It’s billed as the most spectacular show in sailing, but does SailGP deliver? Helen Fretter talks exclusively to the key players to find out
‘Box office stuff’ is how Ben Ainslie described the opening day of last month’s SailGP event, in Chicago, USA. And truly, it was: the sun shone, the wind blew, the crowds waved their Stars ’n’ Stripes flags as the foiling F50s whizzed around in front of an iconic city skyline. Sailing, Hollywood-style.
This is a new vernacular for sailing. Ainslie and his peers may be the biggest names in the sport, but they are not showmen. Sailors are not athletes used to hyping the crowd or capturing a stadium with tension – they’ve spent most of their careers competing on the horizon.
SailGP set out to change all that. When it was launched in 2018 it proclaimed its modest ambition of redefining the entire sport. The event would pit the world’s greatest sailors (they unquestionably are) against each other in gladiatorial, high stakes competition designed to appeal to those who’d never watched a yacht race in their life.
The first season introduced a five-event, six-team series designed around a broadcast-friendly format. Then, just as SailGP was starting its second year, Covid happened. Global sport hit the buffers, and the entire season was jettisoned. It restarted in April 2021.
SailGP is now in its third season, and this year sees the event take a step up – more teams, more venues, more changes, more championing of its causes. But founders Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison have ambitious plans for the series, and to continue to grow SailGP needs more people to follow it, to invest in it and, above all, to love it.
SailGP is famously bank-rolled by some of the deepest pockets in the world. Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, and ranked by Bloomberg as the 11th richest person on the planet (Forbes placed him 5th in 2011), underwrote the costs of the circuit and original six teams (Australia, France, Great Britain, Japan, United States and the since-defunct China entry). But the deal was always that in order to remain in the series, teams had to become financially independent.
A key part of this was to make the skippers also the CEO. For most teams, this means the helmsman is also the boss – a tough dual figurehead role. “Russell has made no mistake that the buck stops with us,” Team Australia skipper Tom Slingsby tells me in Chicago. “We can employ a commercial director to try to help us find partnerships, but it’s on us at the end of the day, if we don’t fulfil our off-the-water needs, we’re the ones who pay.”
“The racing is a lot of pressure, but when we get off the water, it doesn’t stop. In between events 90% of my job is trying to find sponsorship, and so I spend all my days just calling people, following leads, taking meetings, seeing if we can get some partnerships.”
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The challenges were brought into sharp focus at the first event of this season, in Bermuda, when series runners-up Team Japan found themselves without a boat as new-funded entries from Canada and Switzerland took priority while the 10th F50 was still in build. Nathan Outteridge, skipper and CEO, made an impassioned plea for potential investors to get in touch, explaining: “It’s no surprise to me that right now our results are fantastic. But I’m well aware that if we can’t get some money together, that the team could be sold to another country.” (SailGP has since announced that Japan will not take any further part in this season)
The numbers required are eye-watering. In 2019 team running costs were around US$5 million per year. Coutts says: “When we started off it was ‘Can you cover the running cost?’ Now we’re charging a franchise fee. So that franchise fee for a new team is $20 million and an existing team is $25 million.
“And the equity is selling at those numbers. Tell me another sailing property that that’s happened with?”
Slingsby adds: “Because we’re doing more events now our costs go up as well, so we’ve got a bigger bill to pay off. We’re so fortunate to have Larry, who’s got a long term vision of this, and just because we can’t pay our bills right now, he’s not going to kick us out. But it’s only going to be so long of that good grace.”
It’s not hard to see where the money goes – the high energy spectator show; the army of broadcast teams; the enormous ‘Tech Zone’ to service the nine F50s, which are craned in and out every day. A professionalism pervades SailGP that’s rare for sailing events.
Despite the sums involved, the league is attracting an ever-growing list of investors, Coutts says: “For the first time in my life being involved in sailing I’ve had companies actively approaching us to get involved.”
Those budgets look set only to rise, as Coutts and co have ambitious plans for expansion. “One of our goals in the near-term is to build up to 20-plus events a year, which is what some of the motor racing properties are doing,” says Coutts. “That’s an event roughly every two weeks.
“Having continuity is huge. It needs to become an appointment to view and people need to know, the second weekend of the month, SailGP’s on. So they’re just searching for it, ‘Where is it this weekend? Oh, it’s Chicago.’ That’s where you need to get to.”
How a big increase in the number of venues and teams would work in practice remains to be seen. There are rumours of a split between the northern and southern hemisphere teams, two parallel circuits coming together for a grand finale.
“How do you get more teams in real tight race courses, when we’re already seeing incidents?” says Ben Ainslie. “How many more is realistic before you maybe need to split the teams, or do you have longer courses? I know there’s a long term vision of more events. But those are the real challenges: how you increase the number of events, increase the number of teams, but keep the quality of the racing and ensure the safety of the crews?”
But what once felt impossible is already becoming routine, says Tom Slingsby. “When we started SailGP and they said we’re going to be fleet racing with five or six boats we were asking how are we possibly going to do this? Then you get used to it and suddenly it becomes a little bit second nature. The start lines are for sure getting quite crowded, but if you make the start lines a bit longer, theoretically it should be the same.
“I feel like we could comfortably race with 10 to 12. On the racetrack it’ll be all-on, but I think it’s possible.”
Making an impact
One area where SailGP is determined to make big changes is in its sustainability credentials. There’s no denying the efforts go far beyond the usual branded water bottles and beach cleanups. Teams are scored on initiatives they make to improve their environmental impact for the ‘Impact League’ trophy. Everything from vegan crew food to the number of taxi journeys taken is given points.
The ‘Impact League’ leaderboard gives teams – who, by definition, are the type of people who’ll race to get to the front of a checkout queue – an element of onshore rivalry. “I’ve been really impressed with how all the teams have approached it,” explains Ainslie, “I was worried when they mooted it. Are people really going to buy into that? But everyone’s genuinely really competitive about it.”
However, it’s a difficult message to get across while the whole concept of SailGP is based on shipping an increasing number of boats and containers around the world. Although an electric foiling Candela boat was being used at Chicago, it was outnumbered by dozens of fuel-burning RIBs, and while the race marks may be battery-powered robo-marks, a helicopter wheels constantly above the fleet to capture the all-important live video feed.
“It’s a good question,” says Ainslie. “How can we be more efficient? Start with the chase boats – essentially we’re quite clean a sport because we’re wind driven but then look at the chase boats. Can we get those on electric motors or on foils?”
More significant, perhaps, is what’s going on in the corporate VIP lounges. SailGP is attracting backers from sectors including energy and data communications, while the Danish team sponsors are insulation company Rockwool. It’s positioning itself as a platform for chief sustainability officers to do business, and that’s likely to be more impactful.
The other cause SailGP has adopted is advancing the role of female sailors. It’s been a swift transition, from having women first sail aboard the F50s last October, to the sixth crew taking an increasingly active role.
Most teams have the female sailor in a strategist position, helping to ease some of the information overload for the helmsman.
“We run [that role] as another set of eyes, talking about wind and pressure and where the gains are on the course. Also keeping an eye out for boats we might not have seen, and how our relative boat speed is. So really assisting me in the tactics role,” explains Slingsby, who primarily sails with Nina Curtis as the Australian female athlete.
“We’re sailing the boats a lot quicker now and a lot more efficiently than we used to, and that’s due to having another set of hands and another set of eyes helping us around the racetrack.”
Other teams are experimenting with different options, including having the sixth crew helm out of manoeuvres. Chris Draper of Team Canada explains that as a new team they had a blank sheet when deciding how to run the boat. “[The] more experienced teams have sailed together for a long time, they might race their America’s Cup races together in a certain configuration, so often the female sailors are coming in as extras and they’re almost having a role made for them. With this team, the girls have been here since the start and all the roles have been built around six people, not five.”
Things change more when the SailGP boats sail in light winds mode with just four crew on board, with a female crewmember often moving into a grinding role. But a longer-term goal is to get female sailors into key positions like wing trimmer and flight controllers.
“You can’t force things quickly because the boats are dangerous,” explains Britain’s Hannah Mills. “We get the best wing trimmers and flight controllers and helms and grinders in the world, talking us through their role, but the challenge with SailGP is time on the water, time in those positions in training, because we’re only here for two days before we start racing and the teams themselves get very little time.”
“It’s really high tariff if you get [those roles] wrong. So that’s why anyone, whether male or female coming in, needs a lot of time to upskill,” says Ainslie. “The simulator helps a bit, but it’s never quite the same as the real thing.”
Mills is working on trying to secure a backer for the Women’s Pathway Programme. “That would make a huge difference in terms of funding, so we can do proper training camps, probably with the boats that are being built for new teams,” she explains.
How far could SailGP progress with its female athlete programme? “Ultimately I don’t have an answer. I think everyone would like to see a pure women’s league, but then logistically, is that practical? Or should it just be a lot more equity on the boat? To be honest, I think either works,” says Ainslie.
Mills wants to aim for a 50:50 gender split on each F50. “I really want to see it work towards gender equity on the boats. I think that’s a really powerful statement and would massively make us stand out as a sport.”
“Ultimately, we want to achieve total gender equity and the sport has got a long way to go,” says Coutts. “I think the first thing we’ll probably see is a female driver in this league. I’ve got a vision that a female driver will be competitive and able to win races and win events.
“If we can get to that point quickly, that will change the future. Because straight away, you’re going to get a whole bunch of young female kids who will be saying, ‘I want to be her’. Whereas right now you’re getting a bunch of male kids saying, ‘I want to be him’.”
Best of the best
From the spectators’ and competitors’ perspective, SailGP’s real appeal is that it has drawn the most talented sailors in the game. “I think we’re all doing it because it’s the best racing out there, bar none,” confirms Ainslie. It is also, Chris Draper confirms, “epic fun”.
But it can be bruising for the ego. Jimmy Spithill, skipper of Team USA and known as one of the toughest competitors in sport, took a kicking at the Chicago event, finishing one place off last. A brutal team debrief lay ahead. “One thing I won’t do is pull any punches. We have built this team on candour and honesty, and we will be using all of that as we go through all the footage and data,” Spithill commented afterwards.
The split-second accuracy and almost telepathic communication required to fly an F50 to consistent wins seems to require a particular type of crew alchemy. Putting experienced crew into new teams often doesn’t work if there’s any language barrier to contend with.
Even very established teams have struggled, most noticeably the New Zealand entry, skippered by America’s Cup winner Pete Burling, who are yet to even qualify for an event final. “There is no magic bullet. You’ve got to be good across all areas and we’re not,” Kiwi wing trimmer Blair Tuke told the New Zealand Herald after the event.
That, however, is exactly why they are likely to keep coming back for more. Tom Slingsby, who has recently signed with America’s Cup challengers American Magic, is one of many SailGP crew racing across both programmes.
“They’re very separated, but I think [American Magic team principals] Terry Hutchinson and Doug DeVos realise that this is the best racing in the world at the moment and if I want to be a top helmsman in the world in the America’s Cup, I’ve got to be doing SailGP.
“They probably see it as an opportunity for someone else to pick up the bills for me getting the best training you could ever get in the lead up to the Cup!”
In order to be the best racing in the world, it has to be fair and true – a tricky balance in cityside venues.
“I don’t think that there has been an event in SailGP where the best boat on the weekend has not won,” says Chris Draper, who spent many years on the Extreme Sailing Series (formerly iShares Cup), a previous ‘stadium sailing’ event.
“With the iShares Cup I would give the analogy that at times it was like taking Formula 1 into a car park. The racing was always awesome but the reason why it worked was because there were so many races.
“I would say with SailGP we have some venues that are like Baku, like Silverstone, really glamour tracks – Bermuda, San Francisco – and we’ve got some more like Monaco. But I think the balance is just about right.”
So who are the SailGP fan base? From the outset organisers made no bones about the fact that it wasn’t designed to only appeal to sailors. “In that initial year [it] really tried to tackle the non-sailing audience, but kind of missed the sailing audience a little bit. But now everybody that I speak to watches it,” says Chris Draper. “All the Olympic sailors I work with follow it religiously.”
Coutts says he hopes SailGP will convert non-sailing fans to the sport: “Our analysis is showing that the engagement is not just your typical sailing fan. We’re getting equal engagement from [motor] racing fans, which is fantastic.
“Some of the traditional sailing elements have been saying that we’ve got to be – in their terms, and I don’t use these words – careful not to dumb it down. My opinion is, talking in a language that a wider audience understands is not dumbing it down. We’re still talking about the technicalities and advanced racing tactics that make a difference between winning and losing, but in a way that a wider audience understands.
“If we can do that, if we can get more people interested, draw young people in, that’s what the goal should be for anyone involved in this sport. Getting this in front of more people, for sure you’re going to get more non-sailors that say, ‘Hey, I want to give that sport a try.’ I don’t think we should be narrow minded about this.”
So if you haven’t watched for a little while, tune in and try it, you might just love it.
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