Last fall, during a swing through Southeast Asia, I found myself in Malaysia covering the Monsoon Cup, the season finale for the ISAF World Match Racing Tour (and the subject of a feature story in April’s Sailing World). I’d never attended a tour event and the wild Monsoon Cup was not only otherworldly, it was incredibly entertaining. So, with the 2008 season beginning to ramp up–the kick-off regatta takes place in Brazil this April–I called tour director Scott Macleod the other day to get a preview of what to expect.
Macleod is a sailor and an entrepreneur, and he’s pieced together an interesting career promoting sailboat racing, particularly match racing, and you don’t hear that every day. He started out by creating the Bermuda Gold Cup; eventually merged the disparate events in the circuit into a dedicated series with a flush sponsor, Swedish Match; and ultimately convinced ISAF to come aboard and sanction the racing under its banner as a true World Championship. In other words, he’s gotten things done. Perhaps even more startling, he’s managed to maintain an upbeat, positive disposition while doing so.
This year’s tour, in many respects, should be off the charts. Macleod and his team have introduced a dedicated slate of 20 qualifying regattas, the winners of which will earn an invitation to one of the 10 major tour events. They’re making serious inroads into what has the potential to become a booming Asian market, with a new tour event in Korea in June and an exhibition event in China in May (which will become a tour event as well in 2009). They’re injecting new talent into the tour with the addition of up-and-comers Adam Minoprio, from New Zealand (who’s found support from Emirates Team New Zealand), and young Aussie ace Torvar Mirsky.
And after last summer’s grand America’s Cup finals, there was certainly plenty of potential for match racing to reach new heights. That is, until, well, you know. So when Macleod is asked how the Cup hiatus has affected the match-racing tour, you can almost hear the shrug in his voice.
“Badly,” he said. “There were a lot of teams that were going to compete that have folded up shop: United Internet Team Germany, Desafio, Team Origin. From a sponsorship perspective, it’s a mess. We have a couple of sponsors who were also Cup sponsors who were ready to renew, and they’re basically on hold. I’m not sure if they’ll ever come back. It’s all pretty unfortunate. They’re (Alinghi and BMW/Oracle Racing) just so far apart. It’s horrible for business. A lot of guy’s lives are affected by this.”
By nature, Macleod doesn’t harp on the doom and gloom. At the same time, he’s a realist. Swedish Match, a cigarette manufacturer, was forced to bail out after tobacco laws were changed in Sweden and sponsorship was no longer an option. The tour has not yet found a title sponsor to replace them. MacLeod acknowledges that he’s “fighting an uphill battle” pitching sailing to the corporate world.
“It’s not a mainstream sport,” he said. “In the sport’s world it’s probably a tier-three sport so it’s still a struggle. I think regionally, in some markets, it does well from a sponsorship perspective: Italy, France, even the U.K. But on a global basis, it’s tough.” That point is perhaps underscored by the fact that the U.S. doesn’t host a tour event, though the Knickerbocker Cup has been granted qualifier status for the Bermuda Gold Cup.
“But if the AC were on track,” he added, “it’d be a lot easier.”
Macleod said that Ed Baird and Alinghi had been “pretty well set to do a full schedule but it looks like they’re going catamaran sailing now.” BMW/Oracle falls under the same banner. In their absence, defending World Champion Ian Williams and his Team Pindar crew look ready to make a serious defense of their title. Former World Champ Peter Gilmour is another competitor who promises to be in the mix, as well as Cup veterans Paolo Cian and Sebastian Col, both of whom finished in the top ten for 2008.
The new events in Korea and China are templates for what can be achieved in conjunction with tour events with a little creative thinking. In Korea, the regatta will be tied in to a boat launch–new 36-footers have been commissioned for the event, and a cruising version will be marketed to an emerging sailing public–along with an international boat show and the opening of several new marinas. The “Celebration China” exhibition is one facet of a multi-event carnival also featuring X-Games-type sports, concerts, and wine and food festivals.
“Those places probably couldn’t get a Farr 40 Worlds or a Volvo stopover, but a tour event is pretty easy to put on and bring to their market,” said Macleod.
But the elephant in the living room remains the America’s Cup. “A lot of our business is related to the health of the Cup,” he said. “And the Cup isn’t very healthy right now.”
So, if he had the chance, what would he say to those Cup foes and protagonists, Ernesto Bertarelli and Larry Ellison?
“Look, I’m not blaming either one,” said Macleod. “But I’d ask them to get together and do what’s right for the sport. Stop thinking about yourselves.”