match machinations

match machinations

As the first event on the ‘new’ World Match Racing Tour (WMRT) begins, gossip persists of severe disquiet behind the scenes, despite the glossy veneer that the recently appointed PR peddlers would have us all believe, after copious amounts of glowing press announcements of late.

Sources say there has been a bitter battle raging the past few months for shareholding in the company that owns the Tour, which has drawn in and affected a range of associated people and companies, leaving some with serious $ issues due to unpaid debts. Primarily involved are the Match Racing Association (MRA), who represent the event organizers on the Tour and are generally perceived as the ‘good guys’, and the new owners of the Tour, Regal Faith. This is a recently formed company out of Hong Kong it’s believed, led and mostly owned by property developer Patrick Lim together with Peter Gilmour, the Australian match racing sailor – the pair that also own and stage the Monsoon Cup regatta.

Evidently they acquired the Tour’s holding company in Bermuda (stay with us here!), called Pro Match Tour, which actually owns and has the rights to the World Match Racing Tour contract with ISAF, through a ‘Special Event’ status. Clearly that’s a valuable commercial property, as this gives them the license to call it the ISAF Match Racing World Championship, AND stop anyone else doing the same and creating a rival ‘Tour’ of any kind (read on…).

Deep breath here – the majority of THAT company in Bermuda was acquired from founder Scott MacLeod now out of England, who sold his percentage (and therefore control of the ISAF license) to Regal Faith late last year, and that’s apparently where the problems began over ownership.

Lim and Gilmour allegedly want to inject money from a team of Asian investors into the new Tour, hence the recent afore mentioned, ‘glossy’ PR announcements, and so wanted to take control of the whole company. However one slight snag here, in that the MRA own 40% of Pro Match Tour, and don’t want to play and just give up their stake in the company for no return, which they perceive has tremendous value (well –case in point is that the Asian’s just paid a bunch of money for little over half the company!). MRA would also lose control over ‘their’ sport, and the Tour that they helped create, (each member owns their event, like the Bermuda Gold Cup for example, owned by the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club for over a 100 years), and so the dispute began, and has evidently become deeply personal as the parties have gone back and forth.

Despite months of wrangling, this has still not been finally settled, even as day one of the first regatta of 2010 begins in France, but in the meantime, there’s apparently a trail of woe left behind by the new owners, which includes unpaid debts from the 2009 season to former suppliers, threats of lawsuits (just what sailing needs – more cases going through the courts!), and huge disenchantment from the Tour organizers about the way the whole matter with MRA has been handled.

As a side bar here, (hope you’re staying up with this intrigue so far), the ISAF license with the company is the reason that the Louis Vuitton Trophy events are not allowed to use the words ‘World’, ‘Series’ or ‘Tour’ or anything similar, and that each event stands alone and on its own. Quote from the NOR of a LV event, ‘WSTA undertakes that it shall not promote or market the Event as part of a tour or series or collection of events in any way (whether publicly or otherwise).’ Etc etc – and continues, ‘ISAF shall have right of approval over all marketing materials in respect of the Event and all official press releases to ensure that same do not place ISAF in breach of its agreement with WMRT.’ Plus a bunch of other such clauses and statements that have clearly been drawn up by some highly paid legal firm.

So understandably, that didn’t go down well with all the owners, sailors and sponsors that make up the World Sailing Teams Association at the very top of Match Racing, nor with ISAF’s management too, as the WMRT put them in an extremely difficult and no doubt embarrassing place, in having to enforce and defend their position (and their contract) signed with the WMRT’s former owners! So ISAF have to back the WMRT against a desperately needed major brand name in the sport (who already pulled out of the America’s Cup – thanks ACM!), and all the main ‘movers and groovers’ at the elite end of Match Racing, or face being sued by WMRT’s new owners for breach of contract – a classic no win situation!

At the time of course, the MRA were one of the major players in helping this original agreement go through – the very people and yacht clubs ISAF intended to help protect and support with said agreement. For once you have to sympathize with ISAF’s position here! Evidently Louis Vuitton/WSTA tried to reach an agreement with Gilmour and Lim, and there was hope of all working together, but that too fell on rocky ground, and they parted ways in no uncertain terms, according to reports, hence this bizarre situation with individual LV regattas…

And let’s not forget the actual sailors, the guys at the ‘sharp end’, who as some have said, have also be ‘shafted’ too. The new owners decided to have an auction – not quite an Ebay type, but purportedly not far removed from it, so say sources involved, where any team wanting to take part on the Tour this year could bid to get a ‘Tour card’, and if they bid enough, they won.

So this meant, in principle, that the teams with a sponsor and cash could get a slot(or rich parents, whether they had the ‘grits’ to sail well or not), and everyone else, including those that have put time, effort and money into their results on the Tour the past few years, and ‘paid their dues’, couldn’t get a place. The words ‘money grabbing’ have been rumbling along ever since.

All in all, not a great start then, and their reputation in the sport is largely in tatters amongst those on the ‘inside’ who know enough to care.

What Gilmour and Lim have promised is a $250k overall prize purse for the year, which is new, more prize money at events, more TV and marketing coverage, and investment to start new events like the new one in Vietnam, where, lo and behold, a new Marina might just supposedly be built…..because, ultimately, if the stories are to be believed, this is what the owners are all about; building marinas and hotels, and using the world tour as a vehicle for it – ala the Monsoon Cup, which is precisely what happened there.

One can’t but wonder what the price is going to be for the sport, the sailors, and eventually the Tour itself? Will it be, to use PR parlay, an ‘awesome’ success with ‘gigantic’ prize money events and ‘massive’ PR coverage that takes the sport into the mainstream? Or will it be a ‘colossal’ disappointment and an over hyped PR exercise that eventually ‘crashes and burns’ due to underwhelming disinterest and considerable self promotion?

With the stated premise, according to Gilmour’s sentiments, that yacht clubs are hopeless and not capable of running big, world class events, or words to that effect, and that the Tour would apparently ‘cut’ the number of regattas to ‘5 or 6 a year’ as a result, no wonder the management appears to have alienated so many people in their first few months of ‘non-operation’; non-operation, because it appears the core of their plans have been held up until they come to terms and sign an agreement with the MRA with regards to their stake-holding in the company, as none of the apparent Asian investors can, or will commit their Asian $ until that’s resolved, hence the issues facing the company now – so say those involved.

One can only wonder what ISAF are making of the whole sad affair, with valuable event promoters and yacht clubs drawn into a major dispute, competitive sailors estranged, and big name sponsors and team owners disenfranchised. Where might this all end, and who might potentially get their lawyers letter to hit ISAF’s doormat first? Or perhaps, one of WMRT’s creditors might just solve all before that point is reached.

So maybe the yacht clubs and the event organizers are presently in a far stronger position than Lim and Gilmour quite understood when they began this acquisition, and the ‘hopeless’ Yacht Clubs might just have a card or two still to play as to how the ‘new’ company either succeeds or fails. Some might say that would be quite poetic, given handling of proceedings thus far…