Tuesday October 3, 2023

SailGP Is Building the Future of Sailing

  • The new league has mainstream ambitions.
  • Goals range from how its sustainable technology is adopted to commercial success.
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SailGP is on a mission to make sailing a mainstream sport.

“We know we’re not going to be fishing in the same pond as the NFL or Formula One just yet, but I think we punch above our weight for what we are,” said Andrew Thompson, SailGP’s Chief Commercial & Financial Officer.

What they are is a sailing league that may very well reinvent the sport and grow it from a niche phenomenon to something much bigger.

Thompson told me this in March while watching several 50-foot-long F50 foiling catamarans get craned out to the choppy San Francisco Bay waters from SailGP’s base at Pier 96. 

It was day one of the season-closing Mubadala United States Sail Grand Prix, where teams from eight countries competed for $1 million — a prize that the Australian team skippered by sailing great Tom Slingsby would eventually claim.

SailGP was founded by Sir Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison in 2018.

  • Coutts, the league’s CEO, is a champion yachtsman with an Olympic gold medal and five America’s Cup trophies to his name.
  • Ellison, the founder of Oracle, has a net worth that hovers around $100 billion. He’s committed to funding the first five years of SailGP operations.
  • Ellison has a history with Coutts and sailing. The pair worked together on the Oracle teams that won the America’s Cup in 2010 and 2013.

The frequency of races is one of SailGP’s main differentiators. The Grand Final on the San Francisco Bay was the finale of an eight-team, eight-event season.

Season three, which begins with a competition in Bermuda in mid-May, has grown to 10 teams and nine events and may announce more events before the season gets underway.

“We’d love more U.S. events,” Thompson said before listing off half a dozen dream destinations from San Diego to Newport, Rhode Island. “Season four, we’re hoping to get to 15 events. And then season five, we’re going beyond that and looking to get to 20-plus events.”

In comparison, the America’s Cup — the world’s oldest international sporting event, founded in 1851 — takes place every three-to-five years.

SailGP has a better chance of connecting with the mainstream if its races are less elusive. The season five goal is more akin to Formula One, which has 23 events on its 2022 calendar.

The future of Formula One was uncertain when Liberty Media bought it five years ago. Now it’s one of the hottest attractions in sports with a hit Netflix series and flashy new Grands Prix in Miami and Las Vegas.

A similar ascent may await SailGP.

Thick crowds of spectators flocked to the shores of the Bay to watch the Grand Final races. I ran into world renowned chef Thomas Keller (he owns The French Laundry and currently holds seven Michelin stars) at Pier 96. He was watching the F50s get craned out, too.

On my way out of Pier 96, I walked past Robert Pattinson — titular star of the highest-grossing film of 2022, “The Batman” — arriving for his own base tour. Pattinson also starred in “Tenet,” the 2020 Christopher Nolan film that featured SailGP boats in one of its many high-octane scenes.

Rising Revenue

“Revenue drivers are sponsorship, as well as host city revenue,” said Thompson, who oversees SailGP’s commercial programs.

Rolex has been SailGP’s presenting partner and official timepiece since the league’s inception.

Teams have their own individual sponsors, too. Team USA, for example, has support from Red Bull and T-Mobile for Business.

Revenue from hosts is not to be overlooked.

“The host has venue fees paid from either the tourist authority, or the city itself, or the country itself for us to come and have a race in that location,” said Thompson, using a deal with the Bermuda Tourism Authority as an example of how these arrangements work.

Where does revenue stand now?

“In terms of numbers, I’d say from season one our revenue was already in the eight figures, tens of millions of U.S. dollars,” said Thompson. “We tripled that in season two. We’re looking to do pretty much the same again for season three.”

SailGP’s revenue commitments for season three have already exceeded the league’s season two totals, according to Thompson.

Tech Savvy

SailGP’s ties to Oracle run deeper than Ellison’s backing.

Oracle’s technology is at the heart of the league. The company’s cloud infrastructure and stream analytics system processes and delivers 30,000 data points every second from each F50 catamaran competing in a SailGP race.

  • This data goes to broadcast partners like CBS and CBS Sports.
  • It’s used for an online real-time insights dashboard built for fans.
  • The data is also shared across all teams — which have access to the same information, something SailGP believes levels out the playing field and increases competition.

Overall, Oracle delivered about 80 billion data points to the cloud during season two.

SailGP, which has a goal of carbon neutrality by 2025, is working with Tesla, as well.

Rather than using diesel-fueled generators to charge the batteries that are essential to running F50 catamarans, a new system achieves the same results with mobile, off-grid, solar-powered Tesla Powerwalls.

SailGP also recently announced a multiyear partnership with sustainable blockchain platform Near. With the deal comes Web3 development, NFT launches, and possibly even the sale of a future team to a DAO.

Watch Time

“We’re now distributing our broadcast to 189 territories worldwide,” Coutts told Front Office Sports a couple days before the season two Grand Final in San Francisco — which had 10 million live viewers.

Broadcasts are the catalyst for achieving SailGP’s mainstream ambitions. It takes physically seeing how unpredictable and intense races are for the league’s appeal to settle in.

The season-opening race in Bermuda in May will air live across several properties:

  • YouTube
  • Facebook
  • The SailGP app
  • Linear TV on CBS Sports Network

“People don’t realize how fast the boats go, how big they are, or the scale we’re operating at,” Ben Johnson — SVP, Strategy & Commercial Development at SailGP — said at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco as the end of season two approached.

Season three, which Johnson says will be “the largest season of racing we’ve ever done from a commercial partner and broadcast standpoint,” could be the moment when SailGP turns a corner in public perception.

“We race in these super fast boats that are more like spaceships than traditional sailing boats. They race on hydrofoils above the water and it’s a really short format,” Coutts said, referring to the 90-minute runtime for races. “We’re an entertainment product, really.”

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