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The Boy in the Bubble

by Mark Jardine 14 Nov 20:00 GMT
Australia SailGP Skipper Tom Slingsby performs prepares for race day one. Race Day 1 Event 3 Season 1 SailGP event in New York City, New York, United States. 21 June © Sam Greenfield for SailGP

If you haven't listened to Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland, then you've missed out, and I highly recommend you do. The Boy in the Bubble is one of the songs on the album, drawing its title from the case of the boy born without a functioning immune system, so had to live in incubator-like conditions, but the song also explores starvation and terrorism, juxtaposed with wit and optimism.

It's a great song, and the lyrics seem to have so many meanings depending on the circumstance of the time; I just happened to be listening to it ahead of the Dubai Sail Grand Prix, where it really struck a tone as I thought about how the SailGP has developed. Here's where my mind wandered...

The title made me think how the SailGP circuit, or 'Season' as they call it, is a bubble. The boats, the marquees, the grandstands, the containers, the team tents, and all the other paraphernalia that is needed to run each event gets shipped from venue to venue. Once there the event village becomes the SailGP bubble. The sailors fly in, the fans flock to the hospitality tents and the grandstands, the racing happens on a tight course, then the whole thing gets packed up to travel to the next event, creating the next bubble.

But it was the lyrics which really chimed with me:

These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires and baby

One of the extraordinary parts of SailGP is how the TV production and commentary, together with the umpiring, is all done remotely in Ealing, London. All the information from the racetrack - the cameras, the GPS co-ordinates, and every other piece of data - is signalled around the world and back again at the speed of light, and then sent out to the public. It's quite a feat.

The loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires is self-explanatory!

The technology involved in SailGP really is mind-boggling. Go back a decade and the whole idea of the AC72 catamarans was so absurd that when the first photos emerged of Emirates Team New Zealand foiling, everyone said it was clearly photoshopped. Nowadays it's commonplace, at least in grand prix sailing, and the America's Cup has moved onto foiling gecko monohulls.

It's bad enough saying to my kids, "When I was young, we didn't have the internet," and getting a blank expression in return. The whole idea of not being able to look up anything, anywhere, at any time is simply absurd now. As Paul Simon sang:

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all, oh yeah

SailGP has taken what was new tech, refined some parts, simplified others, and packaged it all into an understandable and repeatable format. They are beginning to successfully franchise the teams, attract major sponsors, and make venues want to host a Sail Grand Prix. Creating a new sporting circuit is no mean feat; just listen or talk to Greg Norman about LIV Golf to find that out, but SailGP is doing it.

They are also experimenting with new concepts, such as the first fan-owned team launched last week.

Bear with me on this, but here's the opening paragraph of their press release:

Bernoulli | Locke, a member-based community creating new immersive partnerships and experiences using innovative Web3 structures, today announced they are launching a SailGP fan-owned racing team across Bermuda and the Caribbean. Using a DAO structure and built on the NEAR Protocol, this team is expected to open new opportunities in sports ownership and fan engagement.

For many this will be gibberish, and even for those familiar with the concepts and technologies it takes a couple of reads.

For explanation, Web3 is the idea of a new iteration of the World Wide Web, giving power back to its users, incorporating decentralisation, blockchain technologies (like those which underpin cryptocurrencies) and NFTs (non-Fungible Tokens - a unique digital identifier). A DAO is a Decentralized Autonomous Organization - a form of organization with governance managed transparently by its community, and this is where the 'fan-ownership' concept takes hold.

Will it work? Who knows? At the moment no-one's quite sure if Web3 will work, and cryptocurrencies haven't exactly had the best of times lately. The important thing is they're trying new things, continuing to push the boundaries.

Also, SailGP recognises that to be successful they need to connect with their fanbase. Ideas like this will appeal to the tech-savvy, or at least those who believe in the next generation of tech succeeding. The racing is gaining audience, and the coverage in Saint-Tropez apparently averaged 1.609 million viewers on CBS. People are watching.

There is though one group of fans who aren't happy. They're sailors, they're on social media, and they like their speeds in knots, their boats in the water, not above it, and their starts upwind. The reality is SailGP isn't even aimed at them, it's aimed at sports fans who may have never even sailed; so, as Paul Simon ended The Boy in the Bubble, the naysayers should take note:

These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby, don't cry
Don't cry, don't cry

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

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