mess in miami

clean report

mess in miami

I used to run major regatta reports with the title “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.”  but before anyone accused me of being a crappy, cliché-dependent title writer, I ditched it.  Which pisses me off a little, because a three-level analysis is an awfully convenient way to report on an event.  

The other day, a prominent sailor challenged me to ‘not be so negative on Miami,’ So rather than a 66% negative analysis, I’ll go 50/50, and in the process, create a new grading system that will probably last as long as my attention span – a few weeks.  It’s the WWCD system, which stands for Worst-Weak-Competent-Divine, and the dopey acronym of course can also stand for something else.  Hint, hint.

The Volvo Ocean Race Miami stopover was extremely important for both the race and for those looking at hosting or sponsoring major sailing events in the States, so it’s essential to look at its successes and failures as objectively as possible without fear of hurting anyone’s feelings.  I probably can’t afford any more enemies, but as the people who support our advertisers, you readers make my job possible.  Because it is the best job in the world, I figure I owe you the same honesty that I expected back when I was just a reader myself, and the same honesty that’s helped Sailing Anarchy become the world’s most visited and dependable source for sailing information and entertainment.  So let’s get on with the analysis.

Divine:  I am convinced that one of the reasons for the comparatively weak on-the-water turnout was that about ten million Miami boaters and friends of sailing were busy volunteering for the Volvo.  Okay – maybe not that many, but the local stopover organizers and a volunteer army led by Wendy Kamilar (and a few other luminaries) did a laudable job on most everything.  From the huge Course Marshall/Press Boat/Jury Boat fleets – nearly all of them donated, private boats from Coral Reef Yacht Club – to the sexy shoreside help, to crowd control, to those pumping things up via their own Facebook sites, it was a smiling and enthusiastic group that gave Miami’s boaters a good name.  For the VIPs, Miami was also a great stop.  Volvo’s hospitality people told us that uptake on invites to the stopover were huge while sponsor employees and guests themselves said it was a lucrative trip for business relationships.  And why shouldn’t it be? For the well-heeled Volvo or Berg client with a wallet full of fifties, the town rocks.  Plenty of business deals happen in strip bars, posh restaurants, and nightclubs – three things that are better in Miami than perhaps anywhere in the Americas.  Another bright spot on an otherwise inky-black page was the broadcast – not because the predominantly light air made it a great spectacle, but because organizers succeeded in getting the high-traffic Fox Sportsnet to carry it live throughout the Miami market.  That’s rare, and they should be proud of it.

Competent:  When a pitifully small welcoming flotilla guided Leg 6 winning skipper (and sole US entry) PUMA through the finish line and into Government Cut earlier this month, we thought it was a sign that the departure fleet  would be embarrassingly empty on the water for the In-Port Race and Leg 7 start.  Saturday wasn’t great, but Sunday saw, by our count, nearly 400 boats on the water spectating, and a lot of them were big, private luxury craft loaded with people.  Volvo flew hundreds of its best sales people, affiliates, and clients from all over North America down to the town, and along with a big contingent of B to B guests from Telefonica’s Latin American affiliates, they added literally boatloads of people to the on-water spectator count.  For one of the largest boat-owning cities in the US it was still embarrassing – especially compared to the thousands-strong spectator fleets elsewhere – but it was a hell of a lot better than it could have been, and as Ken Read told us in the interview below, it gave the sailors a nice bit of morale as they raced.  Back to broadcasting, we’re glad to see the VOR getting more and more airplay in US markets.  We’ve seen it in sports bars, we’ve seen it flipping through the satellite guide, and independent auditors say that quite a few North Americans are tuning in on a couple of different channels – or at least they have the opportunity to do so for the first time.  We also want to give credit to local organizers for thinking outside the box in their promotion of the event, even if lack of follow-through and bad resource allocation meant that all their efforts were for nought.  They had bloggers and social media consultants, they handed out 100,000 flyers at Miami Heat playoffs games, they hit local radio, and we’re told there were flags and posters in quite a few spots – though, strangely, and as we’ll detail below, those were gone almost a week before the race started.

Weak:  We already mentioned the weak on-water welcome from US fans for the winning US skipper and nominally US team, but it bears repeating:  You Florida sailors and boat owners should have done a lot better.  We know you aren’t going to bring 10,000 of your friends to the race village, but a couple hundred boatowners following PUMA in could really have done a lot for the US image of the race, not to mention the confidence and pride of US sailors by showing up for a major finish like this one.  I guess it’s part of the much larger problem you find when you choose a city like Miami for an event like this one: The Volvo Ocean Race doesn’t even make a blip on the radar, even to sailors and boaters.  

Another major problem, though one that wasn’t really the Stopover or HQ’s fault, was a nasty storm that literally flooded out the entire race village. When we arrived on Wednesday, the whole place looked like the active construction zone that made the 2001 stopover’s location such a joke.  Passersby would have been surprised to even know you could enter, much less that there was an entire race village filled with free attractions beyond the excavators and payloaders. We’ll go into the deeper problems of promotion and marketing below, but this last-minute SNAFU, and the time and money it took to repair, made a bad problem much worse.

Worst:  Much of our analysis comes down here in the basement, because much of the Miami effort was just shockingly bad.  As jaded as we are, we were genuinely amazed at some of the decisions that led to the ghost town that was the Miami Stopover race village. 

Let’s start with the selection of Miami itself.  When Knut and the Board chose Miami over Newport, we wrote that it had the potential of being a good host location, but only if organizers were prepared to spend a metric shit-ton of money to promote and advertise to a population that wouldn’t know a racing yacht if it was dropped by a hurricane onto their house.  We also wrote that the 2001 stopover debacle could only be repaired if the actual docking location and race village were somewhere that had a chance to get the foot traffic and visibility that would get the millions of locals and tourists to wonder just what was going on.  Instead, the stopover port – a canal next to the Miami Heat arena and flanked by a downtown park – was virtually invisible unless you were standing on top of it.  And since there is basically no foot traffic anywhere in downtown Miami, we tried a little experiment, driving to the village from every possible direction.  In every case, we literally saw nothing until we were directly abeam of the canal cut.  And at 30 mph, that view lasted for precisely 8 seconds.  A couple of cool looking Volvo rally-style racing trucks in front of the North entrance looked more like parked construction vehicles than anything associated with the carnival atmosphere that the VOR village shoots for, and a huge concrete wall obstructed the entire village from view unless you were up in an office tower, where trees obstructed much of the park anyway.  From the South, the arena is a massive monolith that prevented seeing anything VOR until, as we wrote earlier, you came around another concrete wall and the boats popped into view.  For 8 seconds.  Miami has far too much going on to expect any traction when you put an invisible race village in a spot with vehicle traffic only.  It was our first “what were they thinking” moment.

But we really scratched our heads on the promotion and advertising, or lack thereof.  Most visitors’ first look at a VOR comes at an airport, where they do a great job putting up posters, buy advertising spots on the wall, and erect cardboard cut-outs promoting the race.  At least, they do that everywhere else but Miami.  Maybe the MIA airport rates were too expensive for the organizer’s budget, but if we were typical tourists, we simply would never have known the Volvo was in town unless we were run over by a VO70 on its way out of the cut.

That’s not strictly true; we laughed our asses off when we saw organizers solution to ‘getting the word out’:  Two of those yellow, generator-lit construction signs on Biscayne Blvd, one facing North and one South, that said “VOLVO OCEAN RACE” in yellow dots.  We’re not joking, folks; the same race that plants 2 miles of beautiful, 8 foot wide LIFE AT THE EXTREME flags on every coastal road in the other stopover port, puts billboards up at every freeway entrance to those cities, and covers buses, supermarkets and DIY stores with VOR murals somehow thought that two fucking construction signs were the solution to their problems in the biggest city they visit on the entire nine-month odyssey.  Strangely, we’re told that there were, in fact, flags and posters on Miami’s main drag, but that they were inexplicably removed on Tuesday, precisely when they were needed to show people where to go.  Maybe someone forgot to pay the City’s bill? Whatever the reason, an inexcusable screw-up, and yet another reason why the total visitors to the Race Village were significantly less than the number of pervs packing into the EXXOTICA porn fair just down the road.

We sent a couple of Anarchy scouts down to South Beach to see if any of the tens of thousands of beachgoers on Saturday or Sunday knew what those brightly colored things were moving around the horizon.  Out of a hundred random people asked the question, not a single person knew that it was a sailboat race.  Not one.  Apparently, oyster bars and car wash joints can afford to hire planes carrying those flying signs around the beach, but the VOR can’t.  You might remember rumors about Sony Music working with the VOR to get huge artists to Miami to play the event (names like Shakira and U2 were bandied about), guaranteeing tens or hundreds of thousands of visitors and a smashing success to the stopover.  That, like pretty much everything else that could have a real effect on a jaded and busy Miami public, didn’t happen.  Instead, some random and unmemorable band spent the week clanging away in the race village with no one even noticing them.  And speaking of bands, you might know about the “Cultural Exchange” that’s become a very cool part of the race; it’s when each venue sends over hundreds of native people, performers, or other colorful folks bedecked in costumes, dancing and singing and banging on things to show off their culture’s brightest and most interesting points as they bid goodbye to the fleet.  Indigenous Brazilian warriors, Maori tribesmen, Chinese dragons – that kind of thing.  You know what we sent to the dock to send the sailors off?  A high school marching band. Seriously – that’s apparently the best we could do.

Radio, print, and TV dollars got spent on a week or two of advertising with little to no effect, while social media marketing fell completely flat.  These are proven methods of driving up visitor counts, so why did they fail so spectacularly?  Time, money, and the age-old problem of a European organization being unable to comprehend how things work in the USA.  You might think more than a decade of crappy US stopovers would have taught them something, but as evidenced by the numbers, it didn’t. This is America, where marketing and PR was invented, and this is Miami, where glitz is everything.  If you don’t stand out, you might as well not come at all.

The Miami marketing and advertising effort – or at least, its appearance — was a quarter of the size of what we’ve seen in other stopovers, and that’s precisely the reverse of what you need to succeed here.  The stopover’s PR company had just a few months of lead time to accomplish what other major events have two years for, and unlike in other ports, they had two major jobs: The first was to educate the public about the very existence of sailboat racing; the second, to get them to come check it out.  To complicate matters, the local PR company hired by the local organizing group and the national PR company hired by the VOR didn’t really know what the other was doing, leading to major gaps in the promotional campaign. VOR staff and local organizers didn’t see eye-to-eye on some important issues, and despite the local group having some serious local marketing expertise, many of those issues ended up being decided by the VOR. In private conversations, some of the local organizing team were near tears at the stopover’s abject failure, while many of the US racing crews were shamed (if unsurprised) by the fact that their massive and wealthy country just didn’t seem to care about the race at all. 

Final Thoughts:

In hindsight, Newport would have been a much bigger success in terms of foot traffic and exposure than Miami, even if only the local sailors turned out.  From the fan standpoint, it’s a much better choice of venue for an event like this, if only because there are dozens of passionate sailing populations within a stone’s throw of the sailing-crazy town.  The actual micro-location may or may not have been an issue, but certainly, in the future, venues must be chosen that put the show in the center of the action – not out on a commercial strip where people never go anyway.  Organizers and sponsors might claim that Miami was a far better venue to attract their clients and B to B networks, but that avoids a really important reality for the long-term success of the race:  If you focus only on what works best for a few thousand commercial customers, you lose the public.  If you lose the public, all that’s left is those well-heeled customers, and they want to be part of something special and something grand – not a private party for them alone.  But if you make financial and venue decisions to maximize public appeal and exposure, you grow the event’s stature and visibility, and then you have an engaged public and happy corporate VIPs.  Oh, and bring back something on the water to hold the public’s attention during the stopover – the Extreme 40s in the otherwise unremarkable city of Baltimore were widely credited with the best turnout and overall stopover since the 90s.

Miami is one of a very few black marks on an otherwise brilliant race effort from almost every metric, and there’s no denying that, even for more prominent sports than yacht racing, the US is an extremely tough nut to crack.  As the VOR rolls into their venue selection process for the next race, we hope they learn from their mistakes.
Paul Todd photos.