Valencia Sailing talks to Jim O’Toole, CEO of the World Match Racing Tour,
We caught up with Jim O’Toole, the new CEO of the World Match Racing Tour, and talked about the present and future of the world’s premiere match racing circuit. O’Toole brings more than 20 years of experience in sports marketing and sponsorship, having worked with some of the world’s top teams and brands.
Valencia Sailing: Let’s start with some background information on you. What have you been involved with before becoming the new CEO of the World Match Racing Tour?
Jim O’Toole: Since January 2009 I have been running my own sports consultancy company, called Armstrong Kennedy Consulting. It was a company that provided consultancy services to clients in the world of sports that required an external consultant.S Some of the biggest clients I worked with were the FA Premier League and MoneyGram, the money transfer company. Moneygram hired me to work around the Football World Cup and Cricket World Cup and eventually I recommended they focused their efforts on the Cricket World Cup that took place in the Caribbean. I did some project management, negotiated on their behalf the deal with the ICC (International Cricket Council) and then worked with their regional and global teams in order to activate it internally.
Prior to that, I was CEO of the Powerboat P1 World Championship which is the world championship of monohull powerboats and consists of two classes, the production class and the prototype class. It was a very exciting job and my first experience in running a top sports series. Before that, I ran a sports marketing agency that was part of the WPP group. I ran campaigns for people like Vodafone and their sponsorship with Ferrari when they entered the F1 world in 2002. I represented Manchester United as their sponsorship consultant for 6 years with the last two years focusing on managing the AIG sponsorship. In general, I have worked in host of sponsorship projects involving clients ranging from the World Rugby Cup to major English football clubs but I have also done music sponsorship for whiskey brands such as Teacher’s and Ballantine’s.
Valencia Sailing: What made you become interested in the WMRT? Are you a sailor yourself?
Jim O’Toole: No, I’m not a sailor, absolutely not. I think that’s what I can bring to the Tour because it was originally run by sailors for sailors. This has its obvious strengths but it can easily become inward looking if everybody is a sailor. I have never sailed in my life and I can thus bring an objective sports marketing perspective because the principles of running a series or looking for a commercial partner are exactly the same, be it rugby, cricket, football or sailing. It’s about creating a value proposition for your sponsors and venues in order for them to invest money in your series.
Valencia Sailing: Don’t you feel you have a disadvantage not being a sailor yourself? It is after all a technically complicated sport with complicated rules.
Jim O’Toole: No, I don’t think there is any disadvantage in my not being a sailor. First of all, there is a set of core principles involved when you come into a new sport. You need to understand the rules, the structure of the sport and yes, sailing is very complicated when compared to some other sports but that’s part of its appeal. When you watch a match race the outcome is completely unpredictable and can change in a matter of seconds. When I was in Marstrandfor the Match Cup Sweden, in one of the races with just a few dozen meters to the finish line, the trailing boat had a penalty and within 6-7 seconds it crossed the line ahead after forcing two penalties on their opponent. That point really got my attention, the unpredictability.
One of the great things in sailing is that it already has a strong sporting and technical credibility and we don’t need to worry about that too much. ISAF establishes the rules and we can focus on creating a racing environment that is great for the sailors but also for our sponsors, guests and spectators ashore. I think that the objectivity of somebody new makes you see things that someone embedded into the sport can’t see.
Valencia Sailing: What are your top priorities right now, two months into the new job?
Jim O’Toole: I have three priorities. First of all is the buildup to the Qingdao Match Cup in China. It is a big development for us and we are very excited about China for a number of reasons. China is a major, strategic global force and Qingdao is a fantastic venue. Racing will take place right in front of the city center, a mere 15-20 meters from the spectators. The actual course will be different from the Olympics and the prevailing winds in October will provide some really exciting racing.
The second priority is the development of new venues. We have been approached by a number of cities around the world to host events. We have a very clear strategic direction in that. Our first aim is the Americas, we would like to have venues in the Pacific region we would look at other Asian venues and we would also consider additional European venues. Venue development is crucial to our growth and we anticipate having 15 events by 2013; we want to add more venues.
Last but certainly not least, the third priority is the development of the commercial platform to bring in global sponsors, rather than sponsors for the specific events. We have good title sponsors for a number of the events at the moment, for example the Stena Group in Sweden that has done a very good job. As you know, we haven’t had a title sponsor since Swedish Match and that is my main commercial priority right now, to find a title sponsor,
I’m only 6 weeks now in my new position but I’m very excited about the commercial opportunities and prospects because we have a strong calendar, and a robust sporting proposition, we are very clear about the audiences we deliver and we are just now developing a new collection of commercial sponsorship packages for the next season.
Valencia Sailing: As you stated, you have a long experience in commercial sponsorship in football. How much more difficult is trying to “sell” sailing?
Jim O’Toole: Obviously, sailing is different from football but the secret lies in knowing your audience, You have to know in great detail the makeup of your audience or better said your audiences. I don’t think there is just one single specific audience in sailing but a handful of sub groups.
For example, you have your hardcore sailing fans that want to know all the technical details of the sailing maneuvers and strategies in a race.
There is another group that follows the heroes and this is something we will be working on. We will be definitely developing a “hero” strategy because we have a number of strong personalities and attractive characters on the Tour. They can play part in the overall development of our brand because they are interesting and attractive personalities. I can’t point out anyone in particular but all of our card holders and a number of wild card qualifiers are true personalities that we need to develop as part of the overall WMRT brand.
You also have another audience, made up of the people that just follow the races. It’s a sports proposition; it’s the blue team against the yellow team and they are just interested in knowing how they did. So, there are a number of subsections in the audience.
We need to realize that we are not the mass market of football or Formula 1 but we have a very strong demographic that, I think, would be compelling for partners and sponsors. The message we have to convey is that when they are putting their money into sailing they know what they are getting.
Jim O'Toole, CEO of the World Match Racing Tour. Photo copyright Ian Roman / World Match Racing Tour
Valencia Sailing: Within the sport of sailing, the WMRT has been positioned as the premiere match racing circuit, just one level below the America’s Cup. It has also been the breeding ground for young talent that then advance to the Cup but also used by established Cup skippers that want to hone their match racing skills. There is talk of major changes in the current edition of the Cup, with even the possibility of radically changing the type of yachts used. To what extent do you think any eventual change might affect the Tour?
Jim O’Toole: First of all, let me say that we are acutely aware of our role and position in the world of sailing. We know exactly where we sit and we are very comfortable in our skins. The way I see it is that the world of sailing is like a three-dimensional pyramid where an individual or team that races with us will also race in another two or three series or even four. Take Team Origin for example. The reason I feel comfortable is that I know that Team Origin are in the WMRT in order to get the match racing experience they need in the America’s Cup campaign.
We also know that the America’s Cup is a sporting commercial giant, not solely in the sailing world but in the global sporting stage. We know that and we take that into account in our strategic thinking. It is a huge event and there is no point in us trying to ignore the importance of our relationship with it. That’s the first point.
The second point is that because of the way the America’s Cup defender decides the rules, sets the dates and location of the event it’s utterly clear that we have to take it into consideration and factor it into our plans for the next two years.
Valencia Sailing: In the case the defender opts for a multihull in the next America’s Cup do you fear that this could make the WMRT less relevant or even irrelevant?
Jim O’Toole: No, I don’t think so. I think that the basic principles of one-on-one racing, the cornerstone of the Tour, will always be relevant. You watched the 1851 Cup in Cowes a couple of weeks ago. I’m sure that the WMRT experience Ben Ainslie, Iain Percy and other members of the Team Origin crew had contributed to some degree in their wins over BMW Oracle
Valencia Sailing: Sure, but it was on traditional America’s Cup monohull boats. What if the new boat is a multihull? Will the young talents like Adam Minoprio or Torvar Mirsky still see the need to excel in the Tour in order to advance and will Ben Ainslie still see a value in competing?
Jim O’Toole: I understand your point but it’s the speculation game that everyone in this sport is playing at the moment . We are very confident that our place in the sailing universe will remain whatever decision the defender might take. Let’s wait until the end of September when they take the final decision and we’ll react to it. I remain convinced and confident that we’ll still be extremely relevant in the future.
Valencia Sailing: As far as the sailors are concerned how do you want to strategically position the WMRT? Is it the springboard of the young talents or the battleground of the world’s top match racers?
Jim O’Toole: It’s a combination. I wasn’t part of the Tour when the card holder policy was established but I understand that the demand for those cards was significant and there were a number of established and emerging skippers and teams that were very disappointed they didn’t get a Tour card. In addition, during the 6 weeks I’m in my position I’ve had conversations with very established operations requesting a Tour card for 2011. I’m very confident that what we offer to teams, whether they are developing in match racing or established Cup campaigns, is extremely compelling.
Valencia Sailing: Regarding the future of the Tour you stated you wanted to increase the number of events to 15 by 2013. The Tour currently consists of ten events per year. Do you feel this is not enough?
Jim O’Toole: I think that 10 is a very solid base and we have a very solid relationship with all the events but we need to grow. I think that 15 annual events within the next 2-3 years is a realistic, achievable and necessary priority as we build our brand and business and consolidate our position in the sailing universe as one of the global top three events. It is an achievable and reasonable goal.
Valencia Sailing: The America’s Cup organizers plan to hold 6 to 8 events per year starting 2011. Do you think there is enough calendar space for 15 WMRT events, if you also take into consideration the other top sailing circuits?
Jim O’Toole: Yes, I feel confident there is space for 15 events. Based on the demand there is for qualifier and wild card races for our existing events, I’m confident there’s enough capacity to meet those events.