Russell Coutts Q&A

18 Jul 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

Sir Russell Coutts, a five-time America’s Cup winner including three times as skipper and twice as team chief executive, is the most successful helmsman in the competition’s history. Add to that the title of Olympic champion, a 12-time world champion, and two-time Sailor of the Year, plus serving as chief executive of the America’s Cup Event Authority in 2017, and experience if nothing else means his new, hi-tech sailing series SailGP featuring cutting-edge technology, ultra-fast boats stand a good chance of revolutionising the sport of sailing whilst increasing its mainstream popularity. 


What was the main reason behind launching SailGP?

SailGP is aiming to redefine the sport. The concept is to provide a consistent, annual, year-round global sports platform that pitches nation-versus-nation racing in extremely fast, high performance boats. This format didn’t previously exist and we felt it was necessary to form a new league in order to give sailing a similar season championship to other professional sports.

The advantage with SailGP is that it’s designed as a broadcast-orientated product – with short races, national rivalries, cutting-edge technology, record-breaking speeds and lots of drama – and it’s accessible to the significant crowds that have attended our events. We have been able to create great short-form content that is easy to consume in a variety of modern ways.

 

You’ve said you aren’t trying to rival the America’s Cup – is that really the case and if so, who do you see as your rivals?

We don’t see ourselves as rivals. The America’s Cup has a rich heritage, and will no doubt continue along the pathway of its historic traditions. Its teams, format, rules – including the type of boat – venue and schedule generally change each cycle as the winning team is charged with setting up a new event authority and determining the location.

At SailGP, we’ve established a regular calendar of events that form a consistent, annual season championship. Our events are governed by World Sailing High Performance Rules, we’ve made the boats identical and will develop them equally in terms of performance, and we’re creating fully national teams – all of these features set us apart.

With the addition of our unique on-screen patented LiveLineFX graphics, and our innovative SailGP APP showing live racing with data and video from the boats, it’s possible for non-sailors and general sports fans to become engaged with SailGP.

 

What makes SailGP different?

There are many differences when comparing SailGP to other sailing events. Perhaps one of the biggest differences is that we’re a broadcast- and consumer-orientated product. The championship consists of a consistent series of events, each year staged in the same iconic cities and sailing venues. We have short, exciting races, which have been specifically formatted to create engaging short-form content for fans to enjoy. We believe this fits with the modern viewership trends for how sports are being consumed on technologies such as mobile applications or online. It’s not traditional sailing, frankly. There’s not another model out there in sailing that fits this description. 

In addition to this, SailGP has a real emphasis on the nation-versus-nation competition. We’ve got some of the best athletes in the countries represented, competing in home events, and we’ve been working hard to showcase the personalities and talents of our athletes to build their profiles. This is nothing new to many sports, but this is definitely different for sailing.

 

Is this helping appeal to a different fan, different media and therefore different sponsors?

Yes, we believe it is opening up the fan base and also attracting new media and sponsors. It is no longer sailing as you know it. It’s about cutting-edge technology, awe-inspiring athleticism, legacy-leading education and outreach programmes, fully immersive spectator experiences, iconic global venues, unique hospitality experiences, and global multiplatform coverage – all of which help attract fans, sponsors and media.

In SailGP’s inaugural season, we so far have signed partnership deals with Oracle, Rolex and Land Rover with more in the pipeline. What we offer is access to a consistent, global league and all of its teams. With little risk due to secured funding, we are able to shape truly bespoke partnerships that strongly benefit both parties.

 

How is the sport funded now, and how will this evolve in the future do you think?

SailGP is fully underwritten by Oracle Co-Founder Larry Ellison, a passionate sailor who has been personally and financially committed to the growth and advancement of sailing for multiple decades. The framework for the championship will mature over time as it becomes commercially viable, ultimately with the adoption of a franchise model.

While all of the six current SailGP teams are initially financed and owned centrally, the intention is that each team will eventually be independently owned. As additional teams are added in future seasons, they will secure their own funding via partnerships and will not be underwritten centrally. The six initial teams will be sold to external investors once they have built their commercial profiles over a five-year period.

 

What does the long term sponsorship strategy look like?

We are excited by the response we have had to the first three events, which has given us reassurance that there is strong interest for the formula we have put in place. We now embark on the European leg with Cowes next month and Marseille in September, which gives us further opportunities within this area.

We are growing our team and have recently appointed heads of sales in both the U.S. and Europe.

With compelling long-term partnerships already in place, we are having a number of extremely encouraging conversations in various markets, both around sponsorship of the league and the teams themselves.

 

How do you rate Great Britain’s chances?

What we have seen from the first three events is that we have at least four teams that are capable of winning races – and the remaining two aren’t very far behind. The racing is getting tighter and the teams that are making the most of the opportunity to use the high-tech simulator in London are reaping the benefits, one of which is the British team.

The British have improved the most, although they caught an unlucky break in New York with a capsize and missed a day of racing. They have a talented team with Dylan Fletcher at the helm who is definitely one of the most exciting young talents in world sailing. With their home event on August 10 and 11, we’ll see just how impactful a home crowd can be. Tom Slingsby and the Australia team won their home event, and the U.S. team managed a home race win in New York, so I am personally excited to see what effect this will have on the British team. They also have the advantage of familiarity with the conditions, so I am expecting we will see them have a strong performance in Cowes.

 

Is SailGP creating a new breed of sailing athletes?

The sailors making up each team are true athletes, and their extraordinary talents and stories are helping to define SailGP. They are racing in identical boats, so the only thing separating the crews is their skill and determination.

The speeds that these boats are traveling on very confined racecourses means that decisions have to be made rapidly. Reaction time is really important, particularly for the helm and flight controller, which is why we are seeing younger sailors – many of whom are still campaigning for the Tokyo Olympics – having success in SailGP.

Among the fleet, we have nine Olympic medals and a huge number of world championship wins across a variety of classes. We also have athletes who have stepped across from other sports such as rowing and swimming into some of the more physically demanding roles onboard, which gives an idea of the attributes required to sail these boats.

 

What makes SailGP so appealing for spectators? Both at the events and around the globe?

SailGP offers a unique live spectacle, with inshore, short-format stadium racing in breathtakingly fast boats. We’re aiming for an exhilarating and fun in-venue atmosphere and fan village, staged along some of the world’s most iconic waterfronts. Fans are brought into the heart of the action, where they can experience firsthand the speeds, technology and drama of SailGP.

Around the globe, if fans are not in attendance at the race itself, we are accessible through multi-platform channels. We can be watched in more than 100 countries through our broadcast partnerships with the likes of CBS Sports in the U.S., BT Sport in the UK, Canal+ in France, Fox Sports in Australia, Tencent Sports in China and DAZN in Japan. We are also distributing live on YouTube and Facebook in specific markets, including the U.S.

In addition, we launched the innovative and award-nominated SailGP APP, with which fans can stream the races live, select onboard cameras and review the data coming off any of the boats, making SailGP accessible across the world on a mobile phone or tablet.

 

How is technology changing sport and fan consumption of sport?

Technology is hugely impacting the world of sports and how fans watch and follow their teams. There is so much to learn from data, and in SailGP the data is nonproprietary. Not only is it now an integral part of making athletes and teams even better at what they do, and ensuring the boats continually evolve and stay at the cutting edge of the sport, it also gives fans amazing insight, which just wasn’t available before.

In addition to on-board cameras and microphones, 1,200 data points recorded from the boats and crews give fans, through the SailGP APP, an amazing amount of information at their fingertips. They can select which boats and cameras to watch, and listen to the tactical calls and observe the outcome. It’s a pretty unique situation where all of the data is essentially in the public domain.

 

What are the key SailGP technological innovations? 

Technology is paramount – for the evolution of the F50s, for the safety and performance development of the athletes, and for the fans. Fans are brought closer to the action than ever before and better understand what they are seeing, whether through the app, social media or broadcast, all supported by our global partner Oracle.

These boats are the most technologically advanced catamarans in the world and the culmination of 10 years of development in high-performance racing. The current boats are faster than the previous generation and have new hydrofoils and rudders, control systems, hydraulics, and electronics. They will continue to evolve each season and we will expect to see them become faster and faster as each new innovation is introduced.

We are currently building new wingsails that will allow us to race in a wider range of conditions and we will follow that up with new rudders that have already been designed and new hydrofoils that are still in the conceptual design phase.

 

How is SailGP creating a positive sporting legacy?

We are fortunate that our race boats are powered by the wind, so it’s an incredible platform to showcase clean energy and we are planning to expand on that with all of our assets.

Since we started, we have developed and implemented a comprehensive sustainability strategy aimed at accelerating sailing toward a future that bodes well for both the sport and the environment. We have embedded sustainability principles throughout the new global sports organization – from the events, to the six national teams to the cutting-edge technology – and are working toward eliminating single-use plastics throughout the organization and across all events, tackling food waste through a charter and partnerships in host cities, and reducing energy by testing new technologies and using biofuels. We are also evaluating the circularity of the materials used across all operations.

The goal is to deliver exemplary leadership and inspire a new generation of sailors into the sport, build life-long skills showcasing the career opportunities within the industry, and working to deliver innovative solutions to complex environmental challenges.

We have committed to the Sport for Climate Action Framework of the UN Climate Change, which calls on sporting organizations to acknowledge the contribution of the sports sector to climate change and take responsibility to strive toward climate neutrality for a healthier planet.

In Cowes, we will also launch SailGP INSPIRE – our community, education and outreach initiative that will aim to use sailing as a force for good. SailGP INSPIRE will be the first-of-its-kind global youth sailing and career programme with three pathways, ranging from children to young adults.