The recent shutdown of the Big-Boat regatta scene and the postponement of the Olympic Games by the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the fragility of ‘professional’ sailing.
Competitive sailing splits into roughly three groups: basic club level amateur dinghy and keelboat racing, the ‘professional’ dinghy circuit and the Big Boat international regatta circuits.
Each of these three groupings has been hit hard by the restrictions put in place worldwide to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Firstly, there are the hundreds of UK sailing clubs that race dinghies, keelboats and small cruisers regularly, this is all on an amateur basis.
The next level for the competitive sailor is the Olympic classes, with the top level UK competitors paid by the government via UK Sport.
Then there is the big boat circuit, which is down to the multi-millionaire owners, who race on several international circuits and employ mostly contracted crews to sail/race their large yachts.
The coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic has brought this fragile house of cards under pressure.
The UK sailing club scene is in lockdown, with all sailing and racing stopped.
This has wiped-out the UK Open Meeting and Championship circuits for dozens of classes, and while it has hit the equipment manufacturers and suppliers, the competitors are amateur and not dependent on it for an income.
The second group, the ‘professional’ dinghy sailors, in the UK this is basically the RYA run British Sailing Team, who compete in a handful of World Cup Series events and championships for the ten Olympic dinghy classes.
They have also seen most events cancelled, but the UK competitor’s income is protected by the UK Sport funding scheme and not reliant on competing in events at this stage.
What is crucial for this ‘professional’ dinghy group is for Sailing to remain an Olympic sport, as there is no income from the individual events, and UK Sport only funds Olympic and Paralympic sports.
And as Paralympic sailing found after the 2016 Games, when Paralympic status was withdrawn, so was the UK Sport finance.
At present the Tokyo Games remain a possible event in July 2021, if a vaccine can be found, and Sailing is still set to be included in the Paris 2024 Games.
The final group on the big boat racing circuit, have seen the circuit collapse – as recently outlined by Andrew McIrvine, Secretary General of the International Maxi Association – with a lot of owners mothballing their boats, and the professional crews left without an income.
And if this were not bad enough, the two other major professional sailing events – the America’s Cup and SailGP – have also seen their programmes torn-up and are struggling to complete some sort of sensible season.
These two events are related but quite different concepts . . .
The original is the America’s Cup, the oldest sporting event in the world and the wannabe/spin-off is SailGP, a new international circuit attempting to provide a regular, media friendly, sail race circuit for professional sailors.
The America’s Cup, involving a relatively small number of competitors and like most big boat events under the patronage of billionaires with excess funds, has suffered a double hit.
The coronavirus restrictions took out the first two ACWS events in Europe and effected the teams’ boat building programmes, while the economic effect of the coronavirus pandemic is now reported to be affecting the business interests of the team backers.
It is a similar situation for the SailGP circuit teams, with only one of three events taking place to date and its 2020 season suspended through the end of June . . .
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With the reliance on crowd involvement and the necessary international travel both at a premium, it now seems likely that expansion plans for the SailGP circuit will be slower than anticipated, testing the generosity of billionaire event backer, Larry Ellison.
The present Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the heavy reliance on individual benefactors at the big-boat grouping.
And at the small boat grouping the failure to develop a valid, independent economic structure, and dependence on one, four yearly event, the Olympic Games.
With the Games now struggling to survive, the reliance on the IOC as the paymaster of last resort has been called into question, not least by the IOC itself which is finally realising that the music may be about to stop!
Sailing is not the only sport that has expanded its event circuits on a global basis . . . apparently with little concern for the cost to the individual, environmental considerations or a real sustainable demand.
But the era of ever cheaper international travel could be coming to an end and while the continuing death toll is shocking, the economic effect is only just starting.
Meanwhile sailing’s world governing body, World Sailing, is mired in a financial mess of its own making after years of inept decisions that have left the sport unprepared for the tough times ahead.