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Gladwell's Line: Olympic Commission report a thunderbolt for the sport

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isaf_logoThe report of the International Sailing Federation's Olympic Commission, presented last weekend to the ISAF Events Committee and Council, is a wake up call that should not be ignored by the sport.
The contents of the report should not come as a surprise to anyone involved in the administration of Yachting/Sailing, call it what you will. In 2004 the ISAF commissioned a report from a five strong working party which developed the San Diego Protocol. One of the outputs was a timeline for change. That was not taken up.

In 2005 the International Olympic Committee noted that the 'ISAF had taken the following steps ... Equipment innovation introducing faster and more spectacular boats, on board cameras and sound and GPS responders displaying boat positions.''

TV hours broadcast by Sport for 2008 - Yachting is the lowest with 11 hours per day. -
In 2007 instead of continuing what had been started with the 49er - by reducing keelboat events and replacing these with faster and more spectacular boats, the ISAF Council went the other way and, in the words of a subsequent the Royal Yachting Association submission the ISAF Council:

• removed the highest performance boat (multihull) and choosing not to include a women’s high performance dinghy,
• preserved the more expensive keelboat Equipment and infrastructure, and introducing additional match racing infrastructure cost, and
• preserved those Events that suit the resources and physiques of established Olympic sailing nations and are hardest for new nations to break into.

Those Council actions, committed with a confused voting system and against the recommendations of the ISAF Events Committee, which had spent several days considering the matter, created a furor in the sailing world.

(In reality, none of the technology advances mentioned by the IOC in 2005 were used in 2008 Olympics, and until the ISAF meeting just concluded there would have been no such devices used in 2012 either.)

The International Olympic Committee statistics published by the Olympic Commission are damning. Yachting was the least popular Olympic sport in 2004 and 2008 in terms of number of hours per day of competition coverage.

To compound that statistic, yachting was the sixth most expensive to produce for television.

Costs of TV production by sport for the 2008 Olympics - Yachting is one of the most expensive, yet get the lowest broadcast time. -
So you have a relatively expensive sport to produce, which doesn't get broadcast by the rights holders.

Yachting does not fare well when the IOC conducted a further analysis of the number of Federations represented on the World body of sailing and their distribution. Yachting was the sixth lowest in 2004, and after baseball and Softball were dropped from the Olympic Program after 2004, Yachting was down to fourth to last.

In terms of universality of the sport - measured by IOC membership compared to sailing national body membership. Yachting is also way out of balance in Africa (53 IOC nations are members and just 15 nations are ISAF members); and seriously out of balance in Oceania, Asia, and the Americas. Only in Europe does the equilibrium come into play with 49 IOC member nations and 46 ISAF member nations.

That imbalance continues when the analysis is done on Member National Authorities (MNA's), effectively countries national federations, competing in the Qualification Rounds for Sailing for the 2008 Olympics. In Africa just 7% of the MNA's bothered to have female sailors competing for places in Qingdao. That percentage climbed to 41% for the Americas - the second best in terms of female participation, while Europe was again top with 74% of the MNA's entering female sailors in the 2008 Olympic Qualification process. Oceania and Asia were in between Africa and the Americas.

That is the backdrop against which the ISAF's Olympic Commission is operating.

ISAF member nations by region compareed to the IOC member distribution -
Unless there is change the outcome is inevitable - just a matter of when rather than if.

The situation is akin to the options facing a patient diagnosed with cancer - chemotherapy or radical surgery. Doing nothing, or staying in denial, or a change of diet, aren't on the table anymore.

There are some positive points in the statistics.

Yachting does well in terms of visits to the ISAF website, even though it is down at fourth lowest on the dreadful IOC Olympic sailing website, whose main purpose seemed to be to provide a link to where sailing fans could get some better coverage (not that the ISAF site did not have serious shortcomings). The sport is perceived, perhaps wrongly, by the IOC has being on the sharper end of technology, relative to others.

There are five areas identified for action by the Olympic Commission:

1. Increase Universality - in other words make the sport more popular and accessible. (Assuming they actually have water to go sailing on - particularly in Africa).

Percentage of competitors that competed in sailing qualifications broken down by region and gender. African females make up just 7% of the total - dominated by Europe region -
2. Expanding Qualification Opportunities - shifting the Olympic Qualification System to a system of regional qualification (50%) and World Championship - rather than the present World Championship only system.

3. Building Popularity - building the sailing fan base using TV and the latest available technology

4. Improving Event Structure - rationalizing the events and class progressions leading to the Olympics

5. Enhancing the Olympic games - removal of equipment advantage and providing entertaining coverage.

While the ISAF Olympic Commission bares the soul of the Olympic sailing event, the point should not be lost that the issues facing sailing, particularly its TV performance, are endemic across the sport at all levels.

Very simply, as a sport, sailing does not rate. TV rights are a joke. And the only viable current model, like with the 33rd America's Cup, is to give away the coverage free of rights and recoup the cost from competitors or direct sponsorship.

Volvo Ocean Race internet reach - showing the build for the event it self and fall away once the event is over. -
Sailing doesn't rate because it doesn't have a week in week out fan base. Yes, it has its aficionados, who will watch anything with sails. Sailing events do not work together, but work for themselves. Sailing fans may form up to watch an event like the Volvo Ocean Race, or catch a few minutes of the final of the America's Cup (assuming someone has even picked up the broadcast rights, free or otherwise).

But in terms of continuity, and in terms of watching sailing day in day out, happens with many other sports, it just doesn't happen for this sport - because the coverage is disjointed - there is no coherent plan.

Guess who holds the Media Rights for all sailing events? Yep, the International Sailing Federation.

2010 America’s Cup internet reach showing the spike that is common for this type of event - it is just the height of the spike that varies between events. -
And the dear old ISAF, under immense initial pressure from the event organisers themselves, has a policy of handing these right onto the event organizers without charge, without direction, and without a coverage plan that works for the overall benefit of the sport.

While the ISAF probably has no chance of forcing the likes of the America's Cup, Louis Vuitton Trophy, Volvo Ocean Race, World Match Racing Tour, TP 52's and the like, to work under the aegis of the world body of the sport (as happens in many other codes), clearly there has to be some co-operation and a will to work in the best interests of the sport - rather than purely in event self-interest, as at present.

It is a very naive view that all of these events can somehow build an global audience by working alone. It is nonsense to think that an event can build a fan base by staging one pinnacle event every two, three or four years - or even every other month - and pull the punters by putting out a product that is technologically attractive to viewers.

Daily visits to the IOC Olympic Yachting event website - again Yachting is fourth lowest -
What is required is a commonality of approach driven to develop a fan base and following who roll from event to event, and for those events to be entertaining without compromising competition.

Another theme of the Olympic Commission is a move to supplied boats and equipment. The argument being that this evens up competition and reduces competitor costs, which it probably does.

Sadly, there is no free lunch in life, or the Olympics. Someone has to pick up the cost of the supplied gear and it is either event organisers or the equipment manufacturers, who bear these costs. The obvious solution to the supplied boat is to 'dump' these on the market at the end of the regatta.

This may work for a Laser Worlds (which manage re-use/resale quite well) however for other classes the numbers involved in a world championship are about the total world production for a year, and dropping the supplied boat concept down to lower level regattas creates a supply glut which creates another set of problems.

Visits to the International body website during the 2008 Olympics - ISAF ( is one of the highest. -
The ISAF and IOC are also their own worst enemies. In both bodies, one arm will be advocating measures and changes which will 'equalise' the competition, knowing that this is adding significant cost. Yet on the other hand beating up on the sport as being too expensive in terms of its events. TV coverage we have looked at briefly.

The Overhead of Officialdom is another, Length of and Format Series is another. We will look and these and the big opportunities that there are for Yachting in coming commentaries.

The situation is certainly not terminal for Yachting. In fact of all the Olympic sports it has the potential to lead the IOC and Olympics into the new media era. Companies like Animation Research Ltd have been working for almost 20 years developing technologies which are now regarded as being leading the leading edge of broadcast technology. The same ARL has also developed 3D television pilots of sailing (in this case Louis Vuitton Trophy) coverage. Others including ARL have developed technology that facilitates television broadcast via the internet. The placement of camera and microphones aboard yachts is well developed and has been so again for around 15 years.

Grand Prix Sailing ran a successful televised 18fter racing series for several seasons - again building a fan base for TV as well as an event base of venues.

Bolting the technology into sailing is probably the easiest part of the ISAF Olympic Solution.

The hardest part will be the changing of events, and the development of regional sailing, and growing sailing at the grass roots in countries which do not have a sailing culture.

We'll look at this too in coming commentaries.

You can read the full Olympic Commission report by clicking here