Less Is More

Editor's Letter from our June 2011 issue.

If I were given a dollar every time I heard someone say, “Watching sailboat racing is like watching grass grow,” well, I’d have a much more robust bank account, or, more likely, a bigger, better raceboat. But it’s absolutely true. Sailboat racing, as practiced by the vast majority of us, is not a spectator sport; it’s a participant sport. I love pulling ropes, hiking my cheeks off, or engaging in the cerebral challenge of the average race. But I have little interest in watching other people’s races, especially from afar, and I have zero interest in watching sailboat races on the Internet, with the exception of big-time, professionally broadcast pro-sailing events like the America’s Cup. Follow the local one-design series or even the big weekend regatta on my computer? I’ll pass.

The future of live sailing coverage is the Internet, but that doesn’t mean all sailing needs to go there. I don’t believe live streaming the average class championship or regional raceweek is worth the considerable cost and effort to yacht clubs, regatta organizers, or classes. I love the sport immensely; if I don’t find it remotely interesting to watch online, how can we expect non-sailors to?

My experiences watching live-streaming sailing have largely followed the same script: The coverage captures an exciting start and then the camera boat slowly motors off to the outer fringes of the racecourse. The boats become white dots on the horizon, and any attempt to zoom only amplifies the bouncy sea state. I go along for a high-speed run up the course, bow spray flying past the lens, where I meet the fleet at the weather mark and watch them go around, one-by-one. The monotony of the parade might be punctuated with a bad spinnaker set or two, but for the most part, there’s 30 seconds of “action.” Then, it’s throttle down again, to the outside, and to the leeward mark. Spinnakers are doused, and boats turn upwind. Yawn. The lighter the wind, the less interesting it gets. And even if I sat through an entire 45-minute race, I still wouldn’t have any clue what really happened between the marks.

Technology will advance, and someday there will be onboard video feeds from every boat, integrated race tracking, and all the bells and whistles of professionally covered sporting events, available at a fraction of the cost. But this technology will always be expensive, and still doesn’t address the fundamental problem: I don’t see a broad audience watching amateur sailing for hours on end.

From what we’ve seen, amateur, participatory sporting events don’t get the kind of viewership to justify the effort: the majority of regattas take place on weekends, and “watching” requires a long commitment of sitting in front of one’s computer screen for three or four hours.

Rather than stream the racing, regatta organizers would be better off investing their media budgets and efforts in thoughtful, short, daily recaps that deliver the video highlights we like. They should strive for good old-fashioned story telling. Interviews with the competitors and analysis of the results will tell me a lot more about what happened over the course of a day or regatta. Action, people, and insight: that’s what I want. Such recaps are better because they’re more viral, and don’t require a huge time commitment from the fan. In other words, a five-minute highlight reel of grass growing is a lot more appealing than six hours of it.