The Sydney Opera House, the Golden Gate in San Francisco, the glittering skyscrapers of Dubai… they are all iconic settings for SailGP races.
But as Sir Russell Coutts admires the rolling green hills that frame Lyttelton Harbour, you feel it’s his favorite backdrop of all.
The SailGP CEO has finally managed to bring his globe-trotting event to his home country of New Zealand.
‘A lot of time has passed. This place has surprised everyone, you see the reaction of the sailors, it’s “wow, this is a spectacular sailing place”, she says.
Coutts, 61, won Olympic gold in 1984 and participated in five America’s Cup victorious campaigns before setting out to create an event popularly described as ‘Formula One on Water’.
Russell Coutts, CEO of SailGP, has a great vision for the sport known as ‘Formula One on the water’
SailGP certainly breaks the conventional image of sailing with fast and furious racing.
Famous landmarks are part of the draw, like the Sydney Harbor Bridge in the last race.
Coutts is delighted to be bringing SailGP to the waters off Lyttelton, near Christchurch in New Zealand.
Despite the colossal challenge of Covid-19, which denied New Zealand their race last year, SailGP is in its third season and gaining ground.
As these top-spec F50 frustrating catamarans, worth $5 million each, ply the waves and battle for position often with only feet to spare, it certainly challenges the traditional image of sailing.
With $4.3 million prize money on offer, Coutts is able to attract the world’s best sailors and has created a ‘Champions League’ for the sport with Tom Slingsby, Ben Ainslie, Jimmy Spithill and Peter Burling among the star helmsmen.
“I think how do we retain the best sailors in the world, not just thinking about today but attracting the next generation of Pete Burlings, Tom Slingsbys etc,” he says.
‘We have to have the best business model, we are like any other sport. The best basketball players play in the NBA; there are many other strong leagues, but the best ones play in the NBA and that is the biggest trading platform.
“It’s the same with football, the best players play for the Champions League clubs. That is what we aspire to be.
“To some extent we are already there in terms of sailing, but ultimately we want to go much further – this is what you want to do if you get to the top of the sport.”
Established by Coutts and Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of Oracle, in 2019, SailGP quickly realized that a younger generation with dwindling attention spans was struggling with traditional sailing racing.
Four-time Olympic champion Sir Ben Ainslie leads the British team in the SailGP competition
Ainslie cruises from one side of the frustrating British F50 catamaran to the other during a race
The British ship Emirates in front of the Sydney Opera House during the SailGP race last month
1. Australia – 76 points
2. New Zealand – 64 points
3. France – 63pts
4. Great Britain – 61 points
5. Denmark – 57pts
6. United States – 52 points
7. Canada – 49 points
8. Spain – 27 points
9. Switzerland – 25 points
They created a television-friendly format in which three high-octane races could be packed into a 90-minute window, making full use of YouTube and social media to deliver the highlights.
You can compare it to T20 or The Hundred in cricket – a gateway to the longer formats if you find yourself hooked.
“People are consuming shorter and shorter content and that’s where properties like the NBA have been really effective and led the business model for sports,” Coutts says.
There are many sports, great sports, that if they could shorten their format. They could add more events but would shorten the format.
“The NBA, for example, started marketing its fourth quarter to a younger demographic and saw an instant improvement.
“They knew that the younger demographic won’t watch the whole game, but they will watch the fourth quarter. Highlights are becoming more and more important, you’re seeing a trend where people will only see eight minutes of highlights.
“If you are a fan of Formula One but are not an avid fan, or you may have seen drive to surviveyou may only see that eight-minute highlight.
One feature that newcomers to SailGP have a hard time grasping is that despite 11 race weekends in places like Bermuda, Saint-Tropez, Cádiz and Singapore over a whole year, whoever wins the last race in San Francisco in May he takes the victory. trophy.
That has led to complaints from Slingsby’s Australian side, who hold a commanding 12-point lead at the top of the standings but may end the campaign empty-handed if things go wrong.
But Coutts insists that format adds a unique danger: “That brief content of having a winner-take-all final race, we’re definitely not going to walk away from that.”
Tom Slingsby’s Australian team has won the first two editions of the SailGP competition
That’s not to say that SailGP won’t look a little different five years from now. There will be one additional race in season four, bringing the total to 12, but a reshuffling of places.
Ultimately, the goal is to mimic American sports and create a kind of Eastern and Western Conference, allowing for more teams and venues, but with occasional common events and then a Grand Final.
‘That would make it much easier for us to move to a 20-race calendar. We have moved events in Europe within two weeks despite the shipping complexities,” says Coutts.
‘You can imagine an Australasian/US Conference and a Europe/Middle East Conference with Asia torn between the two. Perhaps with a common event in Asia and one in the United States.
‘That’s quite attractive commercially. Every time we add a country, we add a more engaged audience if they have a team to follow.
‘Then you get into which countries and the sailing talent has to feature primarily in that. We have to see if they have a suitable place.
‘It is quite obvious that we would love to have a German, Italian and Chinese team. There is interest from other countries and I don’t rule it out, but the competitiveness of the team is an important factor for us.
Melee racing in Sydney last month, where France won all three races completed
“It’s hard to keep the fans if your team ends up at the back every year and there’s no hope of a better performance.”
That’s offset by the fact that, unlike in F1, each team has identical equipment, meaning it all comes down to the skill of the sailors alone. All teams also have open access to everyone else’s technical data, so there’s a chance for newcomers to catch up quickly.
Coutts is proud to bring his event to Christchurch, which suffered massive damage in the 2011 earthquake and is still rebuilding. He hopes that SailGP visitors will tell their friends about the charms of the city and the beautiful scenery that surrounds it.
He says the average economic return for host cities is $23 million, with Cádiz the record so far at $56 million.
“The best thing about SailGP is that we show the city in a completely different light. It’s not like looking at the usual stadium where you just see the stadium,” says Coutts.
“A lot of oceanfront cities really want to promote that aspect. Those images will be impressive on race day.’
This place more than most.