With the Covid-19 pandemic affecting the whole planet, it has meant a great deal of uncertainty for sport in general and sailboat races are no exception. To try to get to grips with this new situation, Tip & Shaft is carrying out a series of five interviews about the future of sail racing. Our fourth guest, Stewart Hosford, moved from the corporate world of banking in 2010 to take the helm at Alex Thomson Racing. Cork, Ireland based Hosford moved up in October last year to become CEO of Sir Keith Mills’ pan global sports investment group Origin Sports, correspondingly expanding his horizons from ocean racing to a broad portfolio of other sports properties and prospects.
Stewart pre lockdown you were all over the world looking at different events and prospects, from a sports business point of view will there will be opportunity coming out of this?
The reality is that sport is incredibly resilient through great financial crises. We saw sport continue to grow and to extend and I think sport is incredibly resilient, financially, but unfortunately, it’s not resilient to crowd restrictions so I think sport is absolutely going to change. I’ve seen a lot more e-sport investment cases coming across my desk. I have to say, for the first time ever, I’ve been doing quite a lot of Virtual Regatta sailing with my local sailing club which I never thought I’d do but actually it’s been quite fun. Instead of our Monday night racing on the river were doing it on Virtual Regatta, which actually has been very pleasant to get people together. Between zoom and virtual regatta you’re craving new sports efforts. I don’t know what is ultimately going to happen. I don’t really think anyone in sport can really make a sensible business plan but what I do know is there is quite a lot of investment money for sport in the world and I think people are genuinely active in looking at what the opportunities will be.
Are there any particular hotspots for that investment money?
It’s coming from all over the world. I’m seeing discussions with people from Singapore, South Africa, Australia and a lot of American money, looking for really good sports assets. So, they’ll look at things and they’ll take a long-term view. Ultimately with sport you have to take a long-term view but if there is good businesses with good management teams and good underlying finances then people will absolutely be interested in them.
In that context where did you see ocean racing’s position as a sponsor pre covid?
I thought it was fairly healthy, relative to its size and its scope to other sports. I know ocean racing offers something completely different, I’ve sold it for a long time and it always has to be put in context. I think now I’ve left running an ocean racing team you get a broader view. I think right now at the top table nobody is really interested in talking about sponsorships
How has that view changed?
My view has changed in that when you look more broadly at sport and when you see the media packages that go along with sport, whether it’s football, golf or formula 1, you have kind of a baseline for all selling of sponsorship. When you look at those and you see them up close what you find is that 60/70% of the value of the sponsorship is placed on its media value and the remaining delta is ‘what is unique about the property?’. When you’re selling ocean racing you don’t have a lot of that stuff, therefore I think that sailing sponsorships have some of the best activations in the world, purely because you have to be because you do not get the media return you get if you were an F1 team or a football club. So you have to have creative activation otherwise it’s always going to be limited in returns because the cost of it is always going to be tough sell. All sailing has always been a hard sell and I think that’s going to get even more challenging going forward. I have to say it feels to me like the sponsorship market is pretty much closed for business right now, it just doesn’t get any time at the top table and with all these sponsorships, I can tell you from my days at RBS the amount of money we spent on Andy Murray and the golf and Williams Formula 1 relative to the amount of money we spent on other things, relatively, was tiny. But the amount of attention it got at the top table was not really in keeping with the amount of actual money it was. I think right now at the top table nobody is really interested in talking about sponsorships
That applies to sponsorship in general as well as sailing?
For both sport and sailing that is. I think the reality is right now is it’s for both. Therefore, I think there will be a time, what I do see and where I think there will be opportunities, is that if you have got something genuinely interesting to sell then there are businesses that are doing quite well out there. Right now they won’t be interested in talking to you. But in six months’ time presuming this has settled down then I think they will be interested in talking to you. People talk about sales of sponsorships and relationships and contacts and all those things as a bit of a process but the reality is if it’s got some value, ultimately, it will sell. Take the Vendée Globe and some of those teams, the Vendée has value in it and it’s got quite a following and therefore there is a unique story in that and an ability to sell it.
“The Vendée Globe in my mind is absolutely the ultimate in social distancing and self isolation”
Does ocean racing need to develop new messages?
I think I do need to comment on the various discussions about the Vendée Globe going ahead this year, or not. But I think its related to this. I think ocean racing has to show that it is capable of doing ‘what it says on the tin’ in a way. I think, the Vendée Globe in my mind, I have a little giggle about this because it is absolutely the ultimate in social distancing and self isolation. Moving it to next year when it gets chunked up against all these other sports that have had to be postponed, which I think there will be more postponements coming- I’d be surprised if the Ryder cup went ahead in September and that’ll get postponed as well but that is just an opinion. I certainly think when you look at the Euros and you look at the Olympics and the potential that the Ryder Cup might also be postponed to next year I think it would be a real shame to postpone the Vendée Globe because there can’t be a race village. Ultimately that’s important and it’s a shame if that side can’t happen but that is not what the Vendée Globe is about. The Vendée Globe is not about a race village it’s about more than that. I just don’t think the average person who is a fan of the Vendée Globe will understand why a race village, or why there be any reason why a race in which people sail solo out in the ocean couldn’t go ahead at the time when they could absolutely stand out from the crowd. This brings it back to your question which is what does it need to do? It needs to show that offshore sailing is capable of continuing because I think if it can then it shows itself to be a little bit different, if it rolls into the ‘postpone, postpone, postpone’ then I think it does damage to itself and it doesn’t need to do that particularly with solo sailing.
So you think it is essential it starts this year and ocean racing gets back on its feet?
I think they need to get it away this year and if they can I think it will stand out and it will be an amazing race. I think the Figaro, if they can get on and do it, then I think they need to and I think this is where offshore sailing can show itself to be a leader and a differentiator. Ultimately, it is one of the toughest sports in the world and it needs to stand out. I think that’s my very firm view. Sponsors are lined up for the Vendée Globe in 2020 and if you delay it then you will see cracks appearing in that model and I think that is a bad thing. I think there is still value and I know that there continues to be great stories coming out of it and I think that sponsors will get a fantastic return from the race itself this year, if it goes ahead. I think all sport just needs to pivot away. I do see a situation where you don’t have huge crowds of people at sports events going forward, you have smaller amounts of people, but you have higher value spend from those people. It’s a bit like a corner shop- you ask them how they’re doing, and they say that they have less customers but they’re spending more. I think for tours and leisure and sports you’re going to end up with much more restrictive crowds for a period of time, but I think they will spend more money and I think that is the way that all sports events have to look at it.
“The two properties in sailing that will have the opportunity to dominate over the next two decades
are going to be the Vendée Globe and the America’s Cup”
What do you see as the value offered by The Ocean Race and evaluate where it is compared to where it was when you were active within IMOCA and wanted the two races to converge with the one class?
I’m not super connected to it. Obviously there is such a lot of people in that space, but I would say it was in pretty poor shape before this and I would say that it’s in pretty dire shape now, that would be my honest view. I haven’t seen many of the IMOCA teams committing to racing in the event next year. I hear about 65s coming through but then I see them for sale in Seahorse magazine. I would be extremely worried about its ability to go ahead in a way that is meaningful. I always thought there was a divergence and I know a lot of people think this. But it is certainly clear in my mind having run an IMOCA team for quite a while, there seems to be a big divergence between the strategy of including IMOCAs in the Ocean Race and the strategy of going out and signing up an extremely extended route with a lot of stopovers and they were always going to be mutually exclusive. You could not ever in my mind meet both of those expectations. If you’re going to do ten stopovers and go to Reunion island and up into Asia with lots of different stops, you should never have done a deal with IMOCA. If you’re going to do an IMOCA and convince the IMOCA teams to do it you need to have five or six simple stopovers with a kind of Vendée Globe race course and I always thought those two expectations, and it felt to me like those two parts with the strategy in the Ocean Race- one was heading in one direction and the other was heading in the other direction and never the twain shall will meet. At the moment its ten stops in a nine-month race and that was never going to fit into an IMOCA sponsor budget or schedule. It seemed as clear as day to me and I was involved in some of the early discussions, that IMOCA was the right answer- I still believe it was part of the right answer- but it needed to have been a great IMOCA race with five or six stops, with a five or six month race and relatively low logistics cost and I think it would have been great. Ultimately, with COVID happening now and it certainly looks like were going into a recession in Europe, its success wasn’t guaranteed anyway but I certainly think the way it is set up its very difficult to see how it would’ve worked with those two competing agendas.
What do you consider to be our medium-long term future?
I think there is going to be a tough period now, no doubt. It’s clear to me that this is not going to be good for Europe, because America, China and Asia will come roaring out of this. I am an economist by training and America and China will come roaring out of this and as we have seen they will be less sensitive. Europe is a more social democracy and will be therefore a more cautious, with more restrictions and therefore, we were already getting squeezed by America and China and this is just going to make it harder. So I do see Europe is going to struggle over the next period of time. That inevitably, like we had in 2008, with the bump in the Vendée Globe puts pressure on all sport in Europe and sponsorship and that is inevitable. As a sport generically, I think it has, and continues to have, a fantastic offering in the world. For me, it’s pretty clear now that the two properties in sailing that will have the opportunity to dominate over the next two decades are going to be the Vendée Globe and the America’s Cup. They are the brands that people know, they are successful, they build awareness, they build audiences and they’ve got a unique proposition, a historic proposition, and I think they will continue to do that.
What about America’s Cup developments long term should it continue at this rarefied level for very rich or try and become more populist?
Like all of us, as a marketing, businessperson in sport I always like to see it grow and populism is a horrible word. None likes using that word at the moment but certainly broader. I think the boats are epic, they are crazy, but I think people will look at them when the race comes around next spring and they will think ‘wow, they are epic’, I think that is what it is all about. I think everyone, even the people in the Cup would want it to be more broad and continue to widen its appeal with more teams and more sailing. I think the fact that the world series this year is cancelled because of COVID is a shame because I think that people would’ve been blown away by seeing these boats out in Portsmouth in June and I think people would find it really interesting. It is a unique proposition in sport, and I think it will continue, it will outlive any recession or any pandemic.
Photo: Alex Thomson Racing