I warn you, it’s a long interview but it really is very interesting and educating to read. Turner talks in depth about the Extreme Sailing Series, the America’s Cup, the sport of sailing and the fine line between making sailing attractive to sponsors and the public and catering to the needs of the rich boat owners.
VSail.info: Can you give us an assessment of the 2011 Extreme Sailing season and what the future holds for 2012?
Mark Turner: We are now going into our sixth year and I would say that 2011 was a pivotal year for us, to go from a European circuit to a global, international circuit. People do underestimate the difficulty of doing that, working with so many different cultures, with a rhythm of events that in terms of organization almost doesn’t stop. It’s not only the difficulty of being in new cultures or new venues but also venues that had never had sailing before or at least this kind of sailing. It was a big year, a huge year and we invested a lot. We went into some venues that in a normal year we probably couldn’t afford to go to because we didn’t have agreements with the cities but they were strategic decisions such as Singapore and Boston. These were two venues we decided to go in 2011 and we had the investment funds to make these steps.
VSail.info: What do you mean you went there without having an agreement?
Mark Turner: We, obviously, had agreements from an authorization point of view but no funding. That’s not sustainable for us because we are a fully commercial circuit, we don’t have an open wallet anywhere. We have a certain amount of investment, some coming from me some coming from our shareholders, but we decided that the big step to make was to go global with it. I can’t tell you whether this will be a success or not because it will take a couple of years to work out whether the investment paid off or not. However, I think that the step was essential for us to make. In sport there aren’t many global competitions, in general. In fact, there are many European, Asian ones but outside of the world football cup or Formula 1 you can’t name that many.
Sailing doesn’t have that many and we always positioned our event and the focus of what we have done was always commercial, in the sense to be attracting cities that look for a real return, to attract team or event sponsors that try to use sailing as part of their sponsorship. For us, the global element was a bit of a gamble but, again, I think it was the right step for us to make. As you, obviously, know the venue side in Europe is increasingly difficult and it gets harder and harder to get paid. The further south you go the harder it is. That’s pretty stressful because we are working on pretty slim margins and there isn’t a lot of room for errors in our numbers. This has been really tough to manage so it’s very refreshing, albeit more difficult, in Asia, the Middle East and this year in South America.
It has been very challenging but nothing is easy in event organization. You have new blood, new energy, for many people it’s a new sport and they are very excited but you also have new challenges. In some places it’s harder to get the public involved because they don’t know what sailing is, so we are the beginning of the educational process. In other places it’s harder to run an event. The decision to go to China was made in September 2010 and to deliver an event in April 2011 was probably one of our biggest achievements, ever! It’s so different and you learn so much. It’s not an issue of China being particularly difficult, it’s just very different. We are a small team, a young team, we don’t have any big business sports people that have done a lot of those things before, so we had a lot of learning to do. For the teams as well, it was a big step to take. Ultimately, sailing is still principally a European “pastime” and for professional sailing, at the top level, most of what happens in the world is European based. So, you also need to take the sailors with you, to take the sponsors of those sailors with you. With no regrets about 2011, it has been overall a very big success for us. We still have plenty of things to learn, we made plenty of mistakes and if there was a moment to stop it would have been after that.
VSail.info: What was the biggest mistake you made in 2011?
Mark Turner: I think it’s rather a series of small things and not a single, big mistake. I’m happy with the direction we took. We might be sitting here in a few years time going, “You know, we should have kept it simple and stay in Europe” but I’m not interesting in keep doing the same thing. From a psychological point of view I need to keep pushing the barriers and when someone says it’s impossible that’s when I’d rather take on. That’s the way I think. Probably from a business perspective that is sometimes the wrong thing to do. I should have probably taken less risk and consolidated things, from a business perspective, but what I love doing is changing. I try to change things for the better and prove that you can overcome those barriers. For me, taking the circuit global was a key part of that, taking sailing into new places, helping people develop the sport in those areas, trying to make it entertaining.
I know that you personally and your website have been skeptical in the past, and you weren’t alone, about the sport versus entertainment. I think it’s inevitable when you try to take a sport which is fundamentally a private sport for almost all of its history and make it interesting for people to watch, a lot of people will criticize you that you turn it into an entertainment thing. Take for example the incident between Ben Ainslie and the camera boat. There are other issues but, ultimately, there is a whole set of people that think sailing is for sharing. That’s fair enough if you’re in a world where you don’t need external people to pay. If you are in a world or part of this sport where it’s about committing people that are NOT sailors, primarily, to put money into it, be it a city or a sponsor, you HAVE to entertain.
There isn’t a single sport out there that can survive in a commercial space if you don’t entertain the public, the media, the VIPs or whatever. There is nothing to discuss about. What is something to discuss is whether the sport of sailing needs or has to have an element which is commercially funded. It is a very unique sport with a lot of private individuals that have their own boat, their own crew that go and race in a yacht club. That’s a fantastic part of the sport and it’s quite unique. My interest is being in a commercial space. The part that is confusing in sailing is that you have to be in the middle, the America’s Cup being the most obvious example of it. There have been a few others, probably the Medcup, that have been able to do this. You have a combination of private owners and commercial funding and that attracts sponsorship and then you sit in the middle. That’s confusing when you try to explain the sport but we do have those two very different poles. They both are very, very important and very, very interesting and make this sport a very fascinating place. From the outside though, when you get to sponsors you have to explain these two very different worlds. There are 300-500 boats in the Fastnet race where you have some professional sailors doing it with sponsors and a lot of people that simply love sailing and enjoy doing it. They both are important but for me the commercial space has been interesting and I have been trying to make it work. You know, our business is involved in half a dozen different sports, completely different in the way they are structured. This has allowed us to see how much we have to go in sailing if we want ot be sitting alongside them.
VSail.info: Is there in these sports this “philosophical” discussion whether they need a commercial part? From what I’ve seen the sports you are involved with are second-tier, in the sense of not being as popular as football or basketball. Is there this kind of this soul-searching as well?
Mark Turner: Let me give you an example of sport that you could very well put in second or third tier, archery. It has thousands of passionate amateurs all over the world and some guys at the top with Olympic or world champion aspirations that have created a whole entertainment version of it, professional in every sense, taking place in city centers. You have two guys, two lanes, right in a city center with a stadium around it, televised, everything! They managed to create these two separate areas of it and they sit very happily together. At the end of the day, whatever anyone might say or write, amateurs get into a sport because they were inspired by seeing something, reading something, seeing a flash about the Volvo Ocean Race on TV or whatever it might be.
The professional end has some value to most people and every sport has these two things. There are two things that are completely different in professional sailing and make it more complex. Firstly, unlike, for example, archery where you need a bow and an arrow, boats cost a lot of money. That’s why sailing has this private-owner funding side of things and this is where sailing grew from. This is often at odds with the commercial side. A person sailing in the yacht club doesn’t necessarily want to worry about entertaining or showing off. That’s fair enough and that’s relatively unique in sailing.
The other thing about sailing, unlike most of the other sports, is that the Olympics is not the only summit, the only top of the pile.
VSail.info: Do you mean there is no “America’s Cup” in archery or canoeing?
Mark Turner: From a sports point of view there is nothing over the Olympics. There are commercial products that have been created but VERY clearly the top of the pile is the Olympics and the Federation manages the whole sport, in its entirety. In sailing, the Olympics is clearly a summit but it’s not the only summit! In many sports, athletes finish their career in the Olympics but in sailing it’s the beginning of their career in the wider sport of sailing. People come out of the Olympics, actively looking at how they can make a step into all the other summits, be it here, the America’s Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race, the Vendée globe or any other major event. That’s why the sport of sailing is so confusing. In most other sports you have the Olympics and the World Championships and the Federation manages all of that. You might have some exceptions, such as cycling where the Tour de France is more important than the Olympics but you have the Federation managing it.
In sailing the Federation exists just because of the funding from the Olympics and therefore its mission is to do the Olympics. The rest of it is the Wild West! It doesn’t have that structure, which also allows great things to be developed. It allows entrepreneurship and new things that you can’t see, for example, in cycling. That sport is very controlled by the UCI and it’s very hard to come in and create something new, unless you are part of the clan, did the Tour de France 30 years ago and know the right people. Otherwise it’s very, very hard and it’s a closed world. Sailing has this amazing thing where if you have a great idea and you can find someone to back you, you can create something new. There is both sides to that equation but, ultimately, when you look at sailing from the outside it’s much harder to follow and understand because you have all those different summits and the Federation is not on the top of it.
I think that in the last few years the reality is that the commercial events have separated themselves more and more from the rest of things. You still have the Syndey-Hobart or the Fastnet race that pops us and is suddenly there, in the country where the event happens but the rest has got more and more separation, whether it’s the America’s Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race, the World Match Racing Tour, this. They have become more visible and the rest has been separated from a visibility perspective. Still, it’s confusing to someone from the outside and you have to explain.
VSail.info: Now that you mention the commercial part I’d like to be the devil’s advocate. You take pride in stating that your circuit is fully commercially funded. However, wasn’t it bailed out, or at least helped, when Ernesto Bertarelli bought a stake in it and became a shareholder a couple of years ago?
Mark Turner: We need investors like everybody else. Where do you go in sailing to find them?
VSail.info: Sure, but then again we are talking about a very rich private individual. Bertarelli is certainly passionate about sailing but he’s not a company.
Mark Turner: It’s quite important to distinguish between an America’s Cup kind of scenario where there are rich persons willing to do whatever it takes, whether it’s on the event or the teams, and an investor who is passionate about sailing but has a very fixed deal since the beginning and I have to make it work and put a long on the line to get that investment. Where do you look for investors in sailing? I think you will always find them more easily among the people that are already passionate about the sport. I don’t see a contradiction and I would absolutely feel uncomfortable some times in saying what I’ve said that it’s a commercially based thing because it’s easy to be attacked on that. However, the reality behind it is very different, if the details were made public, people would see that is quite a long way from having a very rich person helping you out or bailing you out. It’s an investment. I have a tough board that governs what we do, he took some risks like all investors do and I have to make it work. It’s just quite a long way from just being bailed out. To be honest, I had big choices in 2011, I had the America’s Cup thing, I was flattered by the choices I had.
VSail.info: Do you mean personally?
Mark Turner: Yes, personally, but they are intertwined. I’ve been running my business for a long time so things were very interconnected in terms of what I chose to do personally and where the business was going. I have never hidden the fact I talked extensively with Russell Coutts and his team about the job Iain Murray has today. I was really interested but when I see the jobs Iain Murray and Richard Worth have, ultimately, it’s Richard’s job I would have been more interested in. I now think it was the right decision for the cup that I didn’t take Iain’s job and it was the right decision for me. I think these two guys are very complimentary and it’s a good setup. I’m not an operations man, although I think I can be but my passion is actually more about this overarching thing, mixing the commercial part with the media part and the sporting part. I think I would have struggled with the separation of the roles they have in the America’s Cup.
It would have been very interesting though to be able, for once, to go and do something, I wouldn’t say with an unlimited budget, but with a level of resources that I will never have, quite frankly, in a purely short-term commercial play. I will never have that amount of resources and it’s always frustrating doing things with not enough funding and I would haven’t been worrying about raising any money, for once.
VSail.info: Do you think they are doing a good work with that level of resources, the nearly unlimited budget? It seems the copied quite a few things you have been doing here.
Mark Turner: I think it’s good for the sport and I’m flattered about that. We certainly led on a few things, took some of early risks and showed they could work. It’s good for the sport they picked up on some of these things and they do some more things, like on TV, that nobody will ever be able to do. Nobody can invest more than they are investing in TV and the sport is lucky, in some ways, to have something like the Cup that can. The difficult part is trickle down what they are doing, actually make use of all that. We are is such different places budget-wise, we run a global event with just 2-3% of the budget the America’s Cup has. That’s a difficult challenge.
There is good stuff though coming from the Cup. They are testing and trying things we could all learn from. They took on what was a huge challenge. They set the expectations very high, probably a mistake if you look at it in hindsight, which is very easy to do from the outside because of the timing, the economic circumstances and the big changes in the format. However, I believe in what they are doing, I believe it’s the right route and that’s why I considered that job. It’s easy to make mistakes when you have a lot of money, you even make more mistakes. They are learning from them along the way, like reducing TV coverage from ten days to five. You don’t need to do ten days of TV at the beginning.
They are learning as they are going along and they will have a difficult period ahead of them trying to nail down venue deals. Venue deals are extremely difficult to do and it normally takes a cycle of a couple of years, talking to city, putting it in place, doing the first event and then a second one if all goes well. For them to try to put in the ACWS circuit in the speed they were trying to do with an organization that was brand new was a massive challenge. I have lots of sympathy for them and I think the criticism they receive sometimes is valid. That’s fair enough, you are the guys that took the power, you’re going to get shot at.
I think the Cup has done some great stuff but they were a little bit too ambitious. The ACWS was a good concept to put in place but maybe they tried to do it a little bit too quickly, at least quicker than the market was ready for, a bit too far ahead of the Cup perhaps, the actual Cup itself. I think there is a risk to that, it effectively dumbs down the brand a bit which is a difficult thing. The Cup has always been about the biggest boats and I know from recent discussions in Singapore or Plymouth people thought it was the Cup itself while it isn’t. It’s a cool event that is being very well delivered in a very high level, as it should be, but it isn’t the America’s Cup. I think it is now in danger of diluting the America’s Cup itself.
Overall I think they have done a good job, the boat is very good, done very quickly, it’s a nice boat and it’s probably the only real impact on us, long term. The Extreme 40 has done a very good job for us, we don’t really want to change it but, probably, like all things, classes have a life cycle and the existence of the AC45, although we will not do the same boat for this circuit, brings forward a year or two what we want to evolve the class into. There is no fixed plan on that, no resource to do it right now but the change is brought forward by a couple of years. We used to be the coolest boat and we no longer are the coolest boat. That doesn’t make ANY difference whatsoever for 99% of the people that watch and most people that come to these events will not be able to tell you the differences between the two boats.
It’s important for the sailors to be excited to come and there is plenty of good sailors that want to come and do this but at some point, it’s not the case today, you know that it won’t be OK. The AC45 is a nice boat to sail, which is normal as technology evolves and costs twice as much, and has changed the psychology a little bit. You have to evolve and we will go out of the Extreme 40 into a new boat, a year or two earlier than what we might have done but there is no immediate plan. It will certainly not be in 2013, probably not in 2014. We will not do a wing though because of the costs that come with it. In cost terms it’s only 50% more than budget of one event in the ACWS. So, by adding 50% you do a full year with this. I’m proud of that and it’s an important thing for us. If 5,000 euros is the cost then it’s an issue for us. We are working at that level, we are not working at the level where we can say “OK, it’s 100,000 euros more because we extended the sail or did something different”.