Can Sheriff ISAF Bring Order to the Wild West of Commercial Sailing? 1

isaf-sherriffThere’s a sense that if you are a promoter with enough money, you can do whatever you like in sailing. While ISAF are focussed almost entirely on the Olympic classes, the rest of the sport is a free-for-all, or as Scott McLeod, formally of the World Match Racing Tour, now Vice-President for the WTA says – “it’s like the Wild West”.

One of the more controversial panels at the World Yacht Racing Forum was devoted to the governance of the sport.  Scott McLeod was joined by Brawn F1 boss Nick Fry and ISAF Secretary General Jerome Pels to discuss some big issues. It provided some of the best quotes and misquotes of the two day conference.

Regular readers will know that we like to provide some added value to the press releases that fill up our inbox every day. It’s far too easy for online editors to just cut-and-paste from the release into their favourite content management system without thinking about what they are publishing or asking a few questions. Sometimes things get lost in translation though – and the official press release issued by the WYRF quotes Nick Fry as commenting on the way ISAF controls sailing as a “bogus model” when in fact he said it was a “buggers muddle“.

According to Pels, ISAF has all the procedures that it needs to control the commercial side of the sport, but the structure of the world body is highly democratic and he admits that democracy and strategy don’t always work together. Pels goes on to say, that ISAF has been too friendly to promoters and that in a desire to grow the sport, have not worried too much that some rights might infringe on others or clash with existing events.

Pels went on to say that if the sport is the wild west, then he is the new sheriff in town, to which McLeod retorted:

“If you are the new sheriff in town, then I hope you brought some guns.”

McLeod’s frustration refers to the recent situation where the newly formed World Sailing Teams Association (WSTA) and Louis Vuitton announced the Louis Vuitton World Series and promoted it as the premier match racing series in the sport. This contravened an agreement that the World Match Racing Tour has with ISAF that includes special event rights. Pels cites the event as an example of where ISAF has used its power to enforce the rules and require Louis Vuitton and the WSTA to remove the world ‘World’ from the event name.

The situation highlights the view by most promoters that they are not compelled to seek approval from ISAF and even if they did, the governing body is a pushover who will rubber-stamp any new event irrespective of calendar clashes, class wishes or the infringement of other rights.

To an outsider like Nick Fry, the whole discussion sounds adversarial and insular, and seems to suggest that the sport is lacking in stated objectives. If the sport truly wants to compete with other globally recognised sports then strong leadership needs to replace democracy in order to move forwards. Fry makes the point that tough decisions need to come from the top down – the FIA is not popular, but they are strong.

Brawn F1 benchmark themselves, not against other F1 teams, but Manchester United. He recommends to anyone who thinks they are at the top of their game to visit the sponsorship and marketing HQ of the biggest team in the world, which in his opinion is “scary”.

The difference is that the commercial guys are the top of their game in their own right. Many are not ex-players, they are business people. Fry had a message for anyone who dared to compare sailing to F1 saying:

We are your competition. We like winning; to the extent that we are not very nice people.”

Caught in the middle, Jerome Pels admits that ISAF does not have a plan to deal with the commercial side of the sport and they don’t have the talent in-house to manage the infrastructure required. He says that ISAF needs a strategy, but that just sounds like another committee in waiting. He says that the structure needs to change and that ISAF needs to become less democratic, but it sounds like he is still reluctant to be the bad-guy.

Perhaps a few examples need to be made. Nick Fry notes that the FIA have the ability to hand out £100 Million fines. Earlier in the year, the FIA gave Renault F1 boss Flavio Briatore a lifetime, for his part in race-fixing. The lifetime ban prohibits Briatore not just from working in the F1 paddock, but forbids him to set foot on a racetrack for life.

There are numerous examples of governing bodies that manage to balance an Olympic program and professional events. ISAF would have to change massively to accomodate it and fees would have to be charged, but there is support from the larger ‘legitimate’ events in the sport to sign up to it.

The panel, including Sir Robin Knox Johnston all believed that the control had to be centred in a stronger, more powerful ISAF rather than a new organisation.

There was lots of nodding and agreement on stage at the World Yacht Racing Forum, but it remains to be seen if the Sheriff is really willing to start a gunfight.