The most common question we’ve gotten over the past month is some version of “what’s going on with/why can’t I watch the America’s Cup like I could last time around?” With the Gothenberg ACWS event ready for action this weekend, here’s the very bizarre explanation.
Last month, Organizers of the America’s Cup rolled out perhaps the most embarrassing display of cluelessness we’ve seen in sports broadcasting in years with the “AC+” App. At the same time, Russell Coutts went from the guy who so famously and recently promised to bring yacht racing to the ‘Facebook Generation’ and share the excitement of the sport’s pinnacle with the world, to the guy who has completely given up on whatever lofty goals he once had for the America’s Cup sailing’s penetration into mainstream sport.
The pullback really began way back during the buildup to the last AC; a huge broadcast and media budget slash and organization-wide layoffs just after the San Diego ACWS event signaled Cup Watchers that Ellison had cut off the funds necessary for a lasting push into mainstream media. With tens of millions already spent and the AC looking like a walkover, producers lucked into a dream scenario that included a massive lead for the underdog and tapped into the public’s intense dislike for Ellison and Coutts. The free, live, Youtube coverage of the actual America’s Cup was, without a doubt, the most compelling sailboat racing we’ve ever seen.
The problem, as we’ve discussed ad nauseam, was that outside of New Zealand no one watched. To us, that wasn’t a surprise at all; huge budget cuts and poorly negotiated contracts with the TV networks who agreed (for a fee) to carry the AC broadcasts meant almost zero promotion or advertising in the mainstream; Official Broadcast Partner NBC couldn’t even be bothered to add ‘sailing’ to the sports listed on their website menu – a menu that included badminton, poker, fishing, and competitive dog shows. Presumably, Coutts and his team were operating under that old standby for the incredibly arrrogant or clinically insane: the Field of Dreams marketing plan. “If you build it, they will come.” And of course, they didn’t.
While the elusive ‘new fan’ stayed away, the filmmakers at least created some gorgeous-looking visuals and showed how exciting and compelling the racing could be, and most of us anticipated some success when Coutts and his team went hunting for a broadcast strategy for AC35. But rather than building on the great work they did to get an exciting event and a wonderful sport in front of millions of young, new fans, ACEA went the other way. And rather than a 2017 event and buildup that would push the sport’s exposure forward, a combination of huge delays, venue uncertainty, unqualified staff, and the kind of hubris that left TV executives walking away from negotiations scratching their heads meant the end of the dream. So now, instead of being able to share a Youtube link with all the kids in your extended family, you’re gonna be paying 8 bucks for a buggy, glitchy, horribly-reviewed app that might just let you watch some sailboat racing (if you are in a non-blacked out area and you don’t mind watching on a phone screen).
Somehow, despite all of this being fairly public and extremely obvious, the people at America’s Cup have no problem sending out bullshit ‘News Releases’ touting the awful job they’ve done as something amazing. It’s some of the most bizarre PR work we’ve ever seen, something closer to the dissembling and revisionism of Donald Trumps handlers than the words of a major sports body.
Let’s take a look at just their most recent release, which caps a few months of fetid bullshit spouting from the ACEA press corps.
Since Bermuda was revealed as the host venue of the 35th America’s Cup on December 2, 2014, a flurry of significant commercial partnerships and broadcast agreements have been reached, including with Louis Vuitton, who return to extend one of the longest title partnerships in international sport.
Let’s just get Louis Vuitton out of the way, because we all know that the very last thing LVMH care about is the public, 99.9% of which will never be able to afford the least expensive product they sell. Louis Vuitton’s sponsorship model is very simple, and works entirely by bringing in a couple hundred of their very best customers – people who spend well over a million a year on hugely expensive handbags, clothes, watches, and other substitutes for self-confidence – and they VIP the hell out of them during the various AC events. The experience can get those VIPs to double their purchases that year, and that’s why Louis Vuitton spent 8-figures on the deal. They like it exclusive – the fewer people who watch, the better. Not unlike Rolex (which couldn’t come up with the pile of cash that LVMH did).
But let’s get to the meat of this latest ‘news’. ACEA writes with glee that “NBC in the United States, BT Sport and the BBC in the UK and Ireland, CCTV in China, Canal+ in France and ESPN in Central and South America are among the major broadcasters who have acquired the rights to show the full two year program of racing in the 35th America’s Cup.”
But it’s almost entirely bullshit, and it’s part of a pattern of deceit that shows a basic and complete disregard for the public’s intelligence. Here’s why:
1) NBC is MOST DEFINITELY NOT the America’s Cup Broadcaster. For foreigners, NBC is a massive, free-to-air network that reaches tens of millions, and they will not be broadcasting a fucking thing! Nope; the AC’s ‘broadcast partner’ is NBCSN, which was until recently known Canada’s Outdoor Life Network, and then Versus. NBC Sports Group picked it up a couple of years ago for their ‘niche sports’ stuff – things Americans rarely watch. Premier League, F1, and American soccer, for instance. Yet despite the low-rent address, you still could not watch the ACWS-Portsmouth live on NBC, NBCSN, or any other network in the USA. Must have been a poker tournament on.
2) The BT Sport 2 channel that ACEA was so excited about in England is another sparsely-subscribed pay-only channel, and English broadcast sources tell us that the max audience for the BT Sport 2 stream in Portsmouth would have been well under 20,000 households. And that’s with a British hero fighting for the win over the Yankee invaders.
3) As of right now, you can’t even watch the BBC version of the short highlight show on the BBC iPlayer. It is apparently on BBC2 only, and apparently only on late at night.
4) CCTV China is an internet-only channel that exists almost entirely as a report-padder for Western TV broadcast dealmakers, and as one Shanghai sailor told us, “If a hundred people watch it on CC, we’ll all be shocked.” Look, we’re in China and available for billions!”. No, you aren’t.
5) The most egregious example of ACEA’s shenanigans comes with their release this week about their new deal with ‘ESPN’, which, ACEA writes, has acquired the exclusive multiplatform rights to the 35th America’s Cup in more than 40 territories, including Mexico, Central America and South America, and non-exclusive rights in the Caribbean.
And yet once again, and despite what the release says, it’s not what it seems. The ‘Broadcast Partner’ is not ESPN, which ‘reaches sports fans in 61 countries and 7 continents’. It is ESPN International, which reaches those hotbeds of yachting in Central and South America, along with the huge audiences in the Caribbean. </sarcasm>. And meanwhile, ACEA touts the hell out its deal with ESPN publicly despite ESPN (not ESPNi) being a direct and massive competitor for NBC Sports, which was the first and presumably most important partner for this AC.
What’s The Solution?
We’ve seen how the America’s Cup is immune to negative public opinion; if it weren’t, Russell Coutts would have been fired from management 50 times over the past two decades. But if the world publicizes the fact that ACEA’s staff has literally dialed the clock back a decade, something will have to change or the America’s Cup will continue to slip off the pinnacle to be replaced by events that do a better job of reaching the public and the sponsors. The 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race eclipsed the AC in almost every major metric, and already brings in more money than the Cup; if the AC doesn’t join the rest of the thinking world, it will continue its march to obscurity, gaining more sponsors like Louis Vuitton as it hemorrhages fans.
It’s not that hard if you have half a brain and the tiniest ability to get your head out of the boat; It’s not like you can’t find other inspiration. From the New York Times:
An average of more than 6.2 million people tuned in live to watch the Billabong Pipe Masters, where Mr. Medina won his first title. Those numbers exceeded the American television audience for the final game of the 2014 Stanley Cup hockey finals. Not a second of the surfing competition was shown on traditional live television in the United States; instead, it was streamed on YouTube, with 35 to 40 percent of its viewers on mobile.
“It was hard for us to realize a direct relationship to linear TV,” Paul Speaker, the chief executive of the World Surf League, said. “We’re a global sport, so there is always a time zone concern, and we have to wait for swells” — suitable wave conditions — “so we don’t have a start time and an end time like other sports.”
The World Surf League’s successful web-first broadcast strategy is at the leading edge of a gradual transformation taking hold in sports television. As more and more viewers move online and audiences become more global, the professional leagues have all adopted streaming as an important way to attract younger fans around the world. But the purity of surfing’s model — reaching millions of viewers online without being beholden to exclusivity contracts with broadcast and cable networks — demonstrates the power of online audiences for sports big and small.
“It’s one of those things where there’s a lot of fans out there,” explained Matt McLernon, a spokesman for YouTube. “But they’re not necessarily combined enough into a media market where it makes sense to put this sporting event on TV. But when anyone can watch it online, you open up a whole concept.”
All of the major sports leagues have embraced this reality. The N.H.L. recently teamed with the camera maker GoPro this year to bring real-time highlights shareable on social media like Twitter and Facebook. The P.G.A. tour is trying something similar with GoPros and the tour’s online network, Skratch TV. The N.B.A. has the biggest YouTube sports audience with 2.5 billion videos viewed, nearly all through highlights. It also streams its “D” League games online, and joined with Tencent to stream N.B.A. games live in China.