We continue our series of interviews with the people in charge of shaping the 34th America’s Cup in line with the vision of the current Defender, its owner Larry Ellison and its CEO Russell Coutts. We spoke with Craig Thompson, CEO of the America’s Cup Event Authority, the body in charge of everything related to the pinnacle event of the sport, except for the racing itself.
Valencia Sailing: Can you briefly take us through your background and how you ended up becoming CEO of the America’s Cup Event Authority ?
Craig Thompson: Most recently I was with TEAM Marketing in Switzerland and we were the agency that UEFA chose to set up the European Champions League. Myself and a number of colleagues started the Champions League, together with UEFA, back in 1992. We created the marketing platform and the concept for the Championship League, which we then implemented. I was with the Champions League from 1992 until 2003 when I left to take a break. After that I was involved with the set up of the Champions Hockey League in Europe, a European hockey league similar in style to the Champions League in football, then in several other projects and I finally joined the America’s Cup just recently as CEO of the America’s Cup Event Authority.
Valencia Sailing: From what I see you have no sailing background or at least you haven’t been involved with any major sailing event prior to joining the America’s Cup. Is that correct?
Craig Thompson: I had some experience with the 32nd America’s Cup in Valencia when I did some consulting work both for America’s Cup Management (ACM) and Alinghi. So, I do have a little bit of sailing experience but I wouldn’t say I have any extensive experience in that sport.
Valencia Sailing: Do you think this factor could be a problem or at least a disadvantage?
Craig Thompson: To the contrary, I think it’s an advantage, assuming that I’m surrounded by top sailing people that have extensive knowledge of the sport like Russell Coutts, Tom Ehman or Iain Murray. As long as there is people like that in the team it’s an advantage having someone like myself or Richard Worth, Chairman of ACEA, that don’t have an insider, intimate knowledge of the sport because we can look at it from a more objective viewpoint as sports marketers. We can look at the sport in terms of what needs to be done to make it friendlier for fans, television and the sponsors and that was exactly the role I had in the Champions League in football. Being an American myself, I came to Europe knowing very little about football (soccer) and I was managing the Champions League project for many years. I actually think there is an advantage to be not so familiar with the sport as long as you are surrounded by people that are very familiar with it.
Valencia Sailing: So, since you state that you can have an objective overview of the sport of sailing, what is your first assessment? What do you think needs to be done?
Craig Thompson: We took a good look at the sport and what we found out was that a lot of the positioning of the America’s Cup is based on tradition and history, the fact it is very wealthy individuals that are all interested in sailing these boats and fighting with each other in the ocean.
Valencia Sailing: Sure, but the current Defender, BMW Oracle, the team that hired you, is in fact owned by one of the world’s richest individuals. So, there is some truth to that.
Craig Thompson: Absolutely, that’s what I mean. The sport America’s Cup, as we have found today, is a sport that is very much relying on its tradition and on its history. It is a fantastic tradition and history but when we look at the sport closely we realize that the values of sport, the fighting, the team work on the boat, the sporting part of sailing is not coming through so much in the television coverage, the commentary, the media. What we want to emphasize, and Russell Coutts totally agrees with us, is to put the sporting values of sailing at the front so that the public will want to follow the sport, will see the emotion and drama of the teams and see it as a very high level sporting event with highly trained athletes who are competing with each other on a physical level, in terms of running the boats, but also on a mental level where very quick decisions have to be made under huge pressure and stress.
It’s a very interesting combination of physical and mental contributes in a sport and we have to put that forward with the television program and coverage, with the commentators so that people start understanding sailing better and what it is as a sport.
Valencia Sailing: What is the right formula to do that? Do you have it?
Craig Thompson: No, Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison have decided to have this next event in these very large catamarans which are very fast and vigorous boats and the courses are going to be set up so that the sailors are really tested. The motto we are going by now for the future America’s Cup is “the best sailors on the fastest boats” and that’s the way we are positioning the America’s Cup for the future. Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison support this positioning of the America’s Cup for the future.
Valencia Sailing: What is exactly ACEA in charge of in the organization of the 34th America’s Cup?
Craig Thompson: It’s very similar to America’s Cup Management for AC32. We are responsible for sponsorship, for branding, the venues, the facilities, the sponsor and commercial partners, the television programming. We will have the America’s Cup Television and we will work very closely together to organize the television programming, the needs of the sponsors and the needs of the sport.
Craig Thompson promises unprecedented TV coverage in the 34th America’s Cup. BMW Oracle carried their “34th America’s Cup Media & Race Evaluation Trials” last summer. Valencia, 22 July 2010. Photo copyright Pierre Orphanidis / Valencia Sailing
Valencia Sailing: Are you in charge of the negotiations with venues, either for the America’s Cup Match or the America’s Cup World Series?
Craig Thompson: We are participating in those discussions but the responsibility for that lies with Russell Coutts.
Valencia Sailing: The venue hasn’t still been officially announced. Can you start working without knowing that major aspect of the event?
Craig Thompson: Yes, we can. There is a lot of work we can do. We are putting our sponsorship packages together, we are developing out TV program, our TV production, we are hiring a lot of people right now and it’s a very busy time. Of course, we are all waiting to know the venue for the AC Match but at the same time we are in discussions with many venues right now to participate in the World Series which will start in June 2011.
Valencia Sailing: Do you think there will be interest in the World Series?
Craig Thompson: I definitely do. This wasn’t started by us and as you know in AC32 they had the Acts they organized in Marseille, Trapani and so on. We are basically expanding the concept, we are calling it the America’s Cup World Series and we will have a point system to determine a champion every year. We are also going to have the Youth World Series so that we have a platform for youth to enter the sport of sailing and have a path to the America’s Cup.
We are going to promote and televise all the World Series events to a very high level. We will be producing a 1-hour television program for each event and expect to have it on major broadcasters like RAI in Italy, TVE in Spain, ARD in Germany and so forth.
Valencia Sailing: Will those events be broadcast live?
Craig Thompson: Yes they will but only a 1-hour program. Each event will have a duration of 9 days and there will be TV production every day. Some broadcasters will want to take footage every day but the big broadcasters I mentioned will most likely not have news coverage every day but they will take on Sunday, the last day, the 1-hour live program.
Valencia Sailing: You say Sunday will be the final day. Is that going to be the rule in all events?
Craig Thompson: This is all still being developed but in principle our thinking is that the events will start on Friday or Saturday and end on the following Sunday. In addition, each event will be a combination of fleet racing and match racing.
Valencia Sailing: You talk a lot about television, so I suppose it will be your main media platform. Is internet going to play a bigger role in this event compared to AC32?
Craig Thompson: We are going to give a lot more part to internet than previously. It is going to be major media platform for us and we will have a lot more detail and a lot more streaming on the internet than has ever been done before. However, we are keeping for television the live rights for the World Series and the America’s Cup Match. The television audience will still have access to it while the internet will act as a place for people more interested in sailing, more devoted to it with additional information.
We will be using both platforms in harmony. We will have live streaming on the internet but there will also be a sort of exclusivity for television on some of the premium events, such as the 1-hour live program I mentioned earlier on Sunday. They will most probably be exclusive for television. The remaining days will have a lot of live streaming on the internet. Broadcasters will be charged for the TV programs and it’s going to be a regular commercial offering. We will be talking to the world’s leading broadcasters about our live and highlight packages they can have in the following 3 years, including the Challenger Series and the AC Match.
Valencia Sailing: The technology has also advanced considerably since the first days of AC32. Should we expect any exciting developments as far TV coverage is concerned?
Craig Thompson: Yes, this is an area we are putting a lot work on right now. Our philosophy regarding is TV coverage is what I would call “sailing from the inside out”. In the past, because of the limitations in technology, sailing has been covered from the distance by a camera watching the boats going across the ocean. What we want to do is provide a lot more coverage from the boats, with cameras inside the boats, including cameramen that are able to move around the boats and get very good closeup shots of the action.
We will also be doing a lot with sound with microphones on board the yachts so that the audience can hear the wind, the waves, the pounding of the hulls on the water. This is a very big element and very often sound in sailing is not communicated very well. This will make the coverage much more exciting, emotional and dramatic.
Valencia Sailing: Last Friday, during your presentation to the potential teams in Paris, did you talk about those issues?
Craig Thompson: No, we didn’t go into details, we had a limited time and there was a lot of information to cover. We told them, broadly, about the importance of television and the many new ideas we had about coverage, distribution or the type of programs we would produce. We didn’t have the time to go into details.
Valencia Sailing: In that meeting there were representatives from 24 potential teams, according to the official press release. There is no doubt a number of them will not go ahead. Have you set a target number that will make the event commercially viable? What was the feedback you got from the participants in that meeting?
Craig Thompson: We very strongly anticipate that we’re going to have a minimum of 10 teams and probably up to 12. There is a very strong interest. The sailing community has embraced the idea of the catamaran and we are taking a lot of measures to keep the costs down from previous America’s Cups and to provide a lot more support to the teams, to provide a better marketing platform so that the teams can find sponsors.
We are also going to help the teams a lot with their boats by providing a lot of information, materials and support. We got a very, very positive response from the 24 potential teams at the meeting and we believe we are going to end with a minimum of 10 and probably 12 teams officially going into the next America’s Cup.
Valencia Sailing: What about the potential event sponsors? Do you see an interest from the world’s major corporations to sponsor this Cup, especially under the current tough conditions?
Craig Thompson: First of all, you are right, it’s a very difficult economic situation we are going through and it’s not the best time to be looking for sponsors for a major event. On the other hand, the America’s Cup is one of the very few activities, together with probably the sport of polo, F1 and some equestrian sports, that offer access to really top-level individuals in terms of education or economic situation.
The America’s Cup is a unique platform for a lot of companies that want access to those individuals that are very difficult to reach under normal circumstances. I can tell you for example that Oracle are very pleased with the marketing opportunity the America’s Cup has presented to them. They invite their best customers and are very successful in turning the America’s Cup into a platform for generating business. The same thing can be true for a lot of different companies that need access to wealthy individuals.
Valencia Sailing: But doesn’t this contradict with what you told me at the beginning, that your aim is to break from the tradition of the Cup being for wealthy and rich people?
Craig Thompson: I don’t think it’s a contradiction at all. It is a fact that a lot of the people that go to those events and love sailing are more wealthy and affluent than the normal population. However, with that said, it’s like Formula 1. The people that own the F1 teams are of the very same category and have some very high level guests that go to the events but Formula 1 is a very popular sport with the masses. I think it fits with the positioning we are doing in sailing.
Valencia Sailing: If we now go back to the venues for the World Series, do you see any interest from places where there is no tradition in sailing?
Craig Thompson: We want it to be a global series. We want to move around the world, from Asia, to Europe and North America and we are also looking at venues in South America right now, even Africa. We are open but we are confident we want to have venues that have the right wind so that we have good sailing conditions. We also want venues that can have a lot of people watching the races from the shore.
Valencia Sailing: Are spectators important to you? You seem to have given so such importance to television.
Craig Thompson: Spectators are very important. In fact, I’m in San Francisco right now, talking to the city about the possibility of hosting the event here and were the event to be held in the SF Bay the boats would actually go very close to the shore, as close as 30 meters from the shore. We could have hundreds of thousands of people on the beaches watching the event and this is a great opportunity for sailing, to bring the sport to such a large field, much larger than a football stadium. We will have the ability to have 5 times the number of people that watched the finals of the world football championship.
The US is a huge market for us and interest in the America’s Cup has decreased over the last few years because of the Americans losing it to other nations. With Larry Ellison and BMW Oracle it has now come back and the fact the Defender is American, regardless of whether the venue is here or not, will certainly generate a lot of interest in the American market.
Valencia Sailing: Last but certainly not least. You only have two years left to have everything in place. Do you have enough time?
Craig Thompson: Let me tell you one thing. We started working on the Champions League in February of 1992 and in November we had our first games. We will do the same for the America’s Cup.
When we started the Champions League the teams had all the rights, there was no branding, no music not even a central organization. We had to start everything from the beginning. We had a brand new marketing concept, we had to sell the TV rights all over the world, sell sponsorship, put the hospitality in place, have all the football clubs come on board. It was an enormous task. You could say the football teams and the players were the same but everything else was completely different!
In the America’s Cup we inherited a system from the 32nd edition, which was a long process that the Bertarelli organization implemented in Valencia. It was a very big step forward for sailing, we are very happy with that and we want to use it as a platform to go further forward and develop the sport more. A lot of the work has been done and a lot more needs to be done but we have all the time necessary to prepare for the 34th America’s Cup.