ISAF Merges Match Racing Worlds with Pro Tour

Tour is still in search of title sponsorship, but future looks bright after joining forces with ISAF.

World MR Tour

World Match Racing Tour/john Gichigi/getty Images

It wasn't so long ago that Scott MacLeod's professional match racing tour-the Swedish Match Tour until just recently-and the International Sailing Federation seemed like two sharks hunting a dwindling supply of seals. Both had the same objective, but each felt the other stood squarely in his way. However, whatever animosity once existed between the two groups was quickly swept away this fall and now they have officially entered into a partnership that will combine ISAF's World Match Racing Championship with the richest professional sailing circuit in the world. The new venture is the World Match Racing Tour and it will kick off with the Brazil Sailing Cup in March. The agreement should benefit both parties. Since Swedish Match has had to bow out due to a new rule limiting the sponsorship of sporting events by tobacco companies, MacLeod is actively searching for a new title sponsor. The association with ISAF will give him added credibility and should help deliver more return to a sponsor. ISAF meanwhile gets a premier tour to promote the sport and provide significant boost to the prestige associated with winning the match racing world championship. Sailing World caught up with MacLeod, a former Finn sailor who's been promoting match racing for nearly two decades, over in London to get a picture of this new tour.How did this joint venture come to pass?We met in September and basically cleared up any past differences in about 15 minutes and then [ISAF Secretary General] Arve [Sundheim] said, "What would you think about having the tour be the world tour," and I said, "I'd really like to do that." We put a proposal back to them in about two weeks and they brought to the match racing council at the general meeting in November. We agreed pretty quickly on what we wanted to do, but that had to get approved by council at the meetings and then they came back with some recommendations and changes, which we agreed upon, and here we are today.Would this have happened if Swedish Match were still the tour sponsor?I think that was a catalyst for it. We might it done it anyway. Once we met and knew we had a lot of common ground, we knew the direction we both wanted to go in. Once we both said, "Here's what we do best and what you do best," we had some common ground to work with.You and ISAF haven't exactly been on friendly terms in recent years. Were you surprised they were so receptive?Yes and no. It was sort of individuals that were the catalyst for making it happen. But no, in that it's a new administration and they're looking at the sport and people like ourselves differently.How will you integrate the world championships into your tour?Potentially, the 2005-'06 tour may decide the world championship. Bermuda has withdrawn its bid to be the world championships host in 2006 so [ISAF] doesn't have any individual events bidding on hosting the Worlds in 2006. That still needs to be approved in council, but that may happen in February. In 2007, the tour champion will be the world champion, that's confirmed.Will you stretch the 2005-'06 tour through the end of 2006 to get in sync with the calendar year?We're thinking about doing that in 2006-'07 to avoid any kind of conflict with the America's Cup. In 2008 we will go to a full calendar year. This current tour is locked in to 9 events, and will finish with the Elba Cup [in Italy in July].What sort of feedback have you gotten from the sailors?I think it's been all positive. Peter Gilmour thought it was pretty good and was really excited about it. Most of the other sailors we talked to liked it because there is now a structure for match racing and it puts the world championship on a higher plane than it has been in the past.How will you ensure you get the best of the best on a regular basis and still create opportunities for up and coming sailors?We already get the best of the best on a regular basis, and will continue to do so. I think this will strengthen it for those guys to know which ones [they should attend]; these events will be graded above all other events. Then we're going to sit down and look at other events and come up with as specific schedule of qualifying events and they'll probably be two qualifying events per each tour eventHow will you get the sailors to consistently show up at tour events?That's going to be up to them. I think what's going to happen is the next tour season we're going to tweak the points so that it's not decided on the amount of time you show up and it's not going to be decided before the final event. So we could come into the final event on the tour in 2007 and there could be five sailors, maybe more, who could win the world championships. But won't that make it easy for top sailors to skip the earlier events?You still got to go to those events to get in [to the finals]. It's kind of like doing what they did with NASCAR's Nextel Cup-we don't have enough open invitations to invite everybody-you've got to do all the events in Nextel Cup to be at the final. How does this alignment with ISAF affect your search for a new title sponsor?It doesn't impact it at all. I think it helps us in that we're now one of three events granted special event status by ISAF-along with the America's Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race. We have ISAF's endorsement, so hopefully that credibility helps. But it doesn't impact it to our search for title- or partner-levels sponsors.How is that search going?Good. We're talking to a lot of companies; we don't have anybody singed up yet. It's a never-ending battle. We have our partnership with BMW through 2007 and Sebago as well, so that's pretty solid for us now.Looking ahead to 2008, the first year after the next America's Cup, what sort of goals have you set?I think our overall goal is to continue to raise the prize money, which is really the way we pay our sailors, continue to expand the markets that were in outside of Europe-obviously the U.S. would be a great market and we're looking at the Middle East and possible an event in China-and continue to strengthen our television and communications delivery. Those are the key things. For us as a tour [we want] to give a platform for all our event promoters to build on. What we're doing in Malaysia and Brazil, we've got people who are taking the platform and saying, "I can do this bigger and better than [the Swedish Match Cup in] Mastrand," which is traditionally our biggest event. We can create this qualifying series of 20 events, now that's something we can find sponsor for. We're looking at a women's tour and possibly there's a youth tour down the line. If we could have a closer link to the America's Cup that would be great.The association with the Cup has been a tough nut to crack.The tobacco issue was the reason at the end of the day, the tobacco issue was what made it difficult for them to fully link in with us. Obviously there were some sponsor conflicts but I believe we have synergy between our product and their product-obviously they're the big Kahuna, but we're both trying to move this side of the sport forward. What's the fate of the Swedish Match Cup, are they looking for a new sponsor as well?They have to find new sponsorship. I don't know where they are in getting a new title sponsor. But that name will change this year.You've been promoting match racing for a long time. Do you feel you've personally stepped up another rung with this latest announcement?I know that these things aren't easy to built; you look at other sports-NASCAR and Formula1 and tennis-and how many years it took them. I think this is just a natural progression. For [ISAF] to do that with us just shows the credibly we have as event promoters and managers. I think it's right for the sport; hopefully together we can grow this property in general. I think we've done a good job and delivering a professional series of events. It's been a lot of fun.For more on the World Match Racing Tour, www.worldmatchracingtour.com