About this time of an America’s Cup season, the sap begins rising as new boats are launched, and Cup fans get their first sight of the various team designers’ response to the latest America’s Cup Class rule.
In the monohull days, of course, we initially only got a partial glimpse thanks to the shrouding practices adopted by all teams to hide the nether regions of their Challenger or Defender and trial boats. But that changed on Unveiling Day, when we saw all.
Bases were hidden behind steel fences, and the initial impressions of the boats came from what could be gleaned from shots of the boats either sailing or at rest. Then guesstimates could be done as to the length from which other key measurements could be deduced. Slowly the picture unfolded.
Eventually, the monohulls all devolved into the same corner of the rule and design differences appeared to become less noticeable. But on the water, there was usually a speed difference, coupled with smart sailing which served to produce a significant and repeatable performance margin.
That continued into the last America’s Cup with the first wingsailed catamarans – with Oracle Team USA going down the aero-route with their more aerodynamically efficient hulls and approach. Emirates Team NZ committed to a more seaworthy design that could and did sail right at the top end of the then 33kt wind limit – before it was reduced to the more modest 19.9-24.4kts for the 34th America’s Cup.
That all changed again in the current America’s Cup when the decision was made to adopt a one-design platform (multihull-speak for the hulls, crossbeams and all the floating bits).
Now for the first time in Cup history, media could take photos of the AC50’s under construction. There are no real design secrets in a one-design and therefore nothing to hide – unless team principals have retained their design paranoia.
The wingsails are also the same profile shape – so there is nothing of discernable difference there to catch the fan’s attention.
The bits that are free territory for the design teams are not well understood by the fans.
Hydrofoiling is a dark-science for most. The nuances of daggerboard shape are eye-glazing stuff. And control systems and parasitic drag reduction are beyond the ken of all but the most technically inclined – if indeed the differences can be seen.
So it is probably no surprise that the conversation level lights up when a team does come out with something different, to which the sailing fans can relate.
At Sail-World we can see this in our story ranking with the story on Emirates Team New Zealand’s introduction of cycling grinders attracting over 60,000 reads, backed up by a second story from ETNZ skipper Glenn Ashby pulling a further 22,500 reads and so on for a total of six stories that pulled a total story reads of 108,000.
Stories on the other five AC teams and the launches of their AC50’s pulled a total of 22,500 reads in total across eight stories.
The Emirates Team NZ cycling grinders story was rather sensational in what has been a very bland event to date. But even dropping off ETNZ’s two top rating stories, the Kiwi team pulled the same readership as the other teams combined – and with half the number of stories published.
For many years, with the rise of professional sailing there has been a progressive dumbing down of the tone of event reporting, as the PR moguls take the edge off any controversy, or simply cover it up by omission.
That thinking has been taken to a new level in the America’s Cup with the hastily introduced Dalton Clause in the Protocol for the 34th America’s Cup. That was extended to cover all matters before the anonymous Arbitration Panel in the current Cup (including an admission that a matter is even being referred to the Arbitration Panel). More legalese was tacked onto the Protocol in December prohibiting and any adverse comment about plans for future America’s Cups.
It is a curious state of affairs for an event that has been built on controversy and colourful figures having their say off the water. Now we are seeing the effect in readership figures as we exit the surreal world of the America’s Cup World Series and re-enter similar phases to previous Cups.
The readership effect of the blanding the sport was reinforced in the JJ Giltinan Trophy, just concluded.
At Sail-World we conducted a series of daily interviews conducted with the skipper of Yamaha NZ, which attracted 28,500 reads during the series compared to 19,600 reads for the official reports for the regatta. (We hasten to point out that the official reports for the 18fters are amongst the very best we receive at Sail-World – always available within a couple of hours of the race finish, with excellent images, and the full results).
The point with comparing the two approaches is that controversy and colour do make a big difference to the readership of stories – which is a good indication of the level of interest in the event from fans.
By various means, the life-breath is being snuffed out of the America’s Cup and other events. Aside from the Emirates Team NZ stories mentioned over the last 30 days, the first story from another America’s Cup team comes in at 22nd – and a second story on the same team, Artemis Racing, comes in at 29th.
Of course, when there is a vacuum created something else will come along to fill it. Fans will find that new event for themselves and follow it rather than some erstwhile event manager coming up with a cunning plan for the Next New Thing.
Outside Emirates Team NZ, the events that are getting the readership over the past month are 18ft skiffs and Vendee Globe. There is definitely a changing of the guard. Expect the Volvo Ocean Race to also make strong inroads into the space once enjoyed by the America’s Cup.
Other events that are ongoing – like the World Match Racing Tour, Extreme Sailing Series – do get some traction, but again do many times better with an injection of controversy and colour, aided by some stunning action images.
The rate of fan shift is becoming evident almost weekly as more and more events are being covered live on Youtube. They have taken their lead from the 34th America’s Cup – which used YouTube very successfully to distribute its coverage to a worldwide audience.
This Cup cycle there are still many videos being posted on YouTube by event organisers and the teams. But the top raters on the America’s Cup Channel are clips involving capsizing and carnage – with the last two races of The Comeback intervening in the top eight.
The 34th America’s Cup on YouTube pulled 227,000 viewers on its lowest day climbing to 1,100,000 on the final Race 19 of the San Francisco Series.
These are better than the last Volvo Ocean Race with the VOR Start replays pulling 100,000 to just under 500,000 views. However, the 34th America’s Cup was saved by The Comeback which got cut-through with the general sporting fans.
The trend to online viewing should accelerate with the uptake of smart TV’s with the ability to view YouTube, along with much higher use of mobile devices – which again pull viewers in the direction of YouTube and away from subscription based satellite TV viewing.
But still the Three C’s of successful coverage are the drivers of Carnage, Characters, and Colour (an interesting angle to which sailing fans and non-sailing media can relate). The more boxes that can be ticked, the better.
Quite what happens in the upcoming Cup which gets underway in 70 days time remains to be seen.
But which ever way you do the analysis, there is definitely a change underway, and the trend is clear.
This commentary was first published in The Sail-World New Zealand newsletter of March 13, 2017. To become a free subscriber click here
If you want to contact Richard Gladwell directly email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (+6421) 301030
by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com