North Sails Boss Tom Whidden: “We probably need two governing bodies”


a-tom-whiddenThe 2nd World Yacht Racing Forum is getting closer and there are some big issues in business of yacht racing that are on the table. The industry is having to face some of the facts about professionalism and governance, branding, sponsorship, media rights and all the while keeping people enthused about the sport.

President and CEO of North Sails, Tom Whidden will be one of two Keynote Speakers alongside double Vendée Globe winner Michel Desjoyeaux at the next World Yacht Racing Forum.

Whidden is one of the most experienced America’s Cup sailors in the world. He sailed with Dennis Conner in a total of seven America’s Cup campaigns, beginning in 1979. He was tactician in five America’s Cup series and he has won the Cup three times.

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This month’s newsletter from the World Yacht Racing Forum talked to Tom about his views on the key issues facing yacht racing.

WYRF: Tom, what is your view on the sport of sailing from a commercial standpoint?

Tom Whidden: “We’ve had 5-6 years of wonderful growth, which have allowed our company to increase its revenues by over 50%. All Classes have been strong, from Optimists to Olympic sailing, Farr 40’s and bigger classes. Obviously, this year’s global economy has hurt sailing. Europe was hit last fall; we started to suffer in January, with our revenues across the world down 10-15 %. But we’ve made a good come-back since the summer and things are starting to look better. North Sails is probably a good indicator of how the industry is doing.”

WYRF: And what about sailing from a sports point of view?

Tom Whidden: “Well, there are strong and weak areas. I’m just back from the Rolex Big Boats series and it doesn’t get much better than this. The level is very high, there is a good potential for development, lots of interest… Dinghy sailing is going well too, but on the other hand middle sized boats seem to be suffering.”

WYRF: Is the sport of sailing managed correctly? What could be done to better the situation?

Tom Whidden: “Oh well, you are going to get me into trouble… Let’s say that we can always do better… More seriously: it seems like the leaders in our sport have disparate goals. It is very hard to be in the position of the governing body – especially if there is a lack of leadership – because you have to deal with those conflicting interests.”

WYRF: Does the sport actually need a governing body?

Tom Whidden: “Well, there are two types of yacht racers: the professionals and those who want to sail under a Corinthian spirit. May be the solution is to create a professional body for those who live out of the sport. Those people need a professional governing body. On the other hand, we could keep a governing body for the non-professional sailors and events.”

WYRF: What is your view on the current status of the America’s Cup: Is it just part of the game, as has often been the case in the past? Or has it gone too far this time?

Tom Whidden: “It seems like the individuals who have previously won the Cup have too much power. Perhaps there should be a professional and independent management for the Cup? But then when you look at Formula 1, this is what they have and it doesn’t stop them from having all sorts of problems. My opinion regarding the Cup is that Ernesto Bertarelli had some great ideas but he tries to control too much. In this context, Larry Ellison was certainly right to challenge him and I believe that his sense of fairness is correct.
The only sad thing is to have to go through court to settle this. There is probably too much money involved in this game. In 1980, our budget was 2 millions US $. In Australia, for what was probably the best America’s Cup ever, we spent 15 million dollars. Nowadays you don’t go very far if you don’t have at least one hundred…”

WYRF: You will be a keynote speaker at the next World Yacht Racing Forum. What do you expect from the event?

Tom Whidden: “When people are passionate and care about their sport, it is important that they meet and discuss the issues they might encounter. I will go to Monaco with an open mind. I hope for a good dialogue, and to help make the sport and the industry a little bit better. My last word is that I am only one player amongst many others but I have been doing this for 35 years including 7 America’s Cups. I have been lucky enough to be able to mix my sport and my business and I feel very fortunate. Now I have 2’500 employees and I care about them. That’s why I try to do a good job and look forward to the Forum.”

Register for the 2010 World Yacht Racing Forum Here