tv or not to tv (that is the question)

One the dumbest things said by those intent on promoting elite sailing to a wider audience is that the sport should be made “more attractive for television”. To my mind (and I’ve spent most of my working life producing TV content) there are two false assumptions in that one statement. The first is that sailing needs television coverage, and the second is that it has the capacity to generate viewing figures to rival those enjoyed by the major codes – football, basketball etc.

This mindless obsession with TV appeal has yielded no lasting benefits, but contributed to the distortion of some of our most treasured events. The “medal race” deciders at the Olympic Games are a travesty of regatta principles; the 20-minute “wham-bam-thank-you-m’am” sprints of the America’s Cup reduce what should be an extended tactical battle into a drag race. The TV tail is wagging the sailing dog.

For more than two decades the sport has spent millions trying to turn itself into a popular television product, and failed. We sailors enjoy watching it on TV, but that’s because we understand what’s going on. To the general public – in other words the mass audience – sailing contests are largely unintelligible. Who’s in front? Why are they going in opposite directions? Compared with a tennis match or golf tournament, a yacht race seems impossibly complicated and obscure.

Yet still the sport persists with this mania. Recent sailing history is littered with failed “made-for-TV” events. Most of whatever yachting coverage survives only gets its air-time because it has been made at the expense of organisers or sponsors and then given free-of-charge to the broadcasters. 

The daily reports during the last Volvo race were a prime example: no network would foot the bill for generating that content, nor would they transmit the programs without upfront guarantees of revenue. Ditto the SailGP series. Ditto those scrappy weekly compendium half-hours that pop up on pay TV at odd hours. Rolex produces its own regatta coverage. Television executives aren’t stupid. They know there is nowhere near a big enough audience for sailing to cover its daunting production costs.   

The core issue is that the key elements of a sport that make it most attractive to television – pace, close scoring and physical engagement – are absent from sailing. Our races unfold over hours and the rules are endlessly obscure. The contestants can be miles apart. Some of the most crucial moments are hidden from view. To us a gybing duel might be gripping; to the average viewer it’s as exciting as watching paint dry.

It’s an unshakable truth of the TV business that sports that are supported by large numbers of paying spectators – the so-called “arena” sports – are the most likely to also succeed on television. Ratings reflect bums on seats. Sailing, by its very nature and physical spread, is not a spectator sport. Larry Ellison may make his catamarans do grandstand passes along the shoreline, but yacht racing rarely attracts a crowd, and certainly very few paying customers. 

The interesting effect of this failure to build yachting into a valuable media property is that desperate event promoters perversely feel they need to hype the sport into a kind of pop clip frenzy. Online we are bombarded with videos propelled by thumping music and fast cuts between unrelated shots of yachts visible for just a few frames. That style has now infected event coverage as well. 

This is not just infuriating for anyone with a genuine interest in sailing. The frantic need for speed goes against the essential grain of the whole sport. Yachting has an aesthetic that builds slowly. We need time to savour and examine the way each boat is being sailed, and the prevailing conditions. Instead, we get a frenetic jumble.

The irony, of course, is that genuine tension and excitement in sailing often comes at a leisurely rate. A pair of 12 metres crossing tacks, neck and neck up the final windward leg at 8 knots can be far more gripping than carbon foilers flying all over the course at warp speed.

– Anarchist David  

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