Round the Island Race Shows Heritage Can Grow Sailing Audiences.

How do you make your sailing event touch the widest group of people possible?

One way is to make as many spectators as possible engage through social media like Twitter or Facebook. The other way is to engage as many participants as you can. Of course, the more participants you have, the more engagement on social media you have…

The entry list for the 2011 J P Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race featured 1908 boats. Assuming an average of 6 people per boat, that’s about 11,000 stories.

Some of those stories feature the current and past rock-stars of the sport, and as if that wasn’t enough to get the masses interested, other stories featured celebrities, brought in to create a story that might be interesting to someone editing the entertainment pages rather than the sports section.

Either way, the Round the Island Race exposes the sport of sailing to a huge audience, and for many of the participants, the experience of getting up early, being on the start line with thousands of other boats is unforgettable. Many of those participants are journalists – and many of those are journalists that usually write about ‘other things’.

The result, scanning Google a couple of days later is an incredible level of coverage for a sailing event. News outlets like the Financial Times, BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph and Eurosport have all given time and space to the 2011 Round the Island Race and many more stories will follow in journals that run to a weekly or monthly deadline.

One journalist I spoke to had only bee given 250 words to play with and given his story on the day, he could have written 5000. Another features editor had been given a bit more leeway –  5 pages of a glossy magazine to fill, and 5 pages in a magazine that never covers sailing is a big deal.

For a sponsor of the race, having 11,000 stories might seem like a very noisy media landscape to generate awareness in, however the J P Morgan Round the Island Race is actually a great exercise in micro-segmentation. Rather than treating the audience of the event as a big monolithic block of ‘sailing fans’, each brand has a constituency who are looking for something different.

Given the conditions for this year’s race, there are some guests who may never set foot on a boat again. But while they might not become participants, those people will have a much greater appreciation of the skill and character of the people who sail at the top level of the sport. There are others who reveled in the fact that this was “real sailing” – not just a cruise in the sun. These people will become (social) brand ambassadors for the sport.

It’s events like the Round the Island Race that give you confidence about the future of sailing. Unlike the cynicism, politics and posturing that sours some parts of the sport, the Round the Island Race seems to combine racing with charity, competitiveness with participation and commercialism with Corinthian ideals. Legends of the sport mingle with ‘newbies’ in the  beer tent and share stories in a manner that just doesn’t happen in many other sports.

The Round the Island Race has had 80 years to get it right. Organisers have stuck to a formula that gets better with every edition. Rather than change the ‘product’, the Island Sailing Club, its sponsors and partners, manage to educate and promote the benefits of the offer to a wider and wider group of ‘customers’. It’s a strategy that seems to work, and sailing is better for it.

Video from the media day…

Three very different female round the world sailors talk about the Round the Island Race