Friday, April 23, 2010

Match Race France, the Mediterranean's top match racing event

The 2010 World Match Racing Tour (WMRT) started with a big upset as the world's number one and two match racers didn't even make it to the semifinals and Match Race France, the season's curtain raiser for the second consecutive year, and only WMRT event in France and the entire Mediterranean, was a success on and off the water. Valencia Sailing talked to Dimitri Deruelle, event director, about the present and future of the regatta.

This was the 8th edition of France's flagship match racing event and is organized by YCPR (Yachting Club de la Pointe Rouge), Marseille's biggest yacht club, with more than 1,200 members and a 80-year history. It started its life in 2003 as a Grade 2 regatta called Marseille International Match Race and changed its name into Match Race France this year. Having entered the World Match Racing Tour in 2009, the organizers sought a more international name for their event.

Nevertheless, the changes carried out this year were much more than a purely cosmetic name change. According to Deruelle, the Marseille public is a great fan of football and it is a tough job trying to lure them into sailing in general and match racing in particular. Nevertheless, the decision to move the races much closer to the city and in an area which traditionally has lots of foot traffic during the weekend proved highly successful. If you want the general public to approach the sport you have to reach to them rather than expect them to come to the yacht club, as Deruelle states. It would be ludicrous to expect a great affluence of spectators in the yacht club, apart from the limited sailing enthusiasts that in any case would watch the event.

Local crowds push to have an autograph from Ben Ainslie and Mathieu Richard. Marseille, 11 April 2010. Photo copyright Gilles Martin-Raget / World Match Racing Tour

The radical shift in strategy didn't solely consist on moving the venue in a popular area of the city. First of all, the race area was brought as close to the beach as possible, with the yachts at times a mere 5 meters away from the shore. Ironically, this is also one of the main reasons it would be practically impossible to move the event's date to summertime since the area is a very popular bathing spot and holding races in such a short distance from the beach would mean closing it to the general public, something the city would never agree to.

Not only could locals almost touch the competing yachts, for the first time ever there was a giant screen with live images from the races, but also, most importantly, live commentary from a professional sailor that talked about the technical aspects while explaining the race for the non-sailing spectators. In addition, in the general public area there was a number of activities related to sailing while finally, after the end of every day's races, the public had the opportunity to meet the skippers, talk to them and have them sign autographs. The local organizers embraced the vision of the new WMRT ownership and successfully implemented it.

A major effort was also done in communication with billboards placed throughout the city. The event's poster was on display in the main streets of Marseille, the airport, the train station as well as the motorway exits. According to Deruelle, this has been a very significant improvement from the previous years in a move to bring the event much closer to the public.

The final result was very positive. As Deruelle puts it, "there is simply no comparison" between the numbers of public in this edition with the ones from the previous years. While in the past only sailors and sailing fans went to the YCPR to watch the races, this year "Mr & Mrs Everybody" were there to watch Mathieu Richard win the trophy. Obviously, this was no football game and the thousands of spectators weren't chanting or getting crazy when Minoprio tacked ahead of Gilmour but for Deruelle this is part of the process. For him the goal is to have the general public repeat next year, to have them set Match Race France in their calendars and say "it was an interesting event, let's come back next year and watch it".

Without any doubt, the fact that five of the twelve skippers as well as the winner were French helped create more interest in the local public but for Deruelle the event's success goes beyond the nationality factor. For example a novelty that seemed to catch on with the local crowds was the prize-giving ceremony. Instead of setting a fixed time for it, the moment the winner crossed the finish line, the four finalist crews were rushed to the podium, just like in Formula 1.

The best seats in the house were actually on the beach. What other sailing event can offer that? Marseille, 11 April 2010. Photo copyright Brendon O'Hagan / World Match Racing Tour

The YCPR has found a very good and valuable ally in the city of Marseille as it provides approximately two thirds of the budget with the remaining third coming from private sponsors. This is certainly an area that YCPR will need to work on in order to further promote and improve Match Race France. Since a few years now the French city has been actively promoting itself in the sailing scene by sponsoring the organization of major international events. In fact, Deruelle thinks that one of his event's main assetsis that it is the only WMRT taking place in a big city (2nd biggest overall and biggest coastal city in France).

Deruelle doesn't see the other events as a threat but rather as complimentary. The big-boat races might be attractive onshore because the moored yachts are beautiful but it is impossible for the general public to watch the races from the shore. On the other hand, especially this year, the Match Race France might be using the much smaller J80's but the races take place right in front of the spectator eyes. The date of Match Race France plays to its advantage, according to Deruelle, since it is the opening event of the World Match Racing Tour and probably the most anticipated, so it gets proportionally more publicity.

New WMRT management
When asked about the new WMRT management, one of the things Deruelle appreciated was Patrick Lim's idea to get all the event organizers together in December 2009 so that they could exchange their ideas and present the way they organize their events. It was a first, never done before and it proved to be a great learning opportunity. Instead of each organizer being isolated from the rest, the meeting allowed Deruelle to see the different event management styles and adopt the best ideas in Match Race France.

Another aspect of Patrick Lim's management that Deruelle finds very positive is his hands-on approach with the events. In fact, Lim visited Marseille three weeks prior to this year's event and held intensive talks with the YCPR President and the event management. According to Deruelle, the meetings were "very positive" and the two parties agreed on the main issues.

Deruelle is confident that the combination of his event's irrefutable sport qualities (key location, excellent wind conditions) and the synergies achieved through the WMRT will guarantee a bright future for Match Race France.

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At 11:29 PM, Anonymous Tammara said...

The beach scene photo with the boats is awesome! Although I wasn't there, I would have to agree with you by looking at the photo that the best seats in the house were from the beach!


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