The Extreme Sailing Series will enter its tenth season next year in rude health, with the 2015 edition having been its biggest to date. Founding father Mark Turner discusses the evolution of the series, his involvement with the Volvo Ocean Race, and the distorting effect of the America’s Cup.
By Adam Nelson
All sports have their flagship events: those rare, defining moments in the calendar towards which everything else seems to build. Many reach their climaxes with the Olympic Games; others have a World Cup or Super Bowl to shape themselves around. Sailing is slightly different.
“One thing in sailing,” says Mark Turner of OC Sport with a slight sigh, “is that we’ve always got this little thing called the America’s Cup going on in the background.”
“Sometimes it’s going on, sometimes it’s in the courts, sometimes I’m not sure what it’s doing. But that’s quite a big event in the background that we need to be conscious of and make sure we don’t become victims of.”
If it seems odd to talk of being ‘conscious’ of your sport’s biggest competition and to discuss it in terms of being a ‘victim’ of it, then that’s probably because the America’s Cup is an odd event. The recent history of the ‘Auld Mug’ – the oldest international sporting trophy in the world, and among the most revered – has been marred by recurring legal battles and disputes over rule changes. Due to its defender/ challenger format, this means that often it’s not even clear if or when the next event will take place.
“It’s a strange beast,” says Turner. “It’s probably the strangest trophy in the whole of sport. When someone wins it they get to change the rules and change the whole game, so it’s not the most reliable property you can have… but it’s got 160 years of glitzy billionaire magic behind it.
“And it works. If it didn’t work it wouldn’t get the sponsorship. When on top of that you’ve got a bunch of wealthy guys underpinning it, you can put on a big show, as Sir Keith Mills will in Portsmouth in a few weeks’ time [for the America’s Cup World Series event]. There’s a lot of private funding that will make it work.”
Rewinding a little, it’s clear to see why Turner might find the “glitzy billionaire”, private funding element of the America’s Cup a touch frustrating. His company, OC Sport, is the organiser of the Extreme Sailing Series (ESS), which is Turner’s own brainchild, and was the management group behind the Dongfeng Race Team entrant into the recently concluded 2014/15 Volvo Ocean Race. The ESS and the Volvo Ocean Race happen to be among the few events in world sailing which are entirely commercially financed, taking all of their funding from sponsors and brand partners.
“Everything else in sailing has private money, one way or another,” says Turner. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it definitely marks us out on different territory.”
The journey through that different territory has meant a long, concerted effort to make sailing more appealing to a mass audience, slowly expanding on the traditional fanbase of those “wealthy guys” who have long been the sport’s main demographic. The America’s Cup, of course, attracts massive sponsorship deals itself, but is not wholly reliant on them, whereas commercially funded ventures are under pressure to exhibit themselves as a desirable package to sponsors. Attracting bigger sponsors means growing your support base.
“You can’t make an event add up from a brand perspective if you’re only showing yourself to the core sailing community. It’s a decent-sized community and it’s a wealthy community so it’s a good target for most brands, but it’s not big enough on its own. You have to go wider.”
Understanding this is crucial to understanding the nature of the Extreme Sailing Series. The ESS has always been focused, says Turner, on “bringing the sailing to the people, rather than hoping for it to happen the other way around,” and the whole format has been devised with that in mind. The traditional problems of attracting a mass audience to sailing – remote locations, races occurring over long distances and durations, complex rule systems – have largely been overcome admirably by OC Sport with the ESS.
The stadium format means that not only are the venues located in accessible areas of some of the world’s most iconic cities, but also that an entire race can be seen from a single vantage point. Because of this it is much easier to follow a race and understand the action that is taking place in front of you. Technology has played its part in this development, and Turner argues that the complexity of sailing can now actually work to its advantage.
One of the Extreme Sailing Series’ USPs is its truly global calendar and the organisers’ determination to sail in some of the world’s most iconic cities.
Courtesy of German software giant SAP, the technology partner of the ESS and also the title sponsor of one of the racing teams in the series, each act now features a prominent ‘second screen experience’, where data from on-board computers is visualised on screens around the stadium, helping to illustrate and explain the events happening on the water.
“Sailing is a complex sport but that’s not a problem, it’s actually an opportunity because people get pulled into it and they want to understand more,” says Turner. “The tools that SAP developed allow us to take that complexity and turn it into useful information to explain what’s going on and I think we can go a lot further with that.”
With regards to expanding the demographic, this certainly seems to be working. According to Turner, surveys at ESS events show that their audience breaks down at between 85 and 90 per cent of people from a non-sailing background. Furthermore, having been once, people are catching the sailing bug and returning the following year.
“You can see on social media, people coming back again and looking forward to coming back again,” Turner adds. “In Cardiff we have a bunch of people who’ve been every single year and they come from the other side of the country. People come, they enjoy it, and they want to come back.”
Through that same social media measure and other metrics, OC Sport can measure the growth of the audience it is speaking to across its various media channels. Turner claims that from a community of two and a half million back in 2007, the ESS now commands a global audience of around 50 million, factoring in event attendance, social media, and the seven-part TV series that is distributed around the world to 55 broadcasters and shown in 80 countries.
Such growth is impressive, but Turner (left) knows it is no excuse to start treading water. “It’s an ever-evolving thing,” he says. “We’ve been around longer than many sailing events that come and go. I think we’ve clearly established a new segment with the stadium sailing aspect, but also we’ve managed to put ourselves at the top of the pyramid in terms of professional, global, sponsor-funded sailing. But the key thing for us is that we keep on innovating, and keep evolving.” The 2016 series will be the ESS’ tenth, and Turner is describing the next phase as “ESS 2.0”, with a raft of fresh developments to come. The biggest of these is the move to a new foiling boat, faster and more image-friendly than the Extreme 40 catamaran, which has been a staple of the ESS since the beginning – and, in fact, was one of the catalysts for the series’ inception.
“In summer of 2006 we were approached by a media agency representing iShares, a part of Barclays, who were looking at different sports, evaluating where they should be – they’d just been sponsoring Floyd Landis in the Tour de France, which had gone a bit wrong,” Turner explains with a laugh.
“They were looking for a fresh start and analysing different sports. They looked at triathlon, rowing and sailing. We took them for a ride in one of these boats [Extreme 40 catamaran] as a guest experience and they just were blown away by it, so we actually built the event for them in summer 2006 to launch in January 2007, with the first act in April or May 2007.”
The guest experience element that Turner mentions has remained a crucial part of the series. Over the course of race weekends, VIP guests and members of the press are invited to take on a ‘sixth man’ role on board the boats, gaining an up close and personal experience of what’s actually going on out on the water, something almost unprecedented in sport, where the divide between spectator and participant is usually abundantly clear.
“Ultimately sailing has one very unique thing and that is that you can stick someone in the driving seat and behind the wheel,” says Turner. “In a year across our events we’re probably getting guests sailing 80-85 per cent of the time. It’s an experience that is radically different to what people get at anything else they’re invited to.”
One thing that Turner is keen to avoid is any act of the ESS being what he refers to as “just another match”. Part of the mission to bring sailing to the people is ensuring everyone’s experience is unique every time; that everyone, from first timers to hardened veterans of the waves, can get something out of the day.
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“Whether you’re a sailor or a non-sailor it doesn’t matter, you just take different things, you take a different level of experience,” he says. “We don’t have to change the experience particularly. Sailing is very open. You’re mixing with the athletes on the water and back on land which is a very different experience to other sports where you’re maybe a bit more disconnected."
Crafting that experience begins in the planning stage, when Turner and his team are working to find the eight locations they need for the season’s calendar. After putting that debut event together so quickly with just four venues, all of them in Europe, Turner says that OC Sport “lost a lot of money” at first. It became apparent that to attract the biggest sponsors, the ESS needed to be visible in the best, most marketable territories, where its potential clients’ customers were based. This meant pushing the boat out and taking some risks early on to get into those territories, opening up to non-traditional sailing venues.
“It’s a big chapter for us. The sport is more and more accessible, more and more exciting to watch, and more and more visible than ever."
“The challenges are there for any global event,” says Turner. “You get a great venue and then there’s civil unrest in the country. We were in Rio the year there were riots [2013, during the Fifa Confederations Cup soccer tournament], so that came apart. Istanbul, we had to cancel an event. We’ve had our fair share of challenges, but it hasn’t stopped us taking things on and trying to get to those iconic cities. It’s also about going to markets that are valuable for our sponsors. So, yes, we want somewhere that is a good stadium and a good sporting arena and has the conditions such as the wind, but if you restrict yourself to the best sporting venues in the world you won’t get to many places that have commercial value, that’s just a fact.
“You can go to Porto Cervo in Sardinia and have a great time and great sailing will happen there, but when it comes to brands wanting to be near their clients and their public or iconic media positions, you have to be a bit daring, to be honest, and that comes with risks trying to manage that. By definition the markets that brands want to invest in are the markets that are emerging and are developing and are more dynamic.”
The ESS calendar is long, its route expansive – the 2015 edition began in early February in Singapore and will run until the mid-December act in Sydney, taking in various locations across Europe and Asia in between. Given that there are generally six weeks between events, there is already not much of a post-season break. Taking into account the difficulty of shipping eight 40- foot catamarans and all the other necessary equipment between venues, not to mention the organisation and administration involved in each act, the current eight-event agenda has little room for expansion. As such, in order to maintain visibility in as many areas as possible, Turner and OC Sport attempt to vary both the venues themselves, and the kinds of cities they go to from season to season.
“It’s good to stay at a venue three or four years,” Turner suggests, “but sometimes it’s good to go to fresh venues. There’s always a little bit of a dilemma between going to the really big cities, which may be super iconic but it’s quite hard to exist and be seen in a big way, and going to a smaller city where the whole town gets behind it in a big, big way.
“We try to cover different areas of Europe and Asia, so eight events isn’t quite enough to always be on every continent. But a brand usually comes in for three or four years, so over that period they might end up touching 12 markets. There are not many events in sport that are truly global in that way. Sailing can go to pretty much every kind of country, from countries that have a massive sailing following to countries where there’s very little.”
The ESS has grown from four events in Europe to eight globally, doubling the number of teams.
One of the latter countries is – or was – China, where Turner’s main focus has been over the past three years, since helping to form the Dongfeng Race Team, a major step in promoting the sport in the country. Dongfeng’s third-place finish in the Volvo Ocean Race, which included victories in two of the nine legs, was a magnificent achievement for a first-time entrant. The team was China’s third-ever entry in the competition, and by a margin their most successful yet. Along with the ESS’ now regular fixture in Qingdao, where it has held an annual act since 2011, OC Sport is making great strides toward exploiting sailing’s commercial potential in the Far East.
“Our Chinese team in the Ocean Race with Dongfeng is ground-breaking really, trying to take this sport into China, and that’s been a pretty challenging few months but hopefully we’ll sign a new partnership with those guys and put another Chinese team together for the Volvo Ocean Race over the next three years,” Turner reveals.
“And China is fundamental to most companies, so it’s a fixture of what we do. We might even end up with two ESS events in China in the future. A few months ago we had an event with Land Rover in Shanghai, we took a Land Rover-branded boat and it was the first time ever that any race boat had ever sailed right in the heart of Shanghai, on the Yangtze River.”
Land Rover coming aboard as the first of two key partners – the second space is still waiting to be filled – was a landmark moment for the series. The automotive manufacturer’s commitment to the sport was reinforced recently when it joined Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR), the British sailing legend’s entrant into the America’s Cup. For Turner, this not only demonstrates the success of Land Rover’s excursion into sailing sponsorship with the ESS, but also the compatibility between the America’s Cup and the rest of the sailing world.
“Three years ago, Land Rover were not in sailing, it was just not on their radar,” he notes. “The ESS was the first sailing thing they did and it’s worked, and they’ve decided to back it in an even bigger way with BAR, which I think is a very positive reflection on what we’ve done in the ESS with them. It shows there’s a great brand that is very committed to the sport now in two different but complementary ways.
“We don’t necessarily need to see ourselves in competition [with the America’s Cup]. Sailing can benefit from it, sometimes it hurts the sport, the uncertainty of the Cup, what it does to salaries of sailors, which becomes commercially unrealistic sometimes with all the private money in there, but at the end of the day I’m sure it’s a net benefit and we’ve existed alongside it very happily for the past few years.”
“We’re in a different space, being purely sponsorbacked, we’re an annual, and happening every six weeks. The two have knitted well together even if that’s not an agreed plan.”
With the America’s Cup World Series event in Portsmouth in July, Turner feels that awareness of the competition is high in the UK at the moment, and is keen to capitalise on that. Indeed, it was Turner who introduced Land Rover to BAR – “because I think they fit together very well, Land Rover and a British campaign with Ben, who is a very good ambassador for the sport.” If the Land Rover link-up with BAR is successful and strengthens their brand association with sailing, this can only be positive for the ESS as it continues its development.
“It’s a big chapter for us, Turner says. “The sport is more and more accessible, more and more exciting to watch, and more and more visible than ever. The challenge now is to capitalise on that.”
This feature, titled 'Extreme evolution', appears in the August 2015 edition of SportsPro magazine as part of a report on the business of sailing. Read part two here, and subscribe to the magazine today here.