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Saving Racing

saving sailing

Saving Racing

From the book Saving Sailing, by Nicholas Hayes

Of the approximately 1.2M registered sailboats in the Unites States, only about 20% are actively raced. Sailboat racing, like all sailing in the U.S., is in decline, with a meager 3/10ths of 1% of the population, including kids, doing it today (compared with about 3% of the population just 30 years ago). Racing is down almost 88% (you read that right) since 1979, shedding almost 6 million participants.

Let’s look at the facts.

A few races (less than 2% of all starts) are major media events, hosted by professional managers who provide services like entertainment, provisioning, coaching and photography, who rally spectators and sponsors and publishers, and promise branding on a large scale. These are the exception, not the norm. But these are also the events that most will see in a late-night mention on cable TV and that shape the public’s view of sailing in general.

The vast majority, more than 98% of all starts, are far more modest. Most races began with a few sailors saying, “Let’s go here to there and see who gets there first” followed by a gradual evolution to something more complex and socially interesting. Since racing often involves an assortment of buoys to define a course and timekeepers to set starts and finishes, most events are the product of systematic volunteerism, coalescence and cooperation on par with that found in a large church or temple. Many yacht and sailing clubs can trace their roots to basic race organization, often provided by member-racers who took turns setting buoys and time to make racing possible for their competitor-friends. 

Once the racing begins, favorite flavors emerge. Most sailboat racers fall into one of two categories: 68% who sail on a boat designed for dual, triple or more purposes and 32% who prefer racing identical boats.

If you visit any of the online discussion boards regarding sailboat racing, you will inevitably confront a heated debate of the merits of handicapping verses sailing one-design. There, sailors will often insist that their favored design is the solution to waning participation. As you might guess, one-design sailors want their design to be the popular standard, and handicap sailors do not see how a one-design fleet will meet their needs. It is notable that only 7% of all the sailboats in the U.S. meet a one-design criteria.

But the argument is mostly wasted breathe, at least as suggested by the data:

Among 164 U.S. sailing clubs surveyed (by US Sailing) in 2007, there are 215 different, active one-design fleets, and another 3 or 4 fleets each of handicap racers of various pedigree. This means that sailboat racing as a whole has the burden of attempting to appease, or at least juggle, about 500 tiny special-interest groups, each with only a few dozen (or less) members but with very definite opinions about what is right and wrong in their sport. It also means that fleets must, by this market design, constantly shrink, rather than grow, to adjust to the latest fad.

Mathematicians have names to describe trends in group dynamics like these. Fragmentation is when the group is breaking apart, and in doing so, becoming weaker. Coalescence is when a group is coming together and as a result, becoming stronger.

When groups coalesce they gain buying power, competition increases and prices fall, creating access. That is precisely why sailing clubs formed originally; by tapping the buying power of a group, access to lakes and oceans and boats became a reality for the group.

Conversely, when groups fragment, entry barriers like financial or time costs rise. Without a club, an individual has to bear all costs of access, training or coordination. As cost and access barriers climb, popularity must eventually and inevitably drop, although it may not seem so at first.

Since about 1980, Americans have assumed that we would have unlimited discretionary income and the ability to buy into whatever personal entertainment we wish, without need to share access. A strange period of cheap money and ample toys created a false sense of unlimited buying power. It hasn’t felt as if there was much need to coalesce, so many clubs witnessed major shortfalls in member recruitment — even as marinas expanded and prices for basic services increased. The average cost to dock a sailboat rose 8 times faster than inflation in the last 10 years, even as overall demand measured in usage dropped. Now, fewer people sail on bigger and bigger boats that consume more and more lake frontage.

More important perhaps, during this time, many clubs became sellers of support services, including those required for racing, as opposed to self-sustaining groups of volunteers. So in some places, only those that can afford to buy the time of others can afford to race, and those with time to spare and some interest can’t. More people inside and outside of sailing think that sailing is a professional sport of sponsors and celebrities, when, according to the numbers, it isn’t and will never be.

Basic supply and demand theory tells us that this had to end.

Now that the economic bubble has popped we can see that coalescence is healthy for a community in both good times and bad, but fragmentation is especially visible and threatening in the bad. What can be done? It’s pretty simple:

  • Join a club, and if there isn’t one within reach, form one
  • Share boats if necessary
  • Set a race course
  • Enter whatever boat you have access to
  • Take your turn doing race committee
  • Take your kids and their friends

Like this stuff? Then get the book!