Sailing Sponsorship. Nick Masson Talks to #WYRF


It’s only a week until the World Yacht Racing Forum in Monaco. The event is a unique chance for those involved in the business of Yacht Racing to get together and talk about issues facing the sport. One of the topics for discussion that is is close to our heart is sponsorship. The latest World Yacht Racing Forum newsletter contains an interview with sports marketing consultant Nick Masson about his take on the state of sponsorship and sailing.

What is the current state of sailing sponsorship?

Nick is CEO of Crossinitiatives and a specialist in strategy, planning and project management. Well known in the sport of sailing, Masson also works for brands, rights holders and teams across a variety of sports.

WYRF: How difficult is it currently to talk about the sport of sailing to potential partners? How does it compare with one / five years ago?

Nick Masson: “The market was very strong until the summer of 2007. The economy worldwide was going well and companies were investing for brand growth. In September 07, unsurprisingly the lights went out and people stopped answering the phone (not just for sailing projects: sponsorship in general was affected). This period lasted until about three months ago, and we are now seeing much more activity.”

WYRF: So the mentality of the market has changed?

Nick Masson: “It has taken companies some time to evaluate the impact the financial crisis would have on their business. They have now by-enlarge re-planned their business and have a clearer view on future performance as a result they are again looking for new ideas and projects to stimulate brand performance. There are a few examples in sailing: Addidas and the French/German America’s Cup team, the Louis Vuitton Series, Audemars Piguet supporting l’Hydroptère… And the good news is that more people seem to be taking the long term view.”

WYRF: What are the strengths of the sport?

Nick Masson: “The values of sailing tend to fit with a broad range of brand propositions. The sport also offers one of the strongest hospitality platforms and the quality of our venues support a strong event experience. Sailing has many other assets; the environment is becoming one of them and carbon neutral projects can be very attractive. However to be effective they have to be well conceived and substantiated. It can’t be just a message: there must be tangible facts behind the messaging.”

WYRF: And what are its weaknesses?

Nick Masson: “There are some fundamental issues. To begin with, sailing is not a mass media sport and there isn’t a mass following. A brand that wants to build mass awareness should probably look at another sport. Another issue is the cost of running a campaign, especially in the America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race (though Volvo have made good progress). The cost of an AC or VOR title deal immediately begs comparison with Formula 1. It is logical that marketing directors benchmark the potential media returns that they can get against other sports and it often makes it difficult for sailing to compete on media alone. Accessibility can also be an issue. Sailing events usually provide free access to the public but it is logistically very difficult for people to follow the races.”

WYRF: What are according to you the most important sailing properties from a commercial standpoint?

Nick Masson: “Obviously the Volvo Ocean Race and the America’s Cup jump to mind. The Extreme Series is also a good example. This event provides the sponsors with regular, accessible racing, on an annual basis. The Series do a great job at bringing the events to the public and not the contrary, like most events try to do. The purity of the racing is sometimes compromised by the need to be close to the public but it is usually well accepted by the sailing community and delivers exciting easy to follow entertainment for the uninitiated. The Vendée Globe is huge in France and it’s great to see a growing interest from other countries. Another successful but different approach is Rolex’s, they have built an excellent portfolio of iconic events creating a strong emotional link with the sailing community.”

WYRF: What should a sponsor take into consideration when getting into a sailing sponsorship deal?

Nick Masson: “Sailing is very good for properties looking to target high net worth individuals and decision makers. The first major choice is between a team and an event. A team will provide stronger emotions; however the commercial return will be strongly linked with the team’s results. On the other hand, supporting an event is safer but it will not generate the same emotions. The length and frequency of the activation period is important and needs to be carefully considered. Some events take place annually; others every four years and God knows when the Cup will take place in its current format. The activation period has a major impact on the opportunity a brand has to leverage its investment. Then there is unpredictability, take an offshore single handed project for example, the smart sponsor will work hard to maximize exposure off the race course as the race attrition rate can be high. Hugo Boss does this very well: I’d guess they got more return by having Lewis Hamilton on board than through their racing program. Equally Puma did an excellent job of playing the Pirate card in the last VOR.”

WYRF: Do the sailors understand this well?

Nick Masson: “Like all walks of life some people are brilliant at knowing and doing what needs to be done whilst others take a little longer to catch on. Look at the well supported teams /events with large brands as partners and you’re probably looking at the ones who are doing it right. The key really is to understand that brands invest in sailing to grow their business not to allow us to go sailing. Marketing people are held accountable for delivering return on investment and if we want their support we have to demonstrate ours. We have to give them what they need to deliver their goals. Do sailors understand this well? Sort of, but we’ve a way to go.”

WYRF: Does the sport of sailing provide a good return on investment?

Nick Masson: “The return will be good for those who have a clear strategy and objectives. The approach will obviously be different depending on your product category and business model. Defining clear objectives will allow a brand to choose the right property and to pay the right price for it. The return will then largely depend upon the effectiveness of the leverage plan and the team or event authorities have a large role to play here. I think the key to a successful campaign is a strong partnership and open communication between the team and the sponsor and an understanding that what happens off the water is often as important as the wet side in driving the sponsors return on investment”