Marcus Spillane on the new Olympic medal racing format
Aside from his day job as a private equity entrepreneur in New York, Irishman Marcus Spillane occupies a unique position in sailing’s Olympic classes structure.
42-year-old Spillane and his Canadian business partner, Ben Remocker, control the three fastest Olympic classes – the 49er, 49erfx and the Nacra 17 – and the duo are leading from the front in the campaign to promote sailing to a larger global audience of sports fans.
We caught up with Spillane at the World Sailing Conference in Barcelona shortly where he and Remocker had just had their proposal for a new format for the medal race day at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games approved by the World Sailing Executive.
Under the new format, the current single 20 to 30-minute medal race will be replaced by multiple shorter races around a bounded racecourse. The 49er and 49erfx fleets will sail their familiar windward/leeward course while the newly-foiling Nacra 17 catamarans will race around an America’s Cup-style course (reaching start, windward/leeward, reach to the finish).
Although delighted to have had the green light for the proposal Spillane conceded there was plenty of work that needed to be done to fine tune the format before the next Olympic Games.
“We still have a fair bit of testing to do, but at least we can now progress and use events over the next 12 months to really finesse our basic ideas,” he said.
Spillane said the motivation to move from a single, double-points medal race to a multiple race format on the final day derived largely from the feedback given by sailors active in the three classes.
“What the sailors were telling us was that the last day should be equal points to every other day during the regatta. We don't believe that it should be a winner-take-all final race. We also don't believe that it should always necessarily be double points - even though we will explore that angle a bit more.”
Introducing multiple medal races, Spillane believes, still allows the chance of the medal being decided on the last day, but reduces the likelihood of a solitary random result causing an unfair upset.
“The more races you have, the fairer the competition is,” he said. The remarkable thing is that, even in the flukiest weather conditions, most of the time the good sailors come out on top. The more races you have, the more that is likely to be the case.
Spillane’s view is that reducing the length of the medal races means shorter, snappier and more intense action.
“What that also does is allow breaks in between races, which gives us a huge opportunity with respect to advertising or promotion. It also gives us the chance to show video vignettes of who the sailors are, or maybe explain what's been going on in the competition. That can be very useful for explaining the intricacies our sport, showcasing the heroes, explaining the basic rules, or whatever else it might be. Overall I am confident that we're going to deliver something where people recognise that this is how we should be presenting our sport."
Critics would say the new proposal sounds very much like the much-touted ‘Grandstand/Stadium Sailing’ that over recent years has been accused of detracting from the quality of the competition by compromising the field of play to allow spectators a better view the action from ashore.
However, Spillane is adamant that his priority is to maintain the quality of the racing and the fairness of the competition above all other considerations.
“You have to ask yourself who the target audience is,” he said. “I believe that World Sailing is making a mistake when it tries to say that it's all about crowds of fans watching and we need to bring the racing close to shore, like we did in Weymouth, or indeed right up against the beach, like in Rio.
“In my view, it’s our online audience that's important, not the guys and girls sitting on the beach. The reality is we don't race in a stadium where you can seat 80,000 people. Even at the very best venues that lend themselves to that sort of approach we're never going to get more than five or maybe ten thousand people coming to watch the action live on site.
“Those sorts of numbers are peanuts relative to our online audience.”
Despite this stance, Spillane says he would not do away with the on-site spectators all together.
“The important thing to realise when you look at what happened on the beach in Rio is that
although there were thousands of people there and it was great atmosphere, looking at the photographs you see that everyone was clustered around the big TV screen to find out what was going on out on the racecourse.
“My point is that we absolutely need to provide entertainment on shore. We need lay on the music, the big screens, the commentary and the tracking data so people can see who is winning. But we must not sacrifice our sport just to bring it close to shore. That is not fair on the sailors and breaches the what I believe is the principle of our sport, fair racing.”
Spillane’s view is that sailing needs to do a much better job of engaging its audience and believes the answer lies in the smart use of technology to help tell the story. In recent years Spillane and Remocker’s three classes have been in the vanguard of the use of aerial drones and small lightweight video devices on the boats to help explain regatta action to an online audience.
“I'm excited that we're finally addressing one of the core problems of our sport, the question of how we reach a wider audience,” Spillane said. “I think new media channels will be important in how we do that.
“We don't need to dumb down our sport, we just need to be better at telling the story. Getting this new format approved is a huge step forward and now we can push on with finding new and exciting ways to do exactly that.”
[Main image by Jen Edney/49er Class]