As RBS gets into hot water over the size of sports sponsorships, could ocean racing projects be just as popular with smaller budgets?


How do we make ocean racing more popular and interesting to follow?

Is it by making it state-of-the-art and big budget? I hope not; I don’t think this is the main appeal. But that’s not what some readers think.

Following my original blog on elitism in yacht racing , a number of people emailed to say that technology is part of the fascination of ocean racing and that you need the big league to be at the leading edge of technology because, as in motorsport, no-one wants to watch clapped out models racing round the track.

I agree that technology can be fascinating. We have 18 pages’ worth about Michel Desjoyeaux’s winning Foncia, keel failures and other serious breakages that plagued the Vendée Globe and VOR fleets in the latest issue of Yachting World (out on Thursday, do buy a copy) and I hope and believe it is interesting and relevant.

But the interest in technology is a small niche market, a ‘long tail’ audience for these races, if you like.

More important than this, more important even than the wider public perception that these races are cutting edge, is a class’s or an event’s ability to attract and focus interest on the personalities, characters, egos, challenges and achievements – because that is the true mother lode.

As I said before, if the ultimate expression of what our industry can achieve in speed and durability were an essential factor in public appeal, crewed round the world races would be run in maxi multihulls. There are even some cheap mothballed ones around that will go faster than the latest generation VO70s.

If speed were the be-all and end-all, the ORMA 60s would still be going strong on the big transatlantic races and the IMOCA 60s would have withered. After all, the 60ft tris were 30% quicker on a downwind transatlantic race and 25% faster on an upwind transatlantic.

If speed were important (and what other measure of technology is more relevant in races?) no-one would be considering racing for the America’s Cup in monohulls; 90ft multihulls would be a no-brainer.

The thing is it’s not about ultimate technology. That is why it is possible for sailors to downscale and for sponsors to do better in terms of exposure and value. That’s happened with the big defection of skippers from ORMA 60 trimarans to IMOCA 60 multihulls: sponsors voted with their feet, and they were right.

And if those same sailors were to be cut down to a budget that ran to only a Class 40, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t follow them there provided the challenge was an interesting one.

The point I am making is not that ocean racing can’t deliver value for sponsors in some measurable way, but that the budgets can be quite out of kilter.

Spending tens of millions on a single sporting project can be awfully risky right now. ‘Fred the Shred’ and those at RBS are finding to their cost – and our fury – how lavish sporting deals can go from marketing wheeze to marketing disaster in one fell swoop.

As economists always say, cost is a fact and price is a policy. Yacht racing campaigns, and sometimes race organisers, tend to operate price policies. Let those change to suit the times.

The Vendée Globe race is able to succeed brilliantly by accommodating wildly varying budgets and 40% old boats. This is a perfect example of the elasticity that is required to make a major yacht race successful and popular in the long-term.

Mini sailor Lucas Schroder hits the nail on the head when he asks: do sailors really think it’s sustainable to go 10% faster for 100% bigger budgets?

Not that we need worry. These things have a habit of correcting themselves. If sponsorship budgets fall, the same people will have to look for cheaper projects. They, like everyone else in business, will just have to cut their suits to the cloth available.

And if the story’s good enough, people will keep following.

As ever, please have your say by emailing me.