A few years ago, the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), ran with the slogan ‘For the Fans’. It wasn’t just a glib marketing line, it was a mission statement that was considered by officials, teams and media when making decisions. The principle lead to some innovative schemes to bring the sport and the fans closer together. I will never forget long time Le Mans Radio announcer John Hinghaugh saying over the public address system at the Sebring international raceway – “fans are invited to come down to the main straight, onto the grid” – minutes before the race started. You didn’t need a special ticket, anyone could walk the grid, be up close to the cars or have their picture taken on the start line.
It wasn’t just fans at the track that were thought about. ALMS offered live web radio streaming, live timing and scoring worldwide and were the first American motorsport series to offer real-time SMS text message updates. The theory behind the text messages was that some fans couldn’t be in front of their tv or computer for the whole 12 hours of an endurance race, so if they were in the hardware store or shopping for groceries, they could still stay in touch.
Contrast this mentality with events in Auckland over the last couple of days where the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series has been designed to showcase America’s Cup style sailing, a luxury goods manufacturer and the country of New Zealand. Alinghi, defender of the America’s Cup, took a ‘competitive’ decision not to compete against hosts Emirates Team New Zealand.
Alinghi’s official statement read:
With a competitive elimination round coming up in the next few days Alinghi had everything to lose and nothing to gain in racing the home team Emirates Team New Zealand.
Alinghi’s US skipper Ed Baird was left to defend the decision saying:
‘We are loving this regatta, the racing has been great and the summer conditions have been fantastic . . . Normally we would jump at the chance to sail against Team New Zealand as we have so many times in the past, so we are sorry to have to make this strategic choice.’
Alinghi’s behaviour, though technically legal, shows that sailing has a lot to learn about being a spectator sport. It is unthinkable that a professional sports team like Manchester United or The New York Yankees would refuse to play a game against a rival based on the argument that ‘they had nothing to gain.’ This is partly because they play in stadiums, where fans buy tickets to watch the game – fans are quantifiable, they are promised a show and promoters have a duty to provide the advertised entertainment. These professional teams also have a duty to sponsors and television schedules. What do they have to gain by playing a dead rubber? more exposure, more glory, more money.
We asked Alinghi if they had any comment to make to fans who might have travelled to New Zealand to watch racing, or other fans who follow the racing around the world? We asked if fans were considered when making the decision not to race?
The response rehashed the statement of the day before.
Sailing is a big deal in Auckland, so naturally there was a sense that Alinghi was at the very least being unsportsmanlike. Bob Fisher wrote:
This was hardly a gentlemanly action by the holders of the America’s Cup to deny the Kiwis the opportunity to race against them for the first time since they met in July 2007. It had been hailed as the Match of the Day by the local press and broadcasters and one that the spectators were ready to appreciate.
After all there were Auckland citizens who through financial reasons were denied the opportunity to cheer their team in Valencia and who were gathering on North Head for this match. Their disappointment was immense and calls were made to those close to the event complaining about the behaviour of the Swiss team, whose skipper would have known the full effect of the decision not to race.
Emirates Team New Zealand Skipper Dean Barker went further:
I was disgusted. The racing has been close, competitors are enjoying themselves and the public are being treated to some great sailing. Why would they introduce a niggle into a very successful regatta? It’s all about the spirit of the event. It’s all about doing what right for yachting. Their action was insulting and disrespectful to our team and to the New Zealand people. We were really wanted to race them today, the first time since July 2007. We don’t know what their agenda is. If they were taking a swipe at us they missed the target and whacked the thousands of New Zealand yachting fans who are following the action in the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series and wanted to see two great teams go head to head. It inexplicable when the team pulls a stunt like this. It’s just bad sportsmanship.”
It’s hard to see how Alinghi’s actions cannot be seen as bringing the sport of sailing into disrepute. In a time when people are trying to raise sponsorship and awareness of yacht racing, actions like this give potential supporters an excuse not to participate. If one of the most visible teams can decide not to compete, how can we convince sponsors, media and fans that they should comit time and money to watching?
Even the most self-centered sports realise that without fans they will die. Formula One teams have traditionally not thought about grass-roots fans. I have spoken to commercial directors of F1 teams who have said “spending money on developing merchandise and websites doesn’t make the car go any faster”. But as racing became procession like, with limited if any overtaking, fans started to stop watching. Without viewers, sponsor returns fell and the teams suddenly realised that the fans were important. In recent years, F1 took the unprecedented action of surveying fans to ask what they would change about the sport. F1 in 2009 will be different – in no small part due to the fact that the sport listened to the fans.
In recent years, professsional sailing has relied on the support and sponsorship of destinations using the sport to promote tourism. Yesterday on tis site, google ads were appearing for spectator cruises tied to Auckland travel packages. Perhaps the organisers of the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series thought that no team would ever take the action Alinghi did, that it was just not the done thing. If yacht racing wants to continue to receive money from cities and national tourist boards, organisers need to punish teams that make decisions that affect the advertised entertainment.
The American Le Mans Series now use the slogan ‘World Class’. It’s too late for the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series, but perhaps savvy sailing promoters should adopt the mantra ‘For the Fans’.
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