Meet the Sailor Who Thinks His Sport Is the Next Formula 1

8 minute read

First, Formula 1 got hot in the United States and beyond, thanks in large part to a Netflix series, Drive to Survive, that showcased the circuit’s personalities, rivalries, and some really fast cars. Then there’s the pickleball craze, which started during the pandemic and hasn’t lost much momentum.

What niche sport will get hot next?

Russell Coutts, the CEO of the upstart professional racing organization SailGP, is making his case for sailing, that genteel elitist country club pastime which is indeed gaining some momentum in the U.S. Coutts, the five-time America’s Cup winner, 1984 Olympic gold medalist and two-time world sailor of the year, co-founded SailGP in 2018, along with Oracle founder and chairman Larry Ellison. Currently in its fourth season, SailGP features teams representing 10 different countries, including the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain, and is holding 13 events across the globe. The next races take place in Sydney Harbour, on Feb. 24 to 25; the season concludes with events in New York and San Francisco in June and July, respectively.

According to SailGP, the worldwide broadcast audience per event through the first half of this season is up nearly 24% over season three, reaching 13.6 million. The league’s social following has grown by 56%, and in November of 2023, 1.784 million viewers tuned into the CBS broadcast of a race in Spain, a SailGP record for an American audience. That was the most-watched sailing race in the U.S. since 1992. It outrated the Formula 1 race that day, from Brazil, which drew some 909,000 viewers on ESPN2. That month, a group of investors led by Avenue Capital Group CEO Marc Lasry, former owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, purchased SailGP’s U.S. team in the largest transaction in league history. The group also includes actress and producer Issa Rae, world champion heavyweight boxer Deontay Wilder, and ex U.S. soccer player Jozy Altidore.

Coutts met with TIME in New York City in mid-January to discuss the trajectory of SailGP, the circuit’s high-tech catamarans and the challenges facing the sport.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

For those who are not familiar, what is SailGP?

The sport of sailing did not have a regular annual championship that was professionally televised and marketed before SailGP. We have fast, hydrofoiling boats. Other people have referred to it as a Formula -style championship on water. The difference between what we are doing and what other sports, like motor sports, are doing is our boats are identical. Even though they are evolving constantly and we’re introducing new tech, other teams get to access that new technology together. We’re a centrally managed organization. The teams actually lease the assets from us, so that ensures that they really are identical. This is really about who the best athletes are, rather than who has the best resources.

They certainly don’t look like how you’d picture traditional sailboats.

When you look into the cockpit of one of these boats, it is like looking into an aircraft. You’ve got all the control panels. It looks like a Formula 1 steering wheel. You’ve got various control switches on the steering wheel. If there was anything like medium wind and upwards, a club sailor would probably hurt himself.

What are some of the key metrics that seem to show that SailGP is on the right path?

We started out with six teams in year one. Now we’ve got 10. All six of those teams were funded by the league. Now, five of the 10 teams are funded by investors who bought rights to those teams. And we’re closing in on two more sales now. So seven of the 10 will be funded from the outside. And we’re going to add two more teams in season five.

We started out with five events in season one. Now we’ve got 13. We want to try to get to 20-plus events a season. We want to get to the stage where there are events every two weeks or so. That’s roughly what Formula 1 has.

Why do you have faith that SailGP can become the next Formula 1?

Audience growth is the first thing. Second, the commercial model is strong. We started selling teams between $5 million and $10 million. Now you can’t buy a team without $35 million. We know we’ve got demand for teams. We can’t build boats fast enough. We didn’t think we’d be in this position before the end of season five. So the fact that we’re already in that position is pretty encouraging.

Similarly, with venues, in season one didn’t charge anything. We basically pleaded with venues to let us host a race. Whereas now, there is competition. We accept venue fees from most venues. That’s becoming quite a big component of our commercial model.

With [sponsor] Rolex, we did a five-year agreement in our first year. They came back to us, between seasons two and three, with a new proposal, extending the partnership out 10 years. The value is easily measurable. The data doesn’t lie. Our partners see that data. That is why we have great confidence.

Do you think the “Drive to Survive” effect has carried over to SailGP, where more people are interested in watching any kind of racing?

We think somewhere between 30% and 40% of our audience has some connection with sailing. Most of them are racing fans or general sports fans. They also like personalities. And we haven’t really developed that side of it yet. We do our own sort of little YouTube video series, which had about 2.1 million viewership last season. That's sort of a behind-the-scenes docuseries. But now we've got real interest from major players to do a full on documentary. I think that’s how we take our personalities to the next level.

Is there anyone you have now who could be a standout in such a series?

We’ve got Phil Robertson. [who races for the Canada SailGP team]. Some high-profile people in our organization have described him as the Mad Max of SailGP. You don’t know what the hell is going to happen. There’s moments of brilliance. And moments of, not so brilliant.

Is Robertson sort of a Nick Kyrgios-type?

That might be exaggerating, but it’s definitely towards that. He’s always fighting with the umpires and arguing with other competitors, which is gold dust for us.

Sorry to introduce some skepticism to the Formula 1 comparison, but why would a fan prefer watching SailGP catamarans topping out at speeds of 60 miles per hour on water, when F1 cars exceed 200 miles per hour?

It’s the same people watching. The learning we’re having is that as long as it’s a good race, they will watch. The Aussies have won the first three championships by skill. Now, only two teams have yet to win an event. All teams except one, Germany, have won a race. We need that to make those teams commercially viable.

Is there anything you learned from your career as a skipper that you’ve brought to running SailGP?

Anyone who gets to the top of their sport, you don’t get there with talent alone. I got there by outworking the opposition. We’re going to be better just by doing more. Doing more, but doing it smarter. So that work ethic has really helped me in my business career.

When I was in the early days of working with Larry Ellison, I actually asked him one time, “what's the secret to success in the business?” He started by giving a long-winded answer and I think he saw my eyes glaze over. I probably wasn’t following as closely as I should have. And he actually stopped and said, “you know what the most important thing is? Not giving up.” He’s right. In the face of so many challenges, particularly with new staff, things aren't going to go right. And it's a matter of, how are you adapting to it?

Sailing has a reputation as an elite, white sport.

Absolutely. We don’t shy away from that. We say that’s a problem. And we want to change it.

Having high-profile Black investors, like Issa Rae, can help change that perception. How else do you build diversity?

We go to a place like the Middle East, which some people say conflicts with your environmental objectives. I disagree. I absolutely disagree with that approach. To me, it’s an exciting new territory where hopefully we can add some value. Particularly with the younger generation. I'm really excited about those sorts of places. We shouldn't be close-minded. We should be connecting with people. That makes us much more likely to understand each other.

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