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if you build it, will they come?

The folks behind the Star Sailors League are competing with Larry Ellison for ‘most money spent per online viewer’.  It’s costing them about a million bucks to put on the above-embedded live show over in the Bahamas, where they’ve flown in an entire fleet of Star boats and Star sailors, big Dennis Conner and yachting commentator Digby Fox and a team of about 30 media and production staff for the SSL Finale.  They’ve got over 200,000$ in prize money for the racers, press junkets for the media, full Virtual Eye, a full online video game with prize money, and a full production team – this is the Finale, after all.

“Finale”, you ask?  ”Finale to what”?  You can be forgiven for your confusion, for very few people have heard of this multi-million dollar brainchild of Franco/Swiss businessman Michel Niklaus despite all the media money pouring into the SSL in 2013.   So what is it, and what’s the point of spending all that money for no real benefit?  The point is actually quite cool, even if the execution ain’t.

You see, Niklaus really, really loves sailing, and is slightly obsessed with the Star class.  And at about a century old, he was stricken by the fact that sailors don’t have the kind of ranking system that the pro Tennis tour features. It’s a good point, because a single ranking system is a massively valuable tool, driving worldwide attention and helping to turn random names into recognizable heroes.  And while ISAF has the World match racing rankings and various classes have their own ranking systems, they certainly aren’t driving any comprehensive ranking to help the sport’s big names along.

So along came Michel, and through a combination of misguided enthusiasm and bad counsel, he created the SSL; a system of ranking the world’s best sailors numerically based on their performance at various Star regattas.  We’ve tried to understand the details behind the ranking system’s math but it defeats us, as does the SSL website and explanation; all you really need to know is that it ranks the world’s best sailors based on their performance at various Star regattas.

Now we really, really like Michel, and of course he is welcome to drop a million here and a million there for any reason he wishes.  But if he wants to make a difference – to help the world’s sailors out and increase the public’s perception of them as athletes, to increase their general renown, whatever – it might make sense to pick a platform and a class that actually matters to the world, and while you’re at it, call it the Professional Sailors League or something rather than the Star anything… 10 years ago, you might still argue that the Star includes ‘the world’s best’, and yeah, the boat is still one of the sweetest-ever upwind machines with an extremely important history.  And while it still attracts great sailors even without the help of the Olympics, it’s been a long time since the Star can truly claim the top of any heap.   The guys at the helm of the America’s Cup 72s?  Not Star Sailors, and not particularly interested in going 5-10 knots in any direction.  AC45s?  Not Star sailors. World Match Racing Tour?  Not Star Sailors.  Extreme Sailing Series?  Not Star sailors.  Volvo Ocean Race, Round the World, Olympics…a few Star sailors at best.  As great as the 100-year old Class is, and as great a future it has as one of the world’s best club and Winter Series boats out there, it will take a lot more than an annual series and a cash infusion to regain the Star’s Olympic luster; it will take a miracle.

We hope Niklaus will continue to look for creative ways to help the sport; if there were a hundred more of him, there’d be almost no limit to where sailing could go.  But like Ellison and AC34, and the ISAF World Cup and any number of other events, we’re afraid Niklaus is merely throwing money in directions his ‘experts’ have told him to, and when the results aren’t there, we hope he doesn’t disappear forever.  The world of sailing needs people like him.

December 7th, 2013

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