Are Cayard, Coutts, and $60 Million Enough for the World Sailing League?

/SW/ senior editor Stuart Streuli weighs the prospects of the newly-announced fleet-racing venture.

FirstBeatWSLSt

Back in August, I wrote a column lamenting the fact that sailing doesn't have an easily accessible marquee event like cycling does with the Tour de France. The Cup is too arcane and infrequent, the Volvo takes place too far offshore, and the Olympics are simply too boring.I wrote how the then-rumored circuit gestating in the minds of Paul Cayard and Russell Coutts might be just the ticket. As of Friday's announcement of a World Sailing League of fleet races in 70-foot catamarans (clickhere for the press release, and here for an interview with Cayard), sailing appears to have its signature event. Or does it?After the initial glow wore off, I started to assess this development with a more objective mind. Make no mistake, as a sailor, a fan of the sport, and a media professional eager to cover exciting events, I sincerely hope the World Sailing League succeeds. However, too many similar ideas have either never materialized or faded quickly for me not to question whether this one will suffer a similar fate.Heading my list of positives is the substantial cash infusion with which this effort gets underway. According to published reports from people present at the press conference on Friday, more than $60 million has been committed by Joao Lagos Sports, a Portuguese sports promotion firm. This money will go to the design and building of 14 one-design 70-foot catamarans and, since that sum seems significantly more than the amount required for that task, presumably the remainder will be used to help get the circuit rolling.Almost as important as the money is the presence of Cayard and Coutts, two of the most prominent, and respected, names in the sport. This is something they've been thinking about for years, but had avoided announcing publicly until they were comfortable they had the necessary pieces in place. Both have a reputation for following through and for doing so one step ahead of the competition.Finally there is the fact that this is something sailing needs. As Cayard mentioned when I spoke with him last Thursday, there isn't a grand-prix circuit for fleet racing in large boats. The TP 52 MedCup might dispute that assessment, but it's still a regional circuit. Additionally, because sailing isn't the most media-friendly sport, any pro sailing tour needs to be 100-percent committed to delivering exposure to its sponsors. In that sense, the WSL seems to have its priorities in order.On the other side of the coin, this is something new for both Coutts and Cayard. The success of the WSL rests not on their collective sailing talent, but on their ability, and that of Lagos, to pull in multi-million dollar sponsorship packages for the tour, the venues, and the individual teams, though certainly the teams and venues will have to do some of this on their own. The number of companies with the marketing budget to allot $5 to $6 million, the expected annual operating costs for a WSL campaign, isn't huge. In fact, that is about what it takes, per year, for a Volvo campaign, and that race struggled mightily to get seven boats on the line for the last race. Cayard and Coutts want a dozen when they kick things off in 2009.While steadfastly maintaining that they wouldn't announce this circuit until they had all the pieces in place, this didn't seem to be the case in Lisbon, Portugal, on Friday. The most glaring omission was the date and site of the inaugural regatta. Why not wait until they had the first stop on the tour confirmed to make the announcement? And why not spend a little extra money to produce a first-rate website for the launch. The current site, www.wsl2009.com, is amateurish at best. While it's a tiny part of the puzzle, the logo looks like it was thrown together at the last minute.I also wonder about the choice of boats. At the press conference, Cayard reportedly spoke of how watching the tight racing action in NASCAR opened his eyes. However, I don't see 70-foot catamarans as the equivalent to stockcars, they're more like Formula 1. Like those open-wheel rockets, the speed of the catamarans will be impressive, but that can negatively impact the racing. Tornados, by far the fastest Olympic-class boat, can be the least exciting to watch because teams often sprint to the laylines both upwind and down and there are many fewer tactical situations than in the monohull divisions, whether its the nimble 49ers or slower boats like the Stars and Ynglings. The mention of auto racing brings up another point. Formula 1 racing works in part because the speeds are so extreme. Will 30 knots impress a non-sailing viewer? Or would 20 knots on a 40-foot skiff be better, with a half dozen sailors hanging off the side on trapezes and the boats crossing tacks numerous times up a beat or down a run?Finally, the scale of the monetary commitments is troubling. Someone has invested $60 million in this circuit. That's money these investors, most likely Lagos and at least one partner, are going to want back, preferably in a rather short period of time. So in addition to the $5 million a year per team for 12 teams, the WSL will need a title sponsor willing to fork over at least that much per annum to keep the circuit, and the custom transport ship, afloat and begin to recoup the initial expenses. Between teams, venues, and the circuit, there could be nearly $100 million per year tied up in the WSL.With three America's Cup victories and a gold medal to his credit, Russell Coutts has scaled the highest peaks in sailing time and time again. Paul Cayard cemented his status as a legend in the sport by winning the Whitbread in 1998 on EF Education. Perhaps even more impressive, in 2005 he built the Pirates of the Caribbean Volvo Ocean Race team on the fly, working with no time to spare. He predicted they would use the early legs of the race to learn the boat, then press later in the race and finish second. That result seemed improbable after he had to quit Leg 1 when his canting keel failed. But he still delivered on his promise, finishing second. If anyone can get this circuit off the ground, it's these two guys. However, I can't shake the nagging feeling that this dream may be beyond the capability of anyone in the sport, and maybe beyond the sport itself.