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Forget Versus and ESPN: The Future of Broadcast Sailing Is Online

July 1, 2010

(Cross-posted from The Wetass Chronicles on Sailing World)

I don’t usually pay much attention to the sailing world’s endless navel-gazing about how to make sailing more attractive to a wider audience (“What we really need is yachts that sail at 90 knots and blow up when they cross the finish line!”), or how to Save Sailing.  I don’t really give a damn about trying to appeal to disinterested, video-obsessed teens or NASCAR motorheads, particularly if it means turning the sport inside out or groveling before the Great Gods of TV. I love to sail. I know lots of other people who love to sail (including kids). So we sail. And I feel pretty confident that sailing’s essence—teamwork, the outdoors, mastering wind and weather—is appealing enough to keep a sufficient number of people coming out on the water, so I can sail with them and against them.

But I do care about my options, and the quality, when it comes to following and viewing sailing—from the America’s Cup to the Moth World Championships, say—that I myself am not lucky enough, or good enough, to be doing. And despite all the pessimism about sailing’s future that somehow manages to penetrate my cocoon of indifference, I am quite certain that we are in fact on the cusp of a Golden Age of Viewing.

It starts with abandoning the idea that sailing will ever really work on TV (at least in America). The weather is too unpredictable, and racing is simply too complex for the average viewer. Listening to television dumb it down for a mass audience often has me whimpering with pain. We are a complicated, niche sport. Get over it. The BASE jumpers don’t whine about whether they are a television sport. They just go out and make incredible videos.

Instead, embrace the internet. It started with On The Water Anarchy, trying to bring live racing action to the rest of the cubicle-bound sailing world, with humor and candor. But now you’ve also got Sail.Tv and SailGroove. Virtual Eye adds yet another interesting dimension.

In March it all came together for me with the Louis Vuitton Trophy’s Auckland series. The matches were broadcast live online, so if you were someone who absolutely had to watch while it was happening, you could get up at 5 in the morning and sit with a laptop and a cup of coffee. And if you didn’t care when you watched the match, or if the wind was not cooperating, you could go back later and watch the WHOLE DAMN THING ON REPLAY. Let me emphasize: The entire race. When you wanted. On your laptop.

This is why the internet and sailing are so perfectly matched. TV cannot abide delay or schedule changes. The internet and its audience couldn’t care less. The only people who end up sitting around are the sailors.

Then there was the commentary, which came from some utopian parallel dimension. Martin Tasker and Peter Lester had an audience that knows the game and knows the rules (who else would watch sailing online?). They called the races without spending a single second explaining what an assymetrical is, or the difference between port and starboard. They invited world-class sailors into the booth with them to add even more detail and understanding. They had camera feeds from the boats, which conveyed the incredible intensity of close match racing. And they had access to onboard microphones, which let the viewer occasionally drop onboard for an intense tactical discussion. I put away the gun that I usually keep nearby, in case I have to put myself out of my misery when watching sailing on cable.

In fact, I never watched so much sailing, so happily, in my life, and I was pulled deep into the regatta. I don’t know what it took to broadcast the event online that way (apparently whatever it was did not come together for the recent regatta at La Maddalena; no full replays, only highlights (and live broadcasting for the final rounds). Arrgh!). But LV Auckland is what I want (can’t find the full replays, but this highlight vid will give you a taste of what is possible). A few more cameras onboard, maybe. A few more microphones on the afterguard, perhaps, to catch all the tactical nuance and salty language. But I have seen the future of broadcast sailing. It is online, and it is beautiful.

So, umm, Russell? Larry? Are you listening? Send the ESPN and Versus suits packing. Don’t try to reinvent sailing for TV. You’ll ruin it. Instead, reinvent it for a wired, live-streaming world and give us the America’s Cup up close and online. That’s all I ask. Sailors everywhere will thank you. As for the rest of the world: Who cares?

Here’s what it the future looks like to me:

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