Sir Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison saw a hole in the market.

Sailing had the America's Cup, Olympics, World Championship regattas and Ocean Race. What it didn't have was a fast-paced tournament style competition that travelled the world and ultimately crowned a champion at the end of the tour.

Now, after the inaugural season of SailGP, that view has been proven right.

The premise for the competition isn't overly difficult. In 2019, six teams competed in almost identical foiling catamarans in a series of two-day tournaments; with each day's racing taking place during a 90-minute offering picked up by 141 broadcast partners around the world.

Advertisement

Each event included six races, with the sailing fast and exciting, and at times saw the yachts surpass the 50-knot speed barrier in competition.

The format resonated well, with a TV audience of 256 million viewers and around 133,000 spectators viewing the racing live across all venues. Globally, 1.8 billion people connected with the competition, either by tuning in to the broadcast, watching live at the venue or connecting with it online. The events generated US$115 million (NZ$170 million) economic impact across the five host cities.

"The results we achieved with the fans in season one and the way they interacted with SailGP was definitely a win," Coutts told the Herald.

"Our format of rules, sanctioned by World Sailing, offer consistency from season to season: where there's a consistent championship and teams are able to significantly build brand equity over time.

SailGP involves fast-paced racing with plenty of action. Photo / Getty Images
SailGP involves fast-paced racing with plenty of action. Photo / Getty Images

"The other I think game-changing thing in terms of SailGP, and in some ways sailing, is we've finally arrived on a property that is compelling to watch and view in terms of a racing product."

This year, the competition will feature seven teams with entrants from Australia, the USA, Spain, Denmark, Great Britain, France, and Japan. The team from Great Britain will be headlined by the most decorated sailor in Olympic history and America's Cup veteran Sir Ben Ainslie, who will be competing in SailGP as well as preparing INEOS Team UK for their America's Cup challenge in 2021.

Coutts said he didn't believe Ainslie readying for the America's Cup would take any of the spotlight away from the SailGP team, which is also sponsored by INEOS.

"I don't think so. I think the reason they joined this, he's publically made it aware that he's got a long term view and so has (INEOS chief executive) Jim Ratcliffe, that's why they're coming in," Coutts explained.

Advertisement

"They see the advantages I think in having a regular season championship where they can compete on the world stage and race much more regularly as a team."

SailGP's second season gets underway in Sydney in late February, looking to capitalise and build on a successful debut.

The organisation had plenty of plans to roll out over the year, but Coutts said they would be paying close attention to the broadcast and delivering a product that suits the appetite of today's fans.

Sir Russell Coutts launched SailGP's inaugural season in 2019. Photo / Getty Images
Sir Russell Coutts launched SailGP's inaugural season in 2019. Photo / Getty Images

"Feedback from broadcasters was really, really positive; they liked the product," Coutts said. "We're enhancing it quite a bit this year, putting quite a lot of focus on our broadcast product and changing up a few things about it in terms of graphics display and analysis of racing.

"I think the recent developments in our analysis tools will be groundbreaking in terms of allowing non-sailors to really start to understand the sport and some of the reasons as to why some of the sailors and athletes perform better than others."

From the outset, SailGP had the funding to run for five seasons, at which point the hope was it would be self-sustaining. That goal was on track, with two of this year's teams being self-funded.

Coutts said the target was for all teams to have an owner come onboard, which would open more unique avenues for the competition to explore.

"Ultimately for this to work the teams need to be profitable," Coutts said. "We made no excuses on that. Any business or any sports entity that isn't profitable probably has a limited life span, so we've already achieved that with some of the teams and then obviously the goal is to have all of the teams ultimately making more money via sponsorships and revenue sources than they're spending and therefore the teams can survive personnel changes and changes of ownership. Essentially a team can be traded to a new owner as opposed to just disappearing if their owner loses interest or passes away or whatever the situation is.

"It's pretty hard to sell someone a proposition that's a loss making venture as opposed to something that's making money."

While the organisation has lofty long-term goals, for this year a season of close racing would be ideal.

In 2019, the teams from Australia and Japan hit the ground running to make it largely a two-horse race. However, by the end of the year every team had become comfortable in the vessels and each had at least one race win to their names.

"That was a fantastic achievement for season one, but for season two we'll be looking to close those gaps even more and the desire in the future would be when you watch a SailGP race, you might have your favourites but you're really just sitting there not knowing who is going ot win that race on that particular day.

"That would be the ultimate position."

SailGP 2020 series dates

Sydney - February 28-29

San Francisco - May 4-5

New York - June 14-15

Cowes - August 16-17

All dates in NZ time.