SailGP’s mission is to make sailing a mainstream sport.
“We know we’re not going to be fishing in the same pool as the NFL or Formula 1 just yet, but I think we’re punching above our weight for who we are,” said Andrew Thompson, chief commercial and financial of SailGP.
What they are is a sailing league that could very well reinvent the sport and take it from a niche phenomenon to something much bigger.
Thompson told me this in March as he watched several 50-foot-long F50 foiling catamarans launch into the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay from SailGP’s base at Pier 96.
It was day one of the season-ending Mubadala USA Sailing Grand Prix, where teams from eight countries competed for $1million – a prize the Australian team skipped by sailing the great Tom Slingsby.
SailGP was founded by Sir Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison in 2018.
- Coutts, CEO of the league, is a champion sailor with an Olympic gold medal and five America’s Cup trophies to his name.
- Ellison, the founder of Oracle, has a net worth that hovers around $100 billion. He pledged to fund SailGP’s first five years of operation.
- Ellison has a history with Coutts and sailing. The duo worked together on the Oracle teams that won the America’s Cup in 2010 and 2013.
Race frequency is one of SailGP’s main differentiators. The grand finale on the San Francisco Bay was the finale of an eight-team, eight-event season.
The third season, which begins with a competition in Bermuda in mid-May, has grown to 10 teams and nine events and could announce more events before the start of the season.
“We would like more events in the United States,” Thompson said before listing half a dozen dream destinations from San Diego to Newport, Rhode Island. “Season four, we hope to get to 15 events. And then season five, we’re going beyond that and looking to hit 20+ events.
By comparison, the America’s Cup – the oldest international sporting event in the world, founded in 1851 – takes place every three to five years.
SailGP has a better chance of connecting with the general public if its races are less elusive. The focus for season five is more akin to Formula 1, which has 23 events on its 2022 calendar.
Formula 1’s future was uncertain when Liberty Media bought it five years ago. It’s now one of the hottest sporting attractions with a hit Netflix series and flashy new Grands Prix in Miami and Las Vegas.
A similar ascent can await SailGP.
Thick crowds of spectators flocked to the shores of the bay to watch the Grand Final races. I met world-renowned chef Thomas Keller (he owns The French Laundry and currently holds seven Michelin stars) at Pier 96. He was also watching the F50s launch.
As I exited Pier 96, I passed Robert Pattinson — titular star of 2022’s highest-grossing film, “The Batman” — arriving for his own base tour. Pattinson also starred in “Tenet,” the 2020 Christopher Nolan film that featured SailGP boats in one of its many high-octane scenes.
“The revenue drivers are sponsorship, as well as host city revenue,” said Thompson, who oversees SailGP’s commercial programs.
Rolex has been the presenting partner and official watch of SailGP since the league’s inception.
The teams also have their own individual sponsors. Team USA, for example, is supported by Red Bull and T-Mobile for Business.
The income of the hosts is not to be neglected.
“The host has a venue fee paid either by the tourism authority or the city itself or the country itself for us to come and run a race at that location,” Thompson said, using a agreement with the Bermuda Tourism Authority as an example of how these arrangements work.
Where are the revenues now?
“In terms of the numbers, I would say by the first season, our revenue was already in the eight figures, tens of millions of US dollars,” Thompson said. “We tripled that in season two. We’re looking to do much the same thing again for season three.
SailGP’s revenue commitments for season three have already exceeded the league’s season two totals, according to Thompson.
SailGP’s ties to Oracle run deeper than Ellison’s support.
Oracle’s technology is at the heart of the league. The company’s cloud infrastructure and flow analysis system processes and delivers 30,000 data points every second from every F50 catamaran participating in a SailGP race.
- This data is transmitted to broadcast partners such as CBS and CBS Sports.
- It is used for an online real-time information dashboard designed for fans.
- Data is also shared between all teams – who have access to the same information, which SailGP believes levels the playing field and increases competition.
Overall, Oracle delivered approximately 80 billion cloud data points in the second season.
SailGP, which aims to be carbon neutral by 2025, is also working with Tesla.
Rather than using diesel generators to charge batteries critical to the operation of F50 catamarans, a new system achieves the same results with mobile, off-grid, solar-powered Tesla Powerwalls.
SailGP also recently announced a multi-year partnership with sustainable blockchain platform Near. With the deal comes Web3 development, NFT launches, and maybe even the sale of a future team to a DAO.
“We now distribute our show to 189 territories around the world,” Coutts told Front Office Sports days before the Season 2 grand finale in San Francisco, which had 10 million live viewers.
Broadcasts are the catalyst for realizing SailGP’s consumer ambitions. You have to physically see how unpredictable and intense the races are for the league’s appeal to take hold.
The season-opening race in Bermuda in May will be broadcast live on multiple properties:
- The SailGP app
- Linear television on CBS Sports Network
“People don’t realize how fast the boats go, how big they are or what scale we operate,” Ben Johnson – SVP, Strategy & Commercial Development at SailGP – said at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco then. that the end of season two was approaching.
Season three, which Johnson says will be “the biggest racing season we’ve ever had from a business partner and broadcast perspective,” could be when SailGP takes a leap forward in the perception of the audience.
“We race in these super fast boats that look more like spaceships than traditional sailboats. They race on hydrofoils over water and it’s a very short format,” Coutts said, referring to the 90-minute duration for the races. “We are really an entertainment product.”