Larry Ellison has given an insight into how Pro-Sailing and Amateur sailing can sit side by side. Not in the America’s Cup, but in other formats where one-design racing levels the field. In an interview with Adam Lashinsky, for FORTUNE, Ellison talks about the need to make the America’s Cup more relevant to a television audience and enable all teams, not just the defender, the chance to make money.
[cleeng_content id=”709878584″ description=”99 cents or 10,000 hours. The path to being an expert can be easy or hard. ” price=”0.99″]Given the recent reignition of the debate about amateur and professional sailing, it is interesting to see that Ellison classed himself as an amateur, he says:
What I didn’t realize when I went from amateur sailing – I thought, oh, I must be good at this sailing thing – and then I turned pro, and I drove in the Louis Vuitton Cup and I’d been sailing in pro match racing for a while – that there’s just a gigantic difference between professional sports and amateur sports. I found that professional sports resembles Oracle much more than my experience with Sayonara. In America’s Cup sailing we have a large engineering team, recruiting is crucial, planning is crucial, leadership is crucial, the level of effort and the level of commitment that’s required to be successful, the focus, it really is a full-time job.
When asked whether an America’s Cup team could actually make money, Ellsison replied:
That’s one of the things that’s crucial for the 34th is that we make this a profitable venture for all the teams, not just for the defender or the challenger of record. We’d make it a more attractive TV sport so we can sell TV contracts. We’ll get the budgets under control so someone can come in and campaign for three, four, five million dollars. So the South Africans will come back. The Swedes will come back, not that they can’t raise more money, but we’d want someone with a smaller budget to be able to build their boat, put together their team and be competitive. We’d like this to not be a matter of who invests the most money in designing their boat but who sails the best.
But limiting the budgets would be more like a salary cap – it would not stop teams from innovating and creating technology to give them an advantage. Ellison says that turning the America’s Cup into one-design sailing would be too much of a break with tradition. He says:
I want it to be a combination, where you’ve got a little bit of an edge with a slightly faster boat. But in the end it’s got to come down to how good is your sailing team and how do you sail and how well do you call the wind and how good are your tactics and how well do you trim and how well did you drive. It shouldn’t be about money. It should be a little bit about technology and a lot about sailing.
In one of the first admissions that the last America’s Cup was perhaps not very compelling for spectators, Ellison is coming around to looking outside sailing to see how it should be done. Like many of us who watched the Winter Olympics and saw innovative, exciting sports like Snowboard Cross, Larry Ellison knows that the only way he will make money is to increase the size of the audience. To that end he says:
“…it’s got to be a great experience for viewers. It’s got to be something kids want to watch. Quite frankly when I’m watching the Olympics I watch downhill racing. My kids watch the snowboarders. Okay. We’ve got to pay attention to that. …if what the kids want to watch is multihulls because it’s more exciting, we’ll go multihulls.
We’ve got to make this a great sport from the point of view of the participant, especially the kid who’s just getting into the sport, and from the point of view of the viewer on television. We think we can make this extremely attractive and comprehensible. We want some 15-year-old watching this thing, saying, “Wow, that’s cool. I’d love to do that.”
After being a central part of one of the least commercially driven sporting events in history, the 33rd America’s Cup, Ellison is now saying what many others in the industry have been saying for some time now. He is talking about spectators. He is suggesting in this interview that the sailors and the sailing industry are not the centre of attention, that to become a ‘proper’ sport, sailing needs to change the focus of the event from the competitors to the audience.
It’s got to be a commercially viable sport. Baseball is. Football is. Tennis is. We’ve got to attract a fan base. We have to make it interesting. We have to have interesting commentators. When the NFL put in that yellow first down line on the field, it gave the fan a little more insight as to what was going on during the play. We can provide that computer assistance, which is especially needed in sailing
The other factor that prevents sailing in the America’s Cup being commercially viable is the gaps between events and the lack of certainty of event timings and venues. Unlike the Olympics, which announce host nations on a rolling timeline, the America’s Cup has been run by the winner and so there is no continuity. Ellison would like to see a system that gives sponsors and teams more certainty.
It would be like the Premier soccer league in the U.K. with the occasional World Cup. Every fourth year there’s the America’s Cup. But you have all these teams playing soccer against each other in the intervening years until all of a sudden everything stops for three months and you have this America’s Cup.
The Full Interview (without our editorial spin) is here… [/cleeng_content]