The Volvo Ocean Race recently released a 133 page report into the previous edition. Much of that report was dedicated to the return on investment received by sponsors of the race.
One of the findings of the report was that sponsors of sailing can get better returns than other sports because the brand-name is mentioned more than the names of the athletes. The report says:
“The Volvo Ocean Race occupies an exceptional space in the sporting world as a major property that is universally referred to with a brand name in the title, while offering similar opportunities for sponsors backing individual teams.
The fact that sailors on board are not generally household names across the world can actually help sponsors too. There is little option for media covering the race but to refer to several brand names whereas in other sport, news organisations work hard to avoid making such references. With the Volvo Ocean Race, such avoidance is not realistically possible.”
While this sounds good for sponsors, it doesn’t sound like something that is good for the sport in the long term, especially if sailing wants to create long term fans.
Fans follow athletes or teams, they don’t follow brands, which makes the situation that the Volvo Ocean Race is currently in a bit strange. Race organisers have announced the first entry for the next race. The entry has a sponsor, but it has no skipper and no team – so where are the fans going to come from?
The team is designated as an all female entry. The thought process presumably is that women will follow the team because of that fact only. But what happens when the sponsor doesn’t want to be in sailing anymore? What happens to the team and what happens to the fans of that team?
The Vendee Globe, which has the advantage of featuring just one person per boat, also suffers sometimes as the PR people stuff their releases with the sponsor’s name. But fans of Mike Golding or Sam Davies can continue to follow their favourite even if they are wearing a different company’s logo from the last time.
Other teams, that benefit from the patronage of a wealthy private owner or investor can also create long term franchises, though these have the same problem of longevity if that backer decides they don’t want to play anymore.
Ironically, the sport of sailing has the structure to create location based teams that have long histories and traditions. The America’s Cup is based on this structure, being a competition between yacht clubs – though this is often underplayed.
The sport of sailing relies on sponsorship because the business model doesn’t provide many other forms of revenue, however – the balance of athlete recognition and sponsor brand recognition is needs to swing in favour of the competitors if long term fans are to be created.