Sailing wants to be the next NASCAR

April 27, 2011, 1:00 PM UTC

The America’s Cup is starting up again in August, revamped to give sailing broader commercial appeal. Has anyone noticed?

By Paul V. Oliva, contributor

Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle (ORCL), and his team, Oracle Racing, spent a decade and more than $1 billion to win yacht racing’s America’s Cup. Now, with the cup’s World Series — a two-year group of races leading up to the 2013 finals in San Francisco — beginning this August, Ellison and a group of yacht lovers are ready to launch the biggest makeover in the cup’s 160-year history. Their hope: to convert sailing from an obscure sport associated with old-school preppies and temperamental billionaires to a commercially viable version of NASCAR or snowboarding. “Professional sailing is not as popular as it could be,” Ellison said at a January press conference. “It hasn’t got the right TV coverage, and the boats have not been as exciting to watch as watching backflips over a mogul.”

Starting this August in Portugal, 15 teams from 12 countries will sail what Ellison deems “the fastest boats we could conceive of racing” in over a dozen seaside cities. The winners will vie for the championship in September 2013.

But this is not your grandpa’s cup. The organizers are rebranding yacht racing as an extreme sport, using 72-foot catamarans, which travel much faster than traditional monohulls, and shortening the races to TV-friendly 45-minute events. Past cup races were lucky to hit 20 mph; the new boats can top out at nearly 50, and crews have been cut from 17 to 11.

Claude Ruibal, the new head of YouTube Sports, thinks the changes will appeal to an online audience that the America’s Cup Event Authority (ACEA) estimates at 300 million. “Big online users are more receptive to a more interactive, engaging experience than a TV lean-back audience,” he says.

Craig Thompson, CEO of ACEA

The in-person opportunities are there as well. San Francisco Bay, the site of the Louis Vuitton Cup elimination series and the America’s Cup Match, is a natural amphitheater with an iconic backdrop that just happens to be the sixth-largest U.S. media market. The city estimates the races will draw 2.6 million live spectators by 2013 — the equivalent of 26 Super Bowls; total TV audience could reach 1 billion.

That means opportunity for sponsors. VIP boats, often just yards from the action, act as undulating stadium luxury boxes. And each race boat reserves a spot for a guest to have the ride of his life. With hundreds of races on tap, it’s an “absolutely immense” opportunity, says Craig Thompson, CEO of ACEA.

Or is it? For all of the new bells and whistles, so far the commercial response has been underwhelming. ACEA needs $303 million to break even, and sponsors have been scarce. “Big brands say they need to know how they’ll get return on investment,” says Rob Prazmark, head of global marketing firm 21 Sports. “It’s not for the faint of heart.” On the other hand, Ellison’s at the table — and we know he how he feels about losing.

–Paul V. Oliva is a consultant, writer, and sailor.

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