Mark Turner on the iShares Cup 1 talks to iShares Cup and OC Group boss; Mark Turner, about breaking the rules and creating long term value for a dizzying array of stakeholders.

In recent years, almost every sport has had to wrestle with the competing interests of traditional amateur events and ever increasing professionalism. The five day game of cricket, based in stuffy old clubs, was reinvented by media savvy businessmen into a one-day game, created for spectators and sponsors. Mark Turner, CEO of the OC Group is shaking up sailing in a similar way – throwing away the rulebook to create an entertainment product that is loved by sailors, sponsors and new spectators alike.

The iShares Cup is the sailing equivalent of cricket’s one day game. In 2008, spectacular photos of 40 foot catamarans somersaulting in the Solent bearing the names of Americas Cup teams, skippered by Olympic Gold Medallists broke out of the sailing press and touched a new audience, but was it a success?

“You can’t create a new event of any kind in any sport without a long term view on it”, says Turner. “It was hard getting it going. We started in 2007, this is the second year running and we exceeded all our expectations this year. It was a huge step up – from the media side, the public side, the VIP side. I’m really really happy to be honest.”

Turner says that part of the success of the iShares Cup is that it is like no other sailing event, and that’s on purpose.

“It’s completely different to the way sailing is normally seen. It is an entertainment product that uses sailing, whether that is entertaining VIPs, whether it’s entertaining the public, whether it’s entertaining journalists to get media coverage.”

The series even discarded with the traditional view that sailing had to be on a large piece of water like a harbour, sea or lake. In Amsterdam the boats raced in a 200 metre by 600 metre concrete pit in the middle of the city, surrounded by buildings with wind-shifts going through 100 degrees and downwind starts.

“Races are 10-12 minutes, in a way the public can understand. You don’t have to know what’s going on. The action happens right in front of you. And at the end of it, the sailors loved it and the good guys still won.”

The iShares Cup is anything but traditional. Just as the thought of cutting a five day cricket game down to a single day, swapping white for Technicolor ‘pyjamas’ seemed an abomination to the establishment, there is a sense that OC Events is determined to create a compelling product and not worry about the criticism.

“I’ve never been one for rules. I like breaking rules. I don’t really care about the taboos and what’s really interesting in the iShares Cup this year is we had the highest level of sailing you could really have. We had two Americas Cup syndicates, Olympic Medallists, World Champions, the lot, yet we ran racing in a way that you could never run in a traditional ‘playground’ – downwind starts, never windward leeward courses – you know – completely changed the rules.”
While Turner is happy to ignore traditional stakeholders, he has different set of masters. Commercial backers who expect to get a return from their investment in his product.

“It’s hard to run because you draw the stakeholder diagram and you think – which one is more important today? In the end you have to satisfy all of them and it’s a pretty diverse set of people. We have to ensure that we are absolutely delivering for each individual boat sponsor and that keeps you on your toes.”

Title sponsor iShares, seem happy with the results produced by the cup that bears its name. According to Turner, the company was looking for a ‘money can’t buy’ experience for their VIPs. The event allowed a ‘5th man’ to be aboard the boats while racing which is not something that Formula One can boast.

“It was an exceptional experience and the feedback from the VIP side is outstanding. 93% of the iShares guys said it was the best hospitality experience they have ever been to.” This was in part down to a unique opportunity that allowed iShares some control over the direction of the series.

But it was not just the VIP guests that benefited from the participatory nature of the iShares Cup.

“In Germany we have set a benchmark for the future. In Kiel, we had 80,000 people over three days that were watching the racing. They weren’t just ambling through a village where there was something going on in the background – they were stood there glued to the racing. The boats were racing five metres away from their feet – interacting with the crowd – when they were lifting a hull, the crowd would cheer and the skippers would react – trying to show off on the way around. The sailors absolutely loved it. That was a real milestone. I’ve not seen that in sailing ever, not in 20 years. Obviously that’s a product that we can take further.”

OC Events got a bonus in 2007. While Americas Cup bosses argued over the future of the ‘Auld Mug’, and contemplated running a deed of gift race using multi-hulls, they found themselves with time and money to go racing Extreme 40 catamarans.

“It was a bonus for us this year to have Alinghi. Alinghi came specifically to train and learn how to sail a multi-hull. Right now they are considering next year. They’ve worked out that this is pretty good for the sponsors and pretty good for media exposure and it’s pretty good training as well. We’ll have a great 2009 if we have no Americas Cup teams, but we will have at least one and maybe three cup teams.

Unlike the Americas Cup, which is currently going nowhere, the teams and their sponsors can put to use their infrastructure and still get returns.

“They get value from it – irrespective of the discipline. They can see it works and will work alongside the cup campaign. You can ship the boat around, go to different markets. We are not going to live or die on the participation of Americas Cup syndicates. It would be nice to have some of those guys, but we have some great teams lining up for next year regardless.”

It’s not just iShares that gets value out of sponsoring the event. Each boat has sponsors who are happy with the return on investment they got from the series. Team budgets range from £275,000 to £400,000 but it’s not just about the racing.

“The teams can use the boat for lots of other things. They might go to other races, they might put it in a shopping mall. On water they might do things like the Round the Island Race’, but on land too – we had one out of the water displayed in a supermarket. It’s such a flexible tool. Add to that hospitality sailing days, exhibition events – Ben Ainslie did a day in the JP Morgan boat up the Thames after the Olympics.”

Mark Turner is not too hung up on the numbers, but wants to keep increasing the media side of the iShares Cup. This comes through investment in television to get the event in front of as many people as possible.
“Media wise, we have got four times the coverage this year. We have used Sports Marketing Surveys (SMS), an independent valuer to understand where we are. The TV series is getting good distribution now – but we have invested heavily – we had a 16 strong TV team at each event, got some amazing footage and in that sense it’s really starting to work.”

“We have a compelling product, we have great teams, and we have a VIP on the boat for a lot of that time. We can have a journalist on the boat. They can share that experience you can watch the whole thing as a spectator from right there and that is a big change for sailing. The venues are not the normal venues that you would associate with sailing.”

So what of the future? Turner says that it is about realistic growth and being true to the commercial model.

“We don’t have a huge desire to grow the fleet massively at each event, 8-12 boats works well. We wouldn’t actively stop it growing beyond that, but we would try to grow additional series beside the European series. We want quality not quantity. We want the best sailors – who are already there – we need to maintain that. Having lots of private owners wouldn’t be a positive thing. Our model is a commercial model and we want commercial brands.”

More importantly, the future is about building on the things that have captured the imagination of thousands of people. Not just sailors, but the wider public.

“If you want to get people interested in sailing, it needs to be sexy, fun, radical, physical – everything. I couldn’t think of anything better. The key thing about this series is that people who don’t care too much about sailing take a step back and say ‘Wow’. Multi-hulls do that – a hull flying through the air has a wow factor.”

Next week: Mark talks to about trends – super teams, business models and what the increasing gap between professional teams and amateur racing means for sailing.