other teams last year by restricting Australia and Japan. Do we see Denmark being given some more opportunities to try and lift them up a little bit? It's been heartbreaking for France to have such a set of calamities in the one regatta.

RC: I think France has got to look at their performance. This is professional sport, and I would suggest they've got to look at some changes. You might get cut a little bit of slack, but I'd expect them to be doing better than what they're doing.

JC: And Team USA certainly had some blinding pace in parts on the first day, if not so much today (Saturday).

RC: Yes I think the US team has actually got some promise. They're sailing the boat well. There are a couple of areas where they need to improve on, and they know that, and they're working through it.

They've got some real talent on board. I think Riley Gibbs, their wing trimmer, is really strong. They've got a good vibe now, and they've got Kimo Worthington managing their team, which has made a big difference. I think they're showing some growth now, and they're putting in a better performance. And okay, Rome wasn't built in a day for them, which is a bit of a pun.

I'm pretty optimistic about the US, and they've got a good crop of young sailors underneath. The US is coming back. It went through a bit of a low period with their Olympic and youth sailing, but that's changing rapidly. They've got a strong youth contingent there, and that's going to flow through.

JC: You built the seventh boat, which is fantastic. Are you thinking it's one a year that you'll be able to achieve, without exploding as a result of your own growth?

RC: Yes. We'll be able to announce an eighth team very soon, so that's exciting.

JC: Are they for this year or next?

They'll join next year, but obviously I'll give them as much preparation time as possible to get up to speed. You know, it's one of the challenges. We've got to give these new teams enough time. You saw team with Denmark that they need the time to get their act together. You know these can be really difficult boats to sail.

JC: And you've enhanced them since they were the AC Boats...

RC: Exactly. We don't want to have it so that it's impossible for a new team to come in here and compete. We've got to find the right balance, and give these new teams enough time so they can come in and be competitive.

But the Spanish team's obviously a hugely talented team. They've shown that they can do it, and wow, in another two events they're going to be super-impressive. They were impressive here.

JC: Well it was certainly handy having somebody like Phil Robertson around to drive.

RC: Still, four new guys that have never raced an F50? I mean seriously, Nathan (Outteridge of Team JPN) showed how hard it is when you change two. I thought the Spanish were the standout team here. They were amazing, but the Danes I totally understand. I think they actually did pretty well.

JC: The overall time on foils was actually pretty obvious the further down the ladder you went...

RC: Of course. And you can imagine how hard these boats are. Seriously, I was actually asked this question on social media, Do you think it's more difficult to judge a lane on a faster boat or a slower boat? Of course, and if you're half a second out on these boats you're ten metres out; if you're a second out you're twenty metres out. Of course it's tough.

JC: Possibly you could say France and Spain didn't know quite how close they were to the edges, and that's what caused the collision on the first day.

RC: Yes. There was also a really close call with Australia and the Danes. You need to be switched on when you get aboard one of these boats.

JC: Talking about congestion then? It is eight teams later this year. Do you cap it there, or what is the number?

RC: Seven looks crowded right now, and we're just reviewing all that. You know eight is going to be all on, so we're going to have to be sensible, for the first leg (length) in particular.

We've got choices to make in the future. We could go six and six, for example, with the top boats in each group making it to the final. Our first goal is to build to ten teams.

JC: So if it is one team a year, and you have to build each new F50 from scratch, how does it all tie in?

RC: To build the wing sails for each of these boats was a massive undertaking. Once we get through this wing programme, which we basically are now, as they are being shipped to San Francisco this week, then we can look at new foils. They're in the pipeline. So next we need to look at launching the new boats...

JC: If I said to you, you've got to write your own report card for the last twelve months, what does it say, and what grade to you give yourself?

RC: I'd give us a 6/10 right now. Yes there's still a lot to improve obviously, but I do think we're getting there quickly.

JC: Why would you give yourself that low a mark?

RC: I think there are a lot of things operationally that we can improve. I think our television product is getting there. I saw some improvements this series, but I also saw some things that we really need to work on.

I think we've got to look at it this way too. To get this to where it can be, we've really got to push ourselves to improve. I think the general product looks good, but I do think we could do so much better.

JC: Well you've obviously got the right partner in terms of IMG?

RC: Last year we were only really an events company. We had our hands full with running events, getting teams launched, and then on the water. What we've now got to do is transition that. We've got to become broader than that to more sports and entertainment in general.

We've made the first steps with that, and obviously the Endeavour group's going to help a lot. Of course, everyone knows that there were one of the main players in transforming the UFC? That's where we've got to go with this. We can't be just switching off after an event finishes, so eventually ten teams, ten events is our first step, but long term - 20 years' time - 20 events. Because you look at MotoGP, you look at Formula 1, and you look at Form E - of course we need more events to fill the calendar and we need to go to more cities. We can't go there in one step; it will be baby steps in some cases, but that's long term.

JC: You'll be like a rock star. You'll have containers leap frogging themselves all over the world, won't you?

RC: Yes, logistics wise we could improve a lot. We can reduce our footprint a lot. There are some efficiencies we can gain there. The good thing is the teams are all under budget last year, which is a good starting point, but we can do better and better and better.

We've got the teams down to 17 staff on site at an event now, which is great. If you look at the coverage that we've already got at this event, compared to last year, it's a massive difference. Just that continuity of having the event at the same time of year, same venue, building the team brands - you know Australians are starting to get to know the Australian team now, and hopefully next year it will be more so, and the year after that even more so. You build the brand over time.

JC: So with that great segue, just how brutal do you get with it at a certain point, given you're kind of on record as saying the teams have got to look at their own contribution more and more and more?

RC: I think we've got to find commercial partners. If you look at the British and Danish teams, that's the model. I'm obviously optimistic there'll be partners on the Australian team, and we've got enough discussions going now, and with Endeavour and IMG involved it's made a huge difference.

All of a sudden our sales force now is massive, so in terms of resource with both sales expertise and also numbers in each of our key markets it completely changes our situation. You know we had four sales staff last year and that was it. Quite frankly, you cannot service a global sales programme with just four people. So clearly that's enabled us to fast track this area.

JC: Do you get brutal though? This is sort of a two-part question. Is Copenhagen the last event? Do you drop Marseilles or something in the end of it?

RC: We're going through those discussions about that now and yes, we're expecting events to step up.

JC: Do you expect the sixth to be put into the calendar?

RC: Yes I do.

JC: You do? So after the end of the sixth event, whichever city that might be, will you wield the axe and say 'Sorry Australia, you haven't found any money; you're out. I've got somebody else to take your boat.'

RC: I don't think at this stage, but I think if we got to the end the following year, and if we had no support here, which I think is unlikely, then we'd probably have a look at it. I expect Australia will get commercial partners involved in their team, and we will have to deliver for them as well, and that makes an event more attractive here as well. If we had a nuclear situation here, where the Australian team didn't have any partners and the event did not grow and support SailGP then yes well then we'd be looking at it.

JC: Obviously there's a lot of fit between Larry and China, and I know there's been a lot of contract situations over the year between Team China and so forth, so do you see them coming back?

RC: Possibly yes. It would involve finding the right Chinese individual to support it, but I think that's totally doable. China's a big market.

JC: Would it be called Team China, or would you call it something else?

RC: Yes we'd have to review that at the time, but the Spanish team, for example, has opened up great possibilities for us. We're on Free to Air television over there, we're actually on two Free to Air channels, which is amazing, and one of the highlights that it is live. Spain's a big market and the Spanish language is an even bigger market, so we're now producing in Spanish graphics.

They've got a great team. There are a lot of awesome sailors on board too. They're going through a purple patch in Olympic sailing. Lots of commercial interest there, so I expect we'll announce some sponsorships in the near future.

Spain's a competitive team on the water. I think for us right now things have worked out really well.

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