'Jumpers for goalposts' - Sailing and the mainstream media
Much has been written over recent years on the potential of sailboat racing to make an impact on the mainstream sporting media. We asked someone who should know - Tim Gow, the sports news editor of the Daily Express newspaper in England - for his take on the challenges our sport faces in trying to break into the mainstream.
Jumpers for goalposts. It’s not often that I would hold up Ron Manager - the fictional soccer club manager from British comedy series The Fast Show - as the very epitome of wisdom, but bear with me.
[Ed note. Non-British readers can check out Ron's pearls of wisdom in this video.]
Football dominates the sporting media landscape, and those three words sum up why. Dear old Ron would spout them as he lost himself in reveries of childhood games, and somehow we all knew what he was talking about. Because everyone plays football.
Whether it’s at the Bernabeu in front of millions or in your back garden in front of the dog. With jumpers for goalposts. It’s the same game and everyone gets it.
There are domestic leagues, European leagues and championships, World Cups, and at the end of each a clear winner. Bar-room banter will never quite settle on who’s the best player – but at least the argument takes place on a level playing field.
But who is the best sailor in the world? Which is the best crew? The best boat? Whose is the greatest achievement, the highest award?
Impossible, isn’t it?
Now, I love sailing. I wouldn’t say I’m any good at it, but I am proud to be a part of it in my own small way. I love the sport’s atmosphere, its environment. The people involved in it are among the most fascinating in the sporting world; their stories among the most inspiring and engaging.
But even in my day job, as the sports news editor of a daily national British newspaper who has a big say in its content, I struggle to justify including it on a regular basis. Why? Because sailing is failing to sprinkle its stardust on a wider audience.
One of the major issues holding it back is its calendar. The Olympics and the Vendee Globe are every four years, the Volvo Ocean Race every three, the America’s Cup – well, it used to be whenever whichever billionaire felt like it, but hopefully it has settled into a steady routine now. They are the events that grab the attention, but almost as soon as the sailors have sprung into the public’s consciousness they fade away. They keep themselves busy, of course – but doing what, exactly?
And therein lies the problem. Beneath those big four there are so many series, events, regattas, acts and editions, it’s impossible to tell an audience what to follow. Even in the sexy ‘new’ (I know it’s not really new, but it’s being dressed up to feel like it is) world of foiling, there are two competing series using exactly the same boat, struggling to attract the same audience. Would it be too much for two to become one, and the GC32 and Extreme Sailing series combine to give a clarity and focus that would set an example to the entire sport?
The sadness as both journalist and sailing fan is that when the Olympics come around, I find myself having to introduce the team to the public rather than them already being familiar with these phenomenal athletes. We, the media, may play our part in this, but the obscurity of their careers when not lit by the Olympic flame is a crying shame – and represents an opportunity missed by World Sailing. Uniformity would create a bedrock on which to build a lasting relationship.
The America’s Cup has seen the light. Driven by the sponsors’ demands for more bang for their mega-bucks, the introduction of the World Series has both promoted the event and given some momentum. It has redrawn its own schedule, creating a run-in to its own climax, developing personalities and rivalries with which the public can engage, and other series could do with following suit. The gradual process of building a stronger national identity for each team is to be applauded too.
But sponsors do not always serve the sport so well. While the Vendee is rightly seen as one of the greatest tests of single man (or woman) and machine, the crewed version has steered away from its origins into more commercial waters. Yes, under new boss Mark Turner all sorts of bells and whistles are being added – but there is still a sense that it continues to lose some of its soul.
In the UK at least, those sports that are forced to exist in the vast shadow cast by football, and feed off the scraps left over once rugby, cricket and tennis have had their fill, are still able to thrive and claim their place at the table.
Huge numbers play hockey, and the sport is doing its best to cash in on the gold-medal adventure of the women’s team in Rio last summer, laying down pathways into the professional game. Squash too is played by hundreds of thousands, and their frustration at their continued Olympic exclusion is something the sport has used to feed their fervour. Personalities have been pushed, changes made to make a sport that does not naturally lend itself to spectators far more watchable.
At least on that front sailing has made strides, with stadium racing and far better television coverage, if only for two of the big four – and because of its novelty, some of the presentation can be a little baffling.
It leaves the sport struggling in a fluky wind, but trim the sails, read the conditions, and it could reach for the stars.