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A good discussion to have.

by John Curnow, Editor, Sail-World AUS 30 Jan 2022 21:00 GMT
A reaching start during the Australia Sail Grand Prix © David Gray for SailGP

Spend any time in sales and you'll know this turn of phrase. It's for when a meeting is more about the negotiation of what a deal looks like, rather than making the deal itself in the first place. An easy sale, if you like. Then of course there's its standard meaning, simply a nice conversation, and it is always good to speak with Sir Russell Coutts (RC). It's like an easy sail in flat seas with a stiff breeze from at least 100 degrees TWA.

Funnily enough I had not done this one on one with RC since March of 2020. A lot has happened since then, not the least of which is that SailGP has been having plenty of good discussions. The parallels with F1 are now realised, so much so that SailGP even gets space in Forbes. Then there's the latest announcement that Mubadala has come on board as the venue partner for the final in San Francisco, which is happening in just under two months from now.

That's obviously a good way to end the season, to which RC commented, "Oh it's fantastic. Really it is. Mubadala is obviously a power house in the financial world and in particular known for their investments in technology and health care, now also getting more and more into sports, especially to be in with their interest in renewable energy, so it's fantastic to have a company of that stature partnering with us and having companies' like them actually approaching us. It's a real testament I think to the property (aka SailGP) has legs."

"We have noticed it in the last six months, probably after our European events, that just getting the SailGP concept in front of people has really made a difference. I think in Season One people were wondering, 'Well is this really going to fly?' Many of the top sailors in the world were missing from the roster, and the racing was in its development stage, but in Season Two we've really kicked into another gear I think and the racing has really been dramatic."

"We have had everything really, and it's been close: four different teams leading the championship, the odd collision, capsizes, close crosses, you name it, it's been there, but the racing has been really compelling, and I think our broadcast's improved too. So those sort of factors altogether, plus obviously, with the world really becoming conscious about the urgency of addressing the climate issues, and that sort of moving from a, well, maybe this is true, to a realisation that actually we do need to take action. You line all those things up and you look at where the sport is positioned now. I think we're in great shape."

But wait... There's more!

"I tell you what, there's plenty going on at the moment. We've got some pretty exciting announcements coming up, so I want to keep those for official announcements, obviously. It's been a real change. We're seeing partners coming onto teams, new partnerships for leagues, new venues of course, all of which is fantastic. Our Season Three venue calendar has expanded, and we're about to announce the last venues of that calendar year in the coming weeks, which will be another significant step forward. We're also in pretty advanced discussions with teams 11 and 12. So definitely we're ahead of where we thought we would be at this stage."

"I think the fact of the matter is we've never had a platform like this in sailing until recently. You have these high-speed boats, and an annual championship in sailing that's professionally run, and broadcast live. I just think this is switching people on to viewing sailing differently."

"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 mean you can readily understand it."

Recent international testing has shown that there is a 70% engagement by viewers, no matter whether they class themselves a sailing fan, racing fan, or just plain sports nut. That's pretty awesome considering SailGP's age, and development/growth phase, especially as more and more souls become present to its presence.

"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", added RC.

"People are approaching us to invest in equity, think about Teams 11 and 12, and also people taking equity positions in some of the other teams. I've never been in a situation like this before, because buying equity in a professional sailing team hasn't really been a viable proposition. Whereas all of a sudden we've packaged it up into a more conventional sports model, and that's really changed the whole dynamic."

What else you got?

RC has always been clear to me about their desire to hone the product. The Women's League would be a question that just has to be asked. "It's in our plans, and we'll make an announcement in due course. That's about all I can say on that. We're excited about it. Our goal is to open it up for the top female athletes in the sailing world to have a pathway to professional sailing. That's really the goal. Our first step was to get women engaged with the team, the second step was to start sailing on the boats, and you'll have to wait for the announcement on the third and fourth steps."

Obviously that means something like 60 souls jumping onto the payroll, but I guess you'd be much happier worrying about how it's all funded now that you've got investors literally crawling all over you for either teams or venues.

Equally, if you're going to take it out to four days at each venue so as to have two days for the girls and two days for the boys, you're going to need spare boats because things like prangs and all the rest of it come into the equation. Expanding days is cheaper than expanding the fleet...

"You're absolutely right; logistics is a key factor. One of the challenges we've got right now is building the components and servicing the current fleet. Quite honestly, the collision in Sydney was a major repair. The Japanese hull and the damaged British foil are on their way to San Francisco now, but it was a major undertaking to get it all arranged."

"We need to gear up for our future plans, be able to service it all, and this predicates looking at an offshore facility, particularly in Europe, because we could probably benefit from reducing our shipping time between New Zealand and Europe."

Immediately, Vestas comes to mind and how Persico put a new hull underneath her so that she could remain strictly OD. "I think our process on making sure the boats are absolutely equal is really good. But we clearly need another set of moulds to be able to build components in Europe, and we need to increase the number of spares as we add teams."

Like everything, it's all a matter of time.

GABO. Well they did say they've got a bit on... "As you add more teams you need to make sure that they're going to be competitive. Giving them enough time in the boats prior to actually putting them on a racecourse, even from a safety perspective, is pretty critical. So the plan for the construction of 11 and 12 is trying to take that into account, as well as training, for example, of our female athletes.

"It's only going to get harder for new teams to come in and be competitive. We don't want new teams coming into the league and not have a chance of at least being competitive in some of the races, even from the get-go. We did a lot of planning so as to actually get them adequate time to even be able to be competitive, because by the time they arrive some of the teams would have been running for three seasons, and a new team going out there would find it pretty daunting."

Does it mean a cellar dweller forfeits the right to go again the next year? "Well actually it's in the Participation Agreement that we can do that for non-performance, but there's no intention to drop any of the current teams." That's good news for the French, who despite their incredible reputation and skill sets, have struggled.

"It's interesting that you mentioned the French team. There is a fair bit of interest in that team right now through a commercial perspective, so I think they will crack it over time. They just clearly haven't got the right answers, but I'm pretty confident that they'll eventually become competitive. I mean, look at the Kiwis. They haven't been competitive yet, but you wouldn't bet against them being up there in Season Three."

Dots on a map.

When you look at it, the Canadians and the Swiss are eventually going to want to host, and then you've got Asia as a glaring hole. Asia and Arabia get an F1 destination, and then if you pack a couple of locations halfway between Europe and us Antipodeans it closes down some of SailGP's logistics/time/gap issues. Would it mean that Singapore is going to be coming on because obviously it's a transport hub?

"It's definitely in consideration. I mean I've openly said that there's a decision to be made between Singapore, Sydney and San Francisco, because we haven't announced the final two venues in Season Three yet. There is a possibility that we could do all three. It depends on exactly when we really want to start Season Four, because Chicago is a multi-term agreement, and so is Bermuda. So that of course affects the ending of Season Three. We almost went to Canada, and I think it's fair to say that we will be going there in the future."

"It would have been straight after Chicago, like I'm talking two weeks, but we weren't comfortable that we would have all of the permitting required for a brand new venue in place early enough to stage that event."

The tyranny of distance means that Chicago, Canada, Bermuda is a nice little cluster, and then in Europe you can really bunch them up, just look at Saint Tropez and then Cadiz. "We can do the European events tighter than what we've done so far. We want to reduce the time between events, so that we can add more locales." Then if it goes to four days racing at each to account for the women's league? "There's a certain amount of infrastructure we would have to duplicate to do this more efficiently, just as the motor racing circuits do. So we would have to be gearing up at one venue as the previous one was being raced, and then be able to move the boats straight there."

The question of personalities.

The Europeans have revered their Formula One drivers and their cyclists for a long, long time, whereas us Antipodeans struggle to get past maybe tennis players, cricketers and footballers of various codes. Taking into account all of your own experiences, how are you seeing the development of the personalities inside SailGP?

"Well I think in all ways you're exactly right there. We've got some fantastic personalities in SailGP. We are starting to market those personalities. In the past we've never really had a platform in sailing to be able to do that. They've always been doing different types of races, and we haven't been able to operate to a plan. Even if a fan became slightly engaged they wouldn't know when the next race was, and then you kind of lose all your momentum.

RC added, "Our Racing on the Edge series is giving people a bit of an insight. We want to expand that. If you look further out, then the obvious move was to provide a lot more content and insights around those personalities because two of the key things that drive fans' interest are the personalities, number one, and then add the nationality component."

Show me the money.

All of this good news has changed the funding requirement, but what is the current status with regards to venues and teams? "The venue situation isn't yet breaking even, but it's getting very close to that now. By the time we get to our 12th team we will have six fully funded operators or equity partners (CAN, GBR, DEN, SUI, and then 11 and 12)."

Okay, well it's certainly a very healthy picture, to which RC added, "There's going to be some other announcements coming up on some equity positions and other teams in due course, but that's the situation today. We're not there yet completely, but we're definitely getting there, and getting there pretty quickly actually."

Obviously the only thing that I can say to everyone from Larry down is simply, 'Well done!'

And the innovations just keep on coming...

In closing, RC offered this, "We're packaging up the broadcast of the final race between the top three teams into a stand alone half-hour show. It is about targeting the 20-35 year-old demographic that can work both for the fans and newcomers alike. They just want to switch onto the final and be able to follow us."

I think this is a really strong development. No matter what your day looks like, you can find 30 minutes to watch this - bang! SailGP is all about energy, and if you can pack the timeframe down, then you just boost the energy, right. That's the way it works!

OK. We're off and flying with 2022, the season still has plenty of bang to offer, and there's a load more to come. Let's go for a yacht. WoooHoooo. Meanwhile, stay safe, and thanks for tuning into

John Curnow
Editor, Sail-World AUS

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