Billionaires and sailing: negative or positive for the sport?

Posted on 28 March 2013 by Valencia Sailing

It goes without saying that when one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers, The Sunday Times, uses one of your photos on the front page of the Business Section to illustrate an article you can only be happy. As a result, we were delighted to see our photo of Tony Langley’s TP52 Gladiator having a prominent placement on the British newspaper two weeks ago. For any sailor or sailing fan, the photo per se has nothing extraordinary. It was shot the moment the British crew was preparing to tack in one of the beats of a race at the 2012 AUDI Valencia Cup. We were lucky enough on the photo boat to be right next to Gladiator’s layline and shot the sequence of the tack. The newspaper’s photo editor found one of the photos to be front page material, especially since Langley’s name and national flag were more than visible on the boom right over his head.

Our photo of Tony Langley’s TP52 Gladiator made it to the front page of the Business Section of The Sunday times two weeks ago. Long term is this association of the sport with billionaires a positive or negative factor?

However, the scope of this piece isn’t to brag about our photos but to wonder what long-term effect this association of sailing with billionaires might have for the development of the sport. Does it reinforce the long-held view that sailing is an elitist sport? On the other hand, how could a sailing photo have such a prominent position in the business section otherwise? Not only that, Langley is a successful self-made businessman whose group employs 4,000 people worldwide and has an annual turnover of close to one billion euros. Will his photo entice other successful entrepreneurs to join the ranks of TP52 owners or of other similar classes?

Since its inception in 2007, the RC44 class has been about and for its boat owners. The TP52′s had a similar start and then went through a, disastrous, period of trying to be what they weren’t. Under Santa Monica Sport’s leadership, the Medcup pretended to be a popular event with mass appeal, something that couldn’t be further apart from reality. It survived a few years thanks to the easy money Spanish cities had access to and then collapsed when the tap was turned off. Did the monumental race villages and public areas bring more sponsors and teams? None whatsoever! The three founding owners of the 52 Super Series, Niklas Zennström, Alberto Roemmers and Doug DeVos, make it no secret that they want to build a circuit that caters to the owners.

On a smaller scale, the struggling Soto40 class is also composed solely of privately-owned boats, both in Europe and Latin America. At the other end of the sailing spectrum, the America’s Cup has reconfirmed its identity as a battleground for multi-billionaires and even in the Extreme Sailing Series, nearly half of the teams are either backed by a rich owner or bankrolled by a sultan.

So, the question is: Can high-level professional sailing exist without the wealthy owners? Will the sport of sailing in general benefit from the presence of more rich individuals or will it be hurt? If the 15 RC44′s and 10 TP52′s didn’t exist what would have filled the void? Is there really a truly commercially viable alternative? If yes, where is it?

9 Comments For This Post

  1. Adam 12 Says:

    Without them there would simply be no sailing at the maxi , americas cup level , as long as they did´nt hurt too many people getting to where they are . good on em .

  2. Mark Turner Says:

    I think you are one of the better investigative journalists left in the sport, but then you let yourself down with spin/wild statements to support your point. Your article is a good one and an interesting conundrum for the sport – both sides of the sport I believe are very important, but one must absolutely separate the private owner/mass participation side, from the sport business commercially grounded side. Along with the Volvo the other main commercial not private event, the Extreme Sailing Series is a fully commercial focused event and has been so since its creation (one could argue sometimes to our financial detriment). Contrary to your statement above, it has only one private, non-brand driven entry this year, and that of course with a nice brand of its own with AC winning history. Your description of Oman Sail could not be further from the truth and I think is pretty insulting for that team who have created an entire industry, and developed a sports sponsorship sector in the region from nothing. More new brands have entered the sport of sailing in or through Oman Sail on teams and events than in Europe in 2012 I suspect.

    The largely missing model, which should not be confused with private owner campaigns as they exist today in Rolex territory lets say, is the one that exists in football, where a private investor owns a team, which then has a full commercial sponsorship setup on top. Seed funding, capital purchase, but then full commercial professional campaigns, would be a great help for the development of the sport.

    One way or another, the brand driven part of the sport is key to ongoing development of it worldwide. It’s active sponsors that do most to communicate the sport to wider audiences, positively. In the private side, the focus, correctly so, is to entertain the owner, skipper or sailors. In the commercial side, one has to entertain a lot of other stakeholders and fans, with as least as much importance, if not more, whilst not losing sight of the fact that sporting credibility remains fundamental to any event. If you end up between these two models, you fail. The MedCup as you pointed out, was exactly that.

    Keep up the good investigative and thought provoking work, but please don’t mislead!


  3. Euan Says:

    Its the owner’s name on the boom that amuses me! What’s that all about?

  4. Adam 12 Says:

    One other thing as a result of this Americas cup being sailed with Cat´s instead of tp 72´s or something similar and the crazy cost of these boat´s as oposed to monohul´s and the entire logistic´s surrounding these campain´s and the Lack of crew required to put together a program and do quality testing it´s great to see New owner´s coming into the game as it give´s work to the middle class of sailing who actually do want to keep working in the business and taking care of there family´s as well as long as the new owner´s don´t get suckered in by well don´t want to mention any name´s and then burning the guy out because the little sail boat which seemed like such a great idea cost´s more than all his other toy´s together and another guy walk´s away from the sport .

  5. Adam 12 Says:

    Euan , mate that was not his idea , it was the idea of the owner´s together it´s not bad , hey they pay the bill´s and the dinner´s and all the rest with out them there would be nothing we need every one of these bloke´s , can put his name any where he want´s from my side , it´s all about the owner´s , we need as many of these bloke´s as we can get , good on ya gladiator , 12

  6. James Pleasance Says:

    Are billionaires good for the sport? – undoubtedly. They spend their money doing what they enjoy and why shouldn’t they. They buy boats which keeps a [suffering] industry in business, they pay race crew and shore crew which provide jobs. The smart ones even make money, although some would argue how much of that goes back into the sport..

    Can high-level professional sailing exist without wealthy owners? – with +$50m race campaigns, then no it can’t. But lets keep it real – the VOR, World Match Racing Tour, Extremes etc all exist without billionaires (WMRT has also been run commercially since 2000).

    But I agree that perhaps the real question here is whether it is the billionaires or the brands that will really grow the sport.. Granted some of the billionaires have helped raise the profile of the sport (although not always positively), but the big brands and venues spend big bucks on marketing and activation and that, ultimately, will bring new audiences and money to the sport..

    Question is if you had $20m, would you buy a monohull or a multihull?

  7. Rob Weiland Says:

    All interesting to read. The name on the boom actually is the name of the helmsman. That can be the owner but you will also see names like Ed Baird or Guillermo Parada. As our sport is communicated for a large part by images it is an effective way to communicate one of the popular questions: “Who is on the helm?”.

    I feel it is a bit besides the truth to claim that brand driven sailing is the key to the sports ongoing development, it is mainly and quite obvious the key to development of brand driven sailing models. Like the Extreme Sailing Series. With quite often private money pulling that wagon, but whether that is a sin I do not know. If the claim is that brand driven sailing is the key to the development in design and construction then I beg to differ of opinion. In general those in brand driven sailing do not care much what is sailed as long as it fits the business model. Look no further than the Volvo or Extreme Sailing Series for this, the aim is a reasonably priced more or less reliable vehicle, fitting the budget and aims of the concept that is on offer. And with enough surface to brand.

    The sultan of Oman will have many reasons to support sailing. I am sure one of them is passion for the sport. The interesting thing is that he is quietly succeeding where many others struggle and certainly gets more positive attention than for instance the AC efforts. I hope Oman is there to stay and keeps spending the money wisely chasing realistic goals set by them, not by others.

    I would say that what Mark calls the Rolex territory is proof that a marriage between private sailing and sponsorship is very well possible. Basis for this model is that both sides of the coin understand and respect each others needs, goals and limits. Audi MedCup failed for many reasons, but one of them for sure was that the private component and the sponsor component never touched base with each other and quite frankly could pass each other on the dock without knowing who was who.

    The sport of sailing foremost needs passionate sailors. Passion with a small budget restricts the size of the boat and where it is raced, passion with a big budget has many options and passion with nearly unlimited budget is a cocktail that sometimes is hard understand for its logic but certainly can be entertaining to watch.

  8. Rob Andrews Says:

    The one area of the sport that will continue without the funding impact of billionaires and direct commercial sponsorship is the Olympic arena. True it brings hundreds of millions of dollars into the sport over each four year cycle and it does attract commercial sponsors such as Volvo, Audi, Skandia, and Delta Lloyd but sometimes the impact of the Olympic area is overlooked in these discussions about the future direction of the sport of sailing.

    London 2012 proved that Olympic sailing could generate millions of pounds in ticket sales and more importantly the market research showed that the spectators had as good a time, if not better, than those at all the other ticketed sites within London 2012 for 20 odd sports. Sailing once again won the coveted IOC Olympic Golden Rings Award, for Best Olympic Sports production by Olympic Broadcast Services (OBS) for its live broadcast.
    Perhaps also there is a changing dynamic in the professional side of our sport, as the craft and formats being used are becoming more athletic, faster and dynamic. Certainly there is now a much faster transfer from the Olympic arena to the pinnacle events of our sport for elite athletes, with many of these events, such as AC, Volvo and Extreme defining the depth in their fleets by the number of Olympic medalists or Olympic campaigners.
    The funding for this Olympic area is largely national government driven, where sailing sits alongside all other Olympic sports. This reliable funding platform allows many national sailing federations around the world, to run not only Olympic programmes, but also the youth programmes that feed in.

    All of the major events in sailing are currently experiencing a period of transition as we strive to develop the correct format for each of the pinnacles in our sport. We are currently an evolving sport, and from a funding perspective the amount of money that flows into our sport via the Olympic route should not be ignored while debating the financial impact of the money from billionaire and commercial interests. I suspect that we need all of the above options (billionaire, governments and commercial), in order to allow our sport to develop globally and engage the public participants and spectators at a number of levels from grass routes to the very top of our sport.

  9. Richard Gladwell Says:

    The difference between the Olympics and the rest is Nationality, and the fact that only national teams compete in the Olympics.

    There were a total of 63 nations competing in the 2012 Olympics, compared to four multi-national teams in the AC and seven or eight multi-national teams in the VOR.

    Same song second verse for the other major sailing events.

    When you have ten events within the Olympic regatta and that number of countries – there is a lot for fans to follow – whether it the performance of one sailor from a so-called developing country, to which nation is going to top the medal table, added to how your sport is performing against others from your country.

    Plus you have the impact of the other sports – which pulls the general sports media into cover sailing for the only time in a four year cycle, and the Olympics float above all others in terms of global impact.

    The changes that have been made to the Olympic sailing regatta format seem to have lifted the profile of the sport amongst the general media, although few sailing purists agree with the changes. In the end that lift in profile has to have an impact on people deciding whether or not to take up the sport.

    The classes selected for 2016 should lift the profile even further, as sailing positions itself as the Extreme Sport of the Olympics, and of course is perfect for the new media and interweb.


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