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. What will the impact be on our sport? What changes will there be to the economic model? How do races need to change? How will sponsors behave? 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 first interviewee, Mark Turner, cofounder with Ellen MacArthur, of Offshore Challenges, which became OC Sport, was head of the Volvo Ocean Race between 2016 and 2017, and now works as a consultant.
Mark, in your opinion, to what extent has sailing been affected by the crisis that we are currently experiencing?
I can see two types of impact: in the short term – in the next twelve months – and in the longer term. For the short term, we can separate French sailing from what happens internationally with private owners – TP52, Maxis, super yachts and all the rest. This latter category is clearly down and knock-out and I think for this year it’s over, which makes it very tough for professional sailors who usually take part in these circuits. The big problem is that we don’t know what will happen: whether you are a small club or a professional organiser, you are bound to be affected by this uncertainty. It’s not like having an on-off button. This uncertainty means that in general, if today I was the organiser of an event, I would forget about 2020 and look ahead to 2021. It may be possible to do something at the end of the year, but I think that given the current situation, it is better to say, “We’re going to stop it all, avoid spending any more and prepare instead for 2021.” It’s a tough decision, but today, we can’t really say that sailing is something essential. We have to get things into perspective. When I look around me at doctors, nurses and firemen… they are essential to our life. All of that reminds us that sailing is a bonus. We will have to take that into account in the future.
Do you think the French ocean racing model with sailors supported by commercial partners will suffer a lot?
Yes, obviously. Already there is the fact that many events have had to be cancelled this year and then, if you are out there looking for a sponsor today, good luck to you… Not every economic sector will suffer the same impact, but given the uncertainty we are in today, it is very hard to find a CEO or marketing director who is ready to take a major decision and sign up with a huge budget for the next two years. We keep hearing lots of numbers from economists about the extent of the crisis that we are about to face, but no one really knows. This is an unprecedented situation. We have never seen the global economy come to a standstill like this.
“Partnerships with SMEs are in the strongest position”
Some partners have however announced their intention to continue their sailing sponsorship in spite of the crisis. That is rather encouraging, isn’t it?
French sailing relies heavily on SMEs. Some of them may be able to show their resilience and it’s great to hear some directors saying that they will continue to invest in sailing. But the question remains about how long these partners can hold on and that is something we cannot say. I think that the strongest partnerships today are those that have been signed with SMEs, where the decision to invest in sailing has been taken by the owner, rather like in the old days. For larger companies, when you have to cut your marketing and advertising budget in half, unfortunately, the first thing to go is the traditional form of sponsorship. Sponsoring someone when you are sacking people is not going to go down well.
Do you believe it is still possible to convince a partner given this context?
If the project is well presented and appears logical, with a very clear business case and precise goals, it can work. That is what happened to us with iShares, the first partner for the Extreme Sailing Series which in 2008, during the financial crisis was in the process of making a lot of people redundant – the company belonged to Barclays, one of the world’s biggest banks. In spite of that, we signed a new contract for two years with them. With partnerships that rely on the goodwill of the boss or which meet PR and business requirements, it can still work out. For the others, there is going to be a lot of damage. Having said that, another big question for French sailing is whether the Vendée Globe will be taking place this year or not. The French model is the only one in the world aimed at the general public, thanks to the huge media coverage and the villages which attract hundreds of thousands of people. If you take that away and the B to B element, which internationally, is the only one that counts – and has been growing in France over the past ten years –, it gets harder to sell these projects. In the current situation, this strength has become a weakness both for the teams and event organisers. Maybe we are going to have to look at different models.
“This crisis is a huge opportunity for sailing”
You were talking about the Vendée Globe. Do you think that the 2020 edition can still be held in normal conditions?
No one really knows what will happen in the coming months. If today I was the organiser of the race in a private company, I would shift it to 2021 to make things clearer. As I said before, the worst thing is all the uncertainty. Some sponsors are now organising their B to B operations for November. If we have to wait until July, August or September to know if the race will take place or not, managing that will be impossible. When you see that communications about Vendée and Les Sables d’Olonne largely concern the general public attracted by the Vendée Globe, I cannot really imagine a Vendée Globe without the public. What will happen if there is a second and third wave of the virus and if restrictions remain in place? Today, the French authorities announced that there will not be any sporting events [with more than 5000 people attending, editor’s note] before September. That is just two months before the start of the Vendée Globe. Then, there is the matter of the official permits, which is extremely complicated. If you asked the maritime authorities of some countries like Australia and New-Zealand about whether they think the Vendée Globe can be held, I am not sure how they would reply. I do understand that postponing the event would have important consequences for the skippers, with some not certain of keeping their partners for another year and it would also affect other races like The Ocean Race.
Let’s talk about the long term. This crisis may be an opportunity, as the General Secretary of the International Maxi Association, Andrew McIrvine, told us last week that there is a chance for everything to reset and the need to rethink sailing events, for example by limiting the ongoing quest for performance which implies larger and larger budgets?
I think that a great crisis might be an opportunity for each ecosystem to reset things. In these kind of times we often come back to basics, we evaluate what is really important. If we are talking about a budget, yes, we may have to change certain rules to stop budgets climbing and climbing. So you can look at it differently and try, with fixed budgets, to increase the value of a circuit for the same money. That is what the Imoca class started to do with a planned international circuit over four years. But I think this is the time to review it all and that, as in other sectors everyone collaborates even if they are competitors, and talk to each other to try to solve the problems. This crisis is a great opportunity for sailing, but it requires the collaboration of everyone. This is for the economic part, but, for me, the much more important question for the long term is what is the meaning, the human values of what we do. This this is a topic that is already current l in the world of sponsorship in general, and of sailing in particular, but which will become more and more important.
“The right model is that of Initiatives Coeur/Mécénat Chirurgie Cardiaque”
Do you mean that this crisis is an opportunity for sailing to take a much broader, more giving approach, embracing social responsibilities?
Absolutely. With my clients, I use the expression “What is our why?” In other words: why are we here? What do we give back to the society around us? You can no longer simply say that you are competing in sailing because you like to sail, that you want to do the Vendée Globe and that you are going to highlight your sponsor. The old model, linked to classic sponsorship values like media return, the number of people who have seen your logo, for me, is finished. When I was still in Alicante [at the head of the Volvo Ocean Race, editor’s note], the idea we had for the 2019 and 2021 editions of the Volvo was to force the teams to support a cause and install it at the heart of the project; the goal was to make it the main message of the boat, not to have a charity partner next door. For me, the right model is the one Tanguy de Lamotte developed with Initiatives Coeur/Mécénat Chirurgie Cardiaque [now with Sam Davies, ed’s].
Do you think supporting or promoting a cause will become a necessity?
Today, people are asking more and more these questions – what are the real values? what is really important? what can we bring to others? – and I think this crisis will accelerate this trend. The Ocean Race, for example, remains very involved on the environmental subject, we also see emerging in France, the La Vague movement. Besides, I find it unacceptable that the Imoca class has not yet prohibited oil based fuels on boats for one or two years hence. That is not a personal attack, but we are selling the values of environmental responsibility and we are not able to force this change. This is just an example, but I think if we want people to invest in sailing in the future, we have to show that we are leaders in this area and in defending certain causes. To continue to do research to go 0.01% faster than the other, for me, this is not acceptable for the future. It is necessary to include in the class and race rules this sustainability aspect. But I talk about the broad sense of the term, as defined by the United Nations: it goes from sustainable development to the fight against poverty, through defence of children’s rights…
If you look today at the big picture, can you see reasons to be optimistic?
Yes, sailing maintains the assets that I myself have used and appreciated when I sold projects. But in a world that has changed, this sustainability must take on another dimension and become the heart of the matter. It’s after that we can think of going 5 knots faster, we have to put things in the right order. The current crisis is a great opportunity to change things faster. If we manage to make these changes, sailing can be one of the sports that will emerge better from this crisis than others. This huge opportunity should not be missed. If you manage to be in front of the wave, to be a leader, sailing can be one of the sports with the best long-term future and can attract people who have money, because it remains a mechanical sport which needs money. But to have this money, you have to be better than other sports or other sponsorship opportunities in general. The question is whether we are able to collaborate more together, between classes, organizers, skippers. And to make difficult decisions, especially at the level of rules, even if they can sometimes hurt current players.
“I have no desire to launch myself full time back into sailing”
Looking specifically at America’s Cup 36 can you see it getting through this relatively unscathed?
I think it will. It is funny in that when you get to a crisis of this scale then everything becomes more transparent as to what the strengths and/or weaknesses of each sector are, sport to sport. But equally inside sailing the weaknesses as seen by many of the Cup is now its strength. It has stayed largely private money despite the efforts to change it, which were admirable in terms of their direction but probably never easily realisable because of the very nature of the document which establishes the Cup. Now it is its strength. So it looks like there will be no warm up events but it will happen. It does not depend on all the commercial aspects, there are bits that do, but there is enough private money to make it happen. It is a survivor. It is a good model and even if the very rich people don’t want to be seen spending their money in times of massive crisis, this crisis whether it ebbs away or whether it comes and goes over the next few years, I think there will be opportunity for the Cup to happen and its weakness as it is often perceived is its strength right now.
Might you come back into sailing full time?
When I left the Volvo that for me brought together all my experiences and interests for me, it is still the biggest commercially anchored property and that is the side that has always interested me more. But no desire came out of that. I am enjoying quietly helping behind the scenes, I am in a non executive director role in a number of different companies and organisations, some of them in sailing and some of them not. My personal goal is to build something in open water swimming and I have been dipping in and out of opportunities there for the past year. So that is my aim. I am enjoying doing that, I am enjoying helping some people out in the background. I have no desire to launch myself full time back into sailing, not at all.
It must be hard to see some of the properties that you set up or were involved in with decline and even die?
It kills me. It has been hard to see The Extreme Sailing Series come to the end of its life, but perhaps it morphed into what effectively Russell has put together – I know he does not like me to say that – but that is effectively what the product has become. It is the same product but on a different scale, a scale I did not have the resource to do. Ten years was a good run for a non federation, non Olympic sport which gets longevity by default for example. It did some good stuff. I am really really proud of it. It launched careers, it brought sponsors into the sport, and got cities involved. The Barcelona World Race is a tough one to see stop. There is a definite need for the two up format, it is a key one to keep going which I would if I was involved. The Ocean Race, don’t ask me questions on that. It is tough to see because I really, really believed in the plan we had. When I look back at our plans which in the end I failed to get through, well I got through with Volvo but there was a change of tune in one half of Volvo which was probably more political. I failed to see it through. It is tough today when I look at it today, to look back at our plans that we had and were all written down, which were only partially launched but we had it all ready, Notice of Race 2019, 2021. They were all the right things. I had constraints then with Volvo as the owners which the new owners don’t have now. And I had positive things then which the Atlant guys can’t do today. But the key things, reduced event cycle, staying with one design, going further with one design, reducing and sharing resources, level competition, two events within one three year sponsorship window, a shorter event, all those things….right now if I was selling a project now I would love to be selling that. Looking back at it now I think my skin was probably just not thick enough. I had been through a tough period on my personal front going into that job. I did not have the energy to see that through. And that was the last big thing I wanted to do in the sport.
Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez /Volvo Ocean Race