Sailors who want the corporate dollar have to learn the language. BT's history of sailing sponsorship contains some lessons

Yesterday, I went to Paris with OC and PR from BT to hear about CSR. Does that make sense?

It probably does if you’re in a big company, in which case you’ll also know what BT means when they say that their sponsorship of ‘Team Ellen’ from 2008 to 2010 offers excellent ‘internal traction’.

This is just the latest business gobbledygook, but it’s as important to any would-be career sailor as knowing about weather or what makes boats go faster. So here’s a lesson from BT, whose long involvement in sailing is an interesting prism of how sports sponsorship – and, more importantly, the justification of it – has changed in the last two decades.

BT’s sponsorship of sailing goes back 22 years to their backing of the RYA match racing circuit in the mid-Eighties, and grew during the 1989 Whitbread and various Yachtsman of the Year awards to culminate in Chay Blyth’s round the world Global Challenge races in 1996 and 2000 – £4 million a race, plus at least the same again to exploit the sponsorship.

In that time the focus changed, in the faddish way that internal marketing objectives do. It went from straightforward brand awareness to business-to-business leverage via employee motivation and education initiatives to focus on team leadership and management. Briefly, sailing was elevated to the position of ‘metaphor for business’, and skippers who’d never even worked in an office were, bizzarely, candidates for tutoring executives on how to run a multinational.

That evolution ran its course, and in 2000 the headwaters of BT sponsorship dried up. The steady flow of money was diverted and Sir Chay Blyth was unable to tap another source.

Where he lost out, however, Ellen MacArthur’s and Mark Turner’s OC Group has won – until 2010, anyway. After a gap of seven years, BT is back in sailing. Their fortunes and outlook have changed considerably in a decade.

The buzz now is no longer about B2B or team leadership or education. It’s about corporate social responsibility, a big business requirement that is now so modish and widespread that it is known simply by the acronym CSR. In BT’s case, CSR means contributing to organisations such as Childline, UNICEF and other programmes in the developing world.

These are not just projects to assuage the perception of some heedless, profiteering conglomerate. BT admits that it ‘is especially important when bidding for major contracts’. And, crucially, for many international businesses, these contributions are extremely valuable in mitigating huge corporation tax bills.

A slightly more knotty thing is working out what this has to do with competitive sailing. As Ellen herself is only racing in a couple of events in the next few years, presumably her endorsement works just as well on land. Then again, a sailing team that can exist without her must be an integral part of the plan for her business, which now has 35 employees, so I guess you don’t get one without the other.

BT won’t say how much they’re spending on this sponsorship, but working it out from known costs, it can’t be much less than £5 million. I don’t know. Splashing out on yacht racing to promote good works among the poor and disadvantaged? That sounds even weirder than the ‘sailing as a metaphor for business’ schtick.

Who cares, though? If only for the prospects of British sailing business, we should be thrilled BT are back in a well-managed area of sailing, whatever way they’re packaging it this time round.