What Sailing Can Learn from Le Tour

SW's Stuart Streuli thinks there's a thing or two that sailing should do to make an event equal to the Tour de France. From the July 17 eNewsletter.

LeTour
Gilles Martin-raget/bmw Oracle Racing

I'm a bit of a Tour de France addict. For the three weeks each summer that the world's best professional cyclists battle whatever the roads of France can throw at them, I follow the sport of cycling as closely as I might a Red Sox run toward the pennant. And when I'm not glued to the TV, or checking the live updates on line, I'm out on my road bike.I starting cycling eight years ago because my physical therapist said it was the best way to rehabilitate my knee after surgery. That was around the time that Lance Armstrong took control of the Tour and gave every American an amazing story to follow. As Armstrong wrote himself into the history books and American popular culture, I became more and more interested in Le Tour, and cycling, on the whole. I spent more time on the road and more money on equipment. Last fall I entered my first race. I got a flat tire halfway through, and finished well out of the money. But the hook was set. I entered my second in the spring.According to Andy Lee, USA Cycling's director of marketing, my story isn't unique. "Our membership has risen fairly dramatically since Lance won his fourth tour in 2002," says Lee. "We just hit our all-time membership high last week of just over 54,000 members."Sailing and cycling share many similarities, from the importance of equipment to their fringe status among American sports fans to the difficulty in transmitting the excitement of the sport to casual fans. However, sailing lacks an event with the recruiting power of the Tour de France, and without such an event we're missing a vital pathway into our sport.It would be great if sailing's premiere event, the America's Cup, could fill this role the way Le Tour has for cycling. But there are a few problems with the Cup. It takes place too infrequently and the boats and match-racing format aren't exciting for spectators. I still think it's the greatest spectacle in sailing, it's just not the best marketing tool.Changing the Cup would seriously compromise the event. Instead, sailing's governing bodies should create an event from scratch. The competition should be designed to showcase the most exciting attributes of the sport; it must be spectator friendly, look good on TV, and lend itself to internet coverage.This is a tall order. For every slick, made-for-TV sailing circuit that made it to the tube, there are a half dozen that never got off the paper. Even the ones that succeeded were rarely around long enough to develop any kind of following. So to make this one stick, the International Sailing Federation must throw its weight behind the project, and bring in some of sailing's biggest names. Russell Coutts and Paul Cayard have reportedly been working on such a competition. This caliber of sailor would give any event instant credibility and help land initial sponsors. With support from ISAF and some big names at the helm, it might have enough momentum to get off the ground.People will question why ISAF should expend money and effort on a project that won't have any direct benefit for the average sailor. The fact is we must, as a sport, market ourselves better. There are more and more activities competing for people's leisure time. If we don't work to bring new people into the sport, sailing will suffer down the road, all puns intended.