college angst

college angst

It looks like Intercollegiate Sailing Association President Mitch Brindley has gotten himself into a bit of a pickle, and this Open Letter from MIT Sailing Director Franny Charles raises serious questions about his recent agreement with LaserPerformance to act as the exclusive boatbuilder/supplier of all ICSA National and Semi-Final Championships.  Why does LP seem like it’s always in a shitstorm these past few years?  Judge for yourself, and if you’re a member or alum of the ICSA, maybe it’s a good time to start asking questions.

Dear Mitch-

It is with chagrin I have learned the news that you, as the President
of ICSA, have signed an eight year contract with Laser Performance
exclusively naming them as the only official boat builder at all
national and semi-final college championship regattas excluding
sloops. According to Article VII of the ICSA bylaws, The Board of
Directors is the only authority which can make changes to the
conditions of the National Championships and this agreement is
categorically a change to the conditions. It is also a change to the
Class Rules of the Collegiate Dinghy Class, which also requires
approval of the Board. Therefore, as President you have entered into a
contract purportedly on behalf of ICSA which you are not authorized to
sign. It is wrong to assume, with no public debate or even public
notice beforehand that this contract is in the best interests of
college sailing. ICSA should immediately renegotiate the contract
before LP ‘performs’ any of their services.

Furthermore, and more importantly, this contract is definitely not in
the best interests of college sailing. Laser Performance’s inattention
to the long term and immediate needs of some customers has created
healthy competition for the collegiate boat building market over the
past several years. This sponsorship agreement is a strategic move by
Laser Performance to keep their competitors out of the college sailing
market. If left in place, it will cripple the ongoing efforts to
develop faster, more tunable, more durable, and more fun-to-sail boats
for the future of college sailing as well as severely effect member
institutions that have already chosen to buy from other boat builders
who are responsible and responsive to the customer.

I am sure that your intentions were good but the process, legality,
and substantive consequences of this agreement are all wrong for the
ICSA and its member institutions.  Because some of our members’ boats
are not manufactured by LP, they are now required to purchase fleets
of boats from a sole vendor if they wish to be considered a host for
the nationals or semi finals.  The LP agreement only requires the
builder to provide boats for singles and the host schools must
purchase their boats at whatever price LP decides to charge for
dinghies, women’s, semis, and team racing.

There are many other schools who will make fleet purchases over the
life of this eight year contract who will be forced to buy from Laser
Performance, whether or not that equipment is the best value for their
program’s needs. That is not fair, nor healthy for our organization.
Fordham University, New York Maritime Academy, Columbia University,
University of New Hampshire, MIT, Tufts University and all the schools
using Performance Catamaran-built west coast FJs have invested
hundreds of thousands of dollars in collegiate boats which are now
excluded from hosting a championship. The Administration and Alumni of
these institutions will understandably be very concerned about the
exclusion of their school.  Retroactively banning an institution from
hosting an event based on their choice of equipment supplier is a
blatant disregard for these schools.  I am quite sure that you would
not have inked this deal if your fleet at Old Dominion University
would be subject to this ban.

As a Commonwealth of Massachusetts corporation, the ICSA is subject to
some of the broadest consumer protection laws in the country. Laser
Performance’s strategy to exclude competitors’ boats might constitute
illegal anti-competitive conduct, and through your actions ICSA is now
a party to Laser Performance’s plan. The ‘confidentiality agreement’
that you agreed to as a part of this contract precludes the member
institutions from knowing even an estimated value of this contract
that delivers the entire college sailing market to Laser Performance
until 2020. What exactly is it costing Laser Performance to get
exclusive rights to our market?  There is no representation in any
ICSA meeting minutes that are available about the negotiation or
considerations of this agreement. Never was notice given to the
membership that this was an item to be considered by the Board of
Directors. This is egregious behavior which smacks of favoritism,
Mitch.  The lack of transparency by you and the ICSA BoD makes the
membership feel suspicious of your motivations.

The need to have singlehanded boats for our championships is certainly
a concern for ICSA. Though the singlehanded discipline is a tiny part
of the collegiate schedule, it is a national championship that the
members support. However, with US Sailing having now chosen to work
with Zim Sailboats for their youth championship sponsorship with 420s
and Bytes for singles champs, Laser Performance is in an extremely
precarious position. They obviously view it as essential to have
college AND high school sailing singles hosted in their Laser design.
This agreement with ICSA does them a big favor. Granting LP the level
of concessions that you did in this agreement does far more for LP
than they are doing for college sailing. It is a very strange balance
of our priorities. There are other options for ICSA’s singlehanded
championship if LP is unwilling to work with us. Video production at
our championships is an ICSA need but this is a tiny cost to a company
which guarantees itself millions of dollars in boat sales over the
life of this agreement.

By granting an exclusive right to host all of our national
championships in LP-made boats, ICSA is making a long range commitment
to stifle competition in the institutional market. Recently, the
college sailing market has developed healthy competition from builders
who could offer alternative manufacturing processes, improved spare
parts inventories and service, and exciting changes in modern
equipment like cored hulls with resin infusion, gnav vangs, reef
points, and cassette style rudder stocks. In addition, improvements
like 420 bow bulkheads, angled thwarts, integrated bow bumpers, and
lighter rigs make our boats much safer, as well as more fun to sail.
These changes have ONLY come from schools that have been willing to
break away from the Laser Performance stranglehold. Now, ICSA is
poised to make a long range commitment to the company who has
repeatedly been unwilling to change anything until their market share
is threatened by other builders who innovate.

There needs to be public debate, full transparency, and the ICSA
should take very seriously its responsibility to hear every member
school’s concerns with respect. As a college sailing director I am
very concerned about this contract, the secrecy behind it, and the
detrimental consequences it has on many of the ICSA members. It is
wrong, unfair, and probably illegal.

Franny Charles
MIT Sailing Master