The JP Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race is an extraordinary event. Over 1700 boats, more than 15,000 competitors, a race-track that needs to be cleared of cruise ships and ferries that takes in stunning scenery and complicated weather conditions. But despite the rich source of stories and photos, the Round the Island Race seems to miss out on interest from outside the sailing world and the local community.
The 2009 race was not the most exciting ever. Even the relatively light and racey extreme 40 catamarans spent much of the race sitting with both hulls in the water. It was clear early on that no records were going to be broken. Last year, F1 ace Lewis Hamilton ‘crashed’ on the start line and Leopard smashed the record. There were breakages and people overboard and the extreme 40’s were at the very limit of the conditions they were designed for. This year, many of the photographs taken are of pro-sailors eating crisps waiting for wind. But with over 15,000 competitors on the water, there must be a story somewhere! London’s Sunday papers didn’t agree.
This weekend was busy for UK sports fans. As well as the British Lions playing South Africa, Jenson Button was driving in front of a home crowd in the British Grand Prix. There was horse racing at Ascot and Wimbledon starts today. Add a little bit of cricket and the compulsory off season football gossip and that doesn’t leave much room in the sports pages for a ‘local’ sailing race. We scanned the papers yesterday and couldn’t find anything. Not even a pretty picture of spinakers and the needles.
So there was not a lot of mainstream coverage of the race, but does that matter? Title sponsor JP Morgan Asset Management are probably not using the race to promote to the mass market. As well as the VIP dinner and entertainment for guests, the company gets to activate their brand with flags and signage around the Cowes Yacht Haven, exposure in printed materials and over 1700 boat owners have to put a big blue sticker on the bows of their boat. It’s a niche audience that are well defined and it would be fair to say that if you are lucky enough to own a large sailboat, you might have other assets that need to be managed. To that end, the race is likely to achieve JP Morgan’s objectives.
But is there a trick being missed by others? Let me reiterate that I think that the organisers of the race do a fantastic job at managinng the logistics of the event. It is not a small undertaking to divert the Red Funnel ferries, make sure that competitors have recieved instructions, provide updates of positions and record results. It is a long day that starts early in the morning, and in years where there is no wind, continues late into the night. Most of this effort is focussed on the competitors – and they are what make the race, but on Saturday I was wearing my visitor hat and I have to report that the experience was lacking.
On Sunday, the Volvo Ocean Race ran an in-port race in Stockholm. While there were only 7 boats competing, it was estimated that over 3000 spectator boats lined the course. On Boxing Day in Sydney, thousands of people line the cliffs of the Harbour and follow the start of the Sydney to Hobart Race in anything that floats. Most of these people aren’t really into sailing, but it doesn’t stop them from having pride in the event that is taking place. Is it fair to compare the Round the Island Race to these events? The nature of the race and the local tides force organisers to start proceedings when most people are still sound asleep. Next year’s race will start at 5:30am. The start then is never going to draw huge crowds, but the finish could. Some people take up vantage points at the Needles or Ventnor, but there is no sense of buzz!
Given the resources, it is completely understandable why the Round the Island Race devotes most of its efforts to the competitors. Some more thought though needs to be given to the fan experience. Red Funnel are listed as one of the sponsors of the race, but as I sped towards Cowes on Saturday, 30 minutes before the race start, the announcement over the PA of the Red Jet explained the lifejacket procedure and went on to flog hot drinks. No mention was made of the Round the Island Race.
Walking along the seafront near the start line, the number of times I heard “there must be something on today” was incredible. I can understand someone who is into F1 living in London not knowing that the Round the Island Race is on, but how can someone be in Cowes on the morning of the race and not know?
As a competitor, the Round the Island Race is a great day, no matter what sized boat you are on. Most of the brands out racing on Saturday would have acheived their aims, either entertaining guests or raising money for charity, or building their teams. The weather provided an opportunity for big spinakers with supporters logos to be visable to thousands. The country of Oman showed that their idea for using sailing to promote their sailing heritage and tourism is well founded, winning line honours and grabbing large chunks of the media attention. The race delivers. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the Sunday papers don’t care.