Monday, March 08, 2010

World Match Racing Tour - Sailor invitation policy

A mere month separates us from the start of the World Match Racing Tour (WMRT) and Valencia Sailing took the opportunity to talk with Craig Mitchell, Tour Director, on the organization's invitation policy for 2010. We discussed with Mitchell the criteria under which the Tour organizers pick the sailors that will participate in the world's premier match racing circuit.

The WMRT will consist of 10 events this year, six of which are in Europe (France, Germany, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and Sweden), one in Bermuda and three in Asia (Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia). With the exception of the Agro Gold Cup in Bermuda, a total of 12 teams race in each event. Out of those 12 teams, eight have their spots allocated through a process called the "Tour Cards", another two earn their place after winning qualifying events and the remaining two are invited by the local event organizers.

Adam Minoprio NZL), overall winner of the 2009 World Match Racing Tour

Tour Cards
A Tour Card basically guarantees invitations to take part in six of the first nine events, excluding the last one. There are a total of 9 Tour Cards, split into 3 sets of 3 cards each, as explained here below. Note: The number in brackets after the name of each sailor indicates his latest ISAF match racing ranking, taken on 12 Feb 2010.

First set of three cards
The top three teams from the previous year's championship have their spot guaranteed in this invitation process. For the overall winner and world match racing champion the card comes with no financial cost but the second and third ranked will have to bear a cost of US$ 5,000 and US$ 10,000 respectively, so, second and third place in the podium aren't just for bragging rights. Last year's top three were, respectively, Adam Minoprio (1), Torvar Mirsky (2) and Ben Ainslie (7).

Second set of three cards
In order to allocate the second set of three cards, the WMRT organization invites 20 teams to submit a sealed bid for them. Ten of them are the teams placed 4th to 13th in the previous year's Tour while the next ten are the highest-placed teams in the ISAF rankings that don't fall into the previous groups.

The criteria for awarding these cards are not purely financial. The highest bidder will not necessarily earn his spot in next year's Tour since the organization takes into consideration a wide range of criteria. They judge, along with sailing performance, how the team could help promote and grow the Tour, if they have sponsorship in place, what PR and promotion activity they will undertake or any America's Cup affiliation they might have.

As a result, this year they examined all those bids and the three sailors that came on top, according to the Tour's criteria, were Mathieu Richard (4), Björn Hansen (8) and Francesco Bruni (24).

Torvar Mirsky (AUS), 2nd-placed of the 2009 World Match Racing Tour

Third set of three cards
Finally, it's entirely up to the WMRT organization how to allocate the remaining three cards and it is primarily for teams that the organizers would like to have competing in the Tour. For example, a team that has been out of the match racing circuit for a year would fall out of the top 20, something that frequently happens when a top match racer has to focus exclusively on an America's Cup campaign or the Olympics. If the cards were allocated strictly on ranking a considerable number of world-class match racers would never have the opportunity to come back into the Tour.

For 2010 the three sailors that, according to Craig Mitchell, made the best case for a Tour card were Ian Williams (5), Peter Gilmour (11) and Bertrand Pacé (38). It was a very tough decision to make, given the great interest there is in racing in the WMRT, and some top sailors didn't make the cut.

This is a sensible policy and I don't think anyone would complain if Mitchell gave a card to Ed Baird, Dean Barker, Terry Hutchinson or Russell Coutts, ranked, respectively, 139, 235, 394 and 395. Or even to James Spithill, former world champion, that is not even ranked due to his absence from the match racing circuit for at least 2 years. In fact, Ben Ainslie missed out entirely the 2008 match racing season, won his third consecutive Olympic gold medal in Qingdao and then went on the finish 3rd overall in the 2009 WMRT, taking part in just 4 of the Tour's 9 events.

According to Mitchell, he's the person that takes the final decision on who gets a card for each season. Even though Peter Gilmour is a shareholder of the WMRT he doesn't have much say in the on the water aspects, according to Mitchell. In fact, the only conversation the two had on the subject of the Tour Card Holders was when Mitchell reminded Gilmour that he had to submit a formal bid if he didn't want to be left out.

Two Tour cards per country, starting in 2011
The WMRT wants to introduce a national restriction from next year, limiting to two the number of Tour card holders from the same country. It is certainly a tough balancing act for the Tour organizers and according to Mitchell in an ideal world you would have one team from each nation that holds a Tour card. Yet, this is not feasible and the Tour has to make compromises.

If one has a look at the latest ISAF match racing rankings, France is the country with the largest representation in the top 20 with no less than 5 sailors, with three of them in the top 6. It is no coincidence then that highest-ranked match racers that didn't make the cut in the card allocation process were French, namely Damien Iehl (3) and Sébastien Col (6).

The world's sailing powerhouse, New Zealand, had only one sailor in the top 20, Adam Minoprio (1) while the young up and coming Phil Robertson is 26th. Another country that could see itself affected could be Australia since 3 Aussies are in the top 20, Torvar Mirsky (2), Peter Gilmour (11) and Keith Swinton (18). Of course, as we said previously, we shouldn't forget the legends from those countries that are much lower in the rankings.

It is obvious that the French, Australian and New Zealanders would be the primary victims of that rule but we should always keep in mind that the "W" in WMRT stands for "World". It wouldn't make sense to have a world championship with a third of the participants coming from the same country. In addition, the aim of the Tour is to have as many countries taking part as possible and in 2009 there were just 5 nations in the top ten positions. If your aim is to promote the WMRT to countries where match racing in particular and sailing in general aren't popular, you need to include local athletes to create the necessary interest.

Yet Mitchell agrees they need to take a practical view and draw a line between Tour promotion and competition. As they try to expand in Asia with the inclusion of new and "virgin" sailing-wise venues it will certainly take years before competitive match racers come to the world stage from those countries. That's the reason local event organizers have two invitation cards that are mostly allocated to local talented sailors that would otherwise never make it to the Tour.

Ben Ainslie (GBR), 3rd-placed of the 2009 World Match Racing Tour

Young talent
The WMRT has now cemented its position in the world match racing hierarchy and without any doubt it's one step down from the America's Cup at the very top. Skippers on the World Match Racing Tour are among the most successful sailors in the world and among them they have dozens of America's Cup victories, world championships and Olympic medals.

As a result, the task of allocating Tour cards is easier in that aspect. Although Mitchell states his desire to nurture young talent through the Tour, which is Graded W – (World Championship), his main objective are the guys at the top. There is no fast track from the bottom to the top and young talented sailors that want to rub shoulders with the world's best match racers will have to prove themselves, mainly through the great number of Grade 1, 2 and 3 events around the world. Many of the lower graded also serve as Qualifying Events for the Tour, Mitchell said "so if a young talented sailor can win through to the big league and then continue winning the Tour event, they do get noticed!".

They have to progress through lesser events and then make it to the Tour, initially through the qualifying events. A very good example of such event is the Warren Jones International Youth Regatta in Perth. It literally is a "breeding ground" of future match racing champions and Adam Minoprio (1), Torvar Mirsky (2), Keith Swinton (18) and Phil Robertson (26) have all raced and won in the last 5 years. Still, it's nearly a 5-year path the young aspiring sailors have to follow in order to weave their way through to the top of the sport.

So, stay tuned right here on Valencia Sailing for a very exciting 2010 World Match Racing Tour.

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