Many consider it the third-most lucrative sports event in the world behind World Cup and the Olympics. Last week a preliminary race drew thousands to Rhode Island to see the state-of-the-art vehicles, with high tech appliances, big name sponsors and unbelievably skilled crews duke it out for a nice prelim purse. Yet for most of North America the eyes were tuned to the middle weekend of Wimbledon, EURO2012, NASCAR, NBA free agency, major or minor league baseball or even a day at the beach or in the country. The event was a the Americas Cup World Series off the coast of Newport, Rhode island, the latest in a series of trials leading to the 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco. So with all the sponsors, the U.S. vs. other countries rivalry, the history of one of the world’s oldest sporting events, the big deal sponsors, the great stories, the technology, can America’s Cup find a way to the forefront of the American landscape before next year? Maybe, but it’s going to take some work.
First the positives. America’s Cup has done it before, with skippers like Dennis Connor and Ted Turner leading the quest to defend the honor not just of the race bit of the United States against the world. This time it is Team Oracle, led by billionaire Larry Ellison, who will lead the charge for the U.S. against its challengers in no more of an ideal setting than the waters around San Francisco. Ellison has invested millions into the race and its lead up, and some of the global brands with the deepest pockets, from Puma to red Bull to Louis Vuitton, are well invested in the race. Like any other elite sailing competition, millions have been invested in technology, not just on the boats but in the ways broadcasters can cover and fans can engage with the crew and all the goings-on during the race and the lead-ups. The competition has a country-vs.-country feel that embraces Patriotism, which is always a great plus, and it inspires a throwback to the long-gone days when sailing ruled the world, a sense of nostalgia that millions can relate to. Also sailing remains one of the elitist of the elite sports around the world, and the name “America’s Cup” has a huge built in brand recognition that even casual sports fans have a feel for. All that is good, as well as the timing of the race in an off-Olympic and World Cup year, which could give America’s Cup a runway to a global audience that is rare these days. The controlling body also has launched a huge green initiative around educating people the world over on cleaner oceans and conservation programs, and the elite crew members on the ships are some of the most diverse and entertaining characters in any sport anywhere.
Now the issues. The America’s Cup has no real flow. Challenges are set at random, so the next one could be next year or ten years from now. There has been little education for the casual sports fan as to what the Cup is, and although there is some embracing of social and digital media, the programs that are available still have not reached the masses. While there are amazing sponsor names, the programs that have been out forth thus far focus only on the regions where races are being held, and not with the masses. The stories of the racers and crew are string, but have not been communicated beyond those with interest in the race, and in North America, coverage of the sport is scant at best, especially on TV. Like soccer a decade ago, sailing is a global sport with no string consistent home in the U.S. Can, for at least a year, the sport find its sea legs in American culture? Maybe.
The good news is that the issues presented can be overcome with proper planning, seeding and brand activation. This is not a startup launch which people do not understand. It is an event with great history and one which has broken through before. It has a great technology play which can appeal to the education world, and its brands are not averse in any way in spending money to justify ROI. The races are also not tomorrow, they are in the fall of 2013, with some powerful events upcoming to help create an effective build.
It comes down to education and activation. Can America’s Cup take the local and international success it saw last weekend again and parlay that into North American success? They have the brand, the product and the technology to do so. That’s the hardest part. Will they? That all depends on leadership and vision. The opportunity is there for a great and every exciting product that can be experienced both in person and with traditional and social media. Will it happen? The ship has not yet sailed, but the time is ticking, even with a year still to go.
America’s Cup is definitely a property worth watching.