Is Sponsorship Killing Sailing? 8

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.

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  • Pete, UK

    An interesting discussion to have, but I disagree with some of the key points.  You write that ‘fans follow athletes or teams, they don’t follow brands’.  I think this misses the point that during the Volvo the brand and the team become synonymous.  I certainly think of ‘Groupama’ or ‘Telefonica’ as teams, it just happens that the team name is also the name of a large company.  I could also name all of the skippers in the race, and actually think Volvo did a very good job of showing the public their characters and generating interest in individuals.

    The AC is a slightly different case, mainly because their coverage is significantly inferior to that of the Volvo, for example.  Having said that, I could still name key individuals from each team.

    I would also argue that a team such as Groupama is location based, and now does have quite a long history in sailing.  I think Franck Cammas would agree.  Likewise ETNZ, Oracle, Telefonica – even if the sailors aren’t always from the particular nation the team is based in.

    Personally I think the Volvo has set the bar incredibly high for sailing coverage, I followed it avidly and had a keen interest in the teams and individuals involved.  Long may their sponsorship (and more of its kind) continue.

  • JP

    Sailing needs to use sponsorship to build competitors and not the other way round. The sport will only ever maintain its sporting integrity (and heritage) with lasting heroes and champions. Dennis Conner is one of sailings great names and was a pioneer in commercialising the sport. His name is etched on many a trophy and club wall around the world. But could you name any of his sponsors from his first America’s Cup campaign? 

  • Simon D, UK

    “Cammas Groupama” is a great example of a partnership and that’s how it appears in social media and elsewhere. The athlete comes first. Yes Groupama benefits and many of the fans of the team will be employees of the company, but fans will continue to follow Franck after Groupama has gone. 

    Atlant racing is a franchise of sorts, but why not make it SCR Altant Racing just as you have Vodafone McLaren? That way the fans of Ericsson would have a DNA strand to follow over successive races. 

  • I would argue that sponsorship is saving sailing.  At the most basic level- as the Mercury astronauts once said- “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”  Without sponsors, the yachts would never leave the drawing table, let alone the dock.

    All levity aside though, I do believe that the current sponsor setup, while cumbersome, is good for the sport.  In my own case, I came to know the Volvo Ocean Race because I worked for one of the sponsors.  I got to know the sailors AFTER I got to know the sponsor.  When our particular race was over, I continued to follow the racers- cheering for Movistar, Team Russia, Green Dragon… any boat that had one of “my” guys on it.  By doing that, I learned who other sailors were, and started following them too.  Now I have an interest in the America’s Cup, thanks to the sailors who made that transition.

    What the sport could use is long-term sponsors, as you mentioned.  Ericsson and Telefonica were great- able to continue the program over two VORs.  Even beyond that- ASSA ABLOY to Ericsson, with the support of Karl-Henric Svanberg.  There was a line there, a stability that in my opinion, made for a great training platform, a good development atmosphere.  If you know that the sponsor is in it for at least one more race, you can build on what you’ve learned, making the 2nd (or 3rd etc) go ‘round less of a “from scratch” campaign.

    Overall though, I think there needs to be a hook, whether sponsor or sailor, to get people interested.  When I worked with ASSA ABLOY, the hook for my particular company was in the story of fellow ASSA ABLOY Group employees in Africa.  In AIDS-ravaged areas, funerals were (and still are) a common occurrence.  Weekly, ASSA ABLOY Group employees attended funerals of their coworkers, and to show their solidarity, they would wear the ASSA ABLOY Racing Team shirts all Group employees were given.  My coworkers were shocked that the race that they took so lightly was being used as a rallying point for people who had lost so many.  Our interest spread, and we began to take the race much more seriously, and learned about our far-flung partners.  What began as a “waste of money” ended with a feeling of global solidarity, reaching from Nevada to Africa and beyond.  We were no longer separate, we were a team.  By the time ASSA ABLOY reached Miami, people who just months before were grousing that we weren’t sponsoring a NASCAR driver were furious that they too, couldn’t go to welcome the team to the USA.  When AART came in 2nd overall, pride and disappointment were equal. 

    THAT is what a sponsor needs to do.  They can’t just throw money at a
    boat and hire some people to sail it.  They need to be able to generate
    interest, passion.  If they can do that, then the fans will continue to follow the sailors, and the race, and the future sponsors.


  • That awkward moment when you hit “post” and then realize what you posted is nothing like what you actually wanted to say. :-/

    In a nutshell- I’m trying to say that sponsorship is not killing sailing. It isn’t particularly FORWARDING the sport though. 

    Repeat sponsors for big events like the VOR are necessary. Wider exposure in the US is necessary.  (sorry- I’m not trying to be all egotistical and say it lives or dies with the United States, but there really is a dearth of coverage here.)  MORE sponsors are necessary.

    Some sort of “You have to mention the skipper with the team name” clause (ie: Cammas Groupama, Read Puma, Martinez Telefonica) would help generate interest in the sailors themselves, but I don’t think that’s necessary to forward the sport.

    I could go on for DAYS about this.  As David Fuller knows, I’ve been gnawing on this question and others for a decade.  I’d be happy to discuss it further with any of you.

  • Roger Burns

    This is an interesting post. Sailing has done a wonderful job of grabbing sponsorship dollars and as individuals they have steered away from self promotion. The comments around a poor identity for sailors in general has been true, by and large with some exceptions of late. Ben Ainsley and Russel Coutts are current “brands” who are easily identified by sailors, yet not as strong brands as say Elvstrom or Conners.
    The problem is not the tail wagging the dog (corporate vs sailor) it’s just sailors haven’t been schooled in the art of business branding. I believe the sailor can and should be branded far more aggressively and pursue the same if not greater sponsorship dollars. The vent organizers have to capture the art of marketing the players plus the event in order to enhance all parties and better the popularity of sailing.
    All sport is driven by follwoing heroes. Passion fuels fan base. Corporate advertisers know that better than sailors. The US sponsorship is poor because sailors in North America do not self promote; kind of ironic actually!

    Roger Burns, Winnipeg MB

  • Derek

    Yachting was an amateur sport by definition.   While appreciating that sponsorship has brought a lot of publicity and advances into the field (including contracts for me as designer and builder), the sponsors have also brought a lot of changes, which are not all for the better.   

    I was involved with the early days of multihull racing, taking part as the first non ballasted yacht in the OSTAR in 1964 and in Winning the first Round Britain Race in 1966 in trimaran Toria.   The best multihull racing was over the next 15 years or so.   English channel races, round Britain and solo Atlantic. Sailors like Nick Keig, Phil Weld, Raph Farrant funded their own – as I did..  There was great competition and friendly rivalry. There was no great monetary prize at stake. The boats were mostly cruiser racers, with a useful life outside racing. 
    The sponsors came in as the races became more popular, but leaving no chance for the private owner to compete and no place for the sailors who had made the races viable in the first place.  It was Phil Weld who said when he won OSTAR 1980 (Nick Keig came second) “how else could I get my name in the headlines on the sports page”.We cannot turn the clock back, but it is worth noting how the costs have gone sky high – for example, from my humble tri in 1964 (which had a chance of winning) which cost me a two year contract in the Desert, to the millions it would cost to have a chance to win the race today. There have been a number of attempts to limit the costs of particular competitions, but non have been really successfull so far.   It took a long time for the Americas Cup to go for fast multihull sailing, but it is hard to see where it goes after this year,  How can a cost in tens of millions be justified for craft which are redundant after a few weeks on the water.  

    Those were the good old days, but guess we have to accept progress, unless someone has other ideas.

    Derek Kelsall, FRINA.

  • jb

    No sponsorship, no sport. Ocean racing is not intended to drive the public to the sport – considered the Everest of sailing – but rather the event aims to sweep up crowds in the battle on the high seas, and the celebration in each port (as I witnessed in Auckland, where an entire city thronged to the harbour to see the arrival, in port race and departure of the VOR competitors). Sponsors are hoping to take their brands to new markets gaining an ROI many times greater than their investment and media exposure they could never buy. The sailors become interesting to the broader public as they come to understand their feats. Sailing and the boating lifestyle become more desirable and accessible. It’s a slow and repetitive process. The fact that an all-female team is in the VOR and could feasibly win (given the variables of tactics, equipment, stamina and good fortune) broadens the race’s appeal and could inspire the next generation of women sailors, or just give us another team to cheer for as they limp or cruise victorious in to the next port. It’s up to sponsors to leverage their investment with media, events, activities in port, AND it’s up to sailing & event organisers to take advantage of the media interest to promote the virtues of their sport.