Monday, November 15, 2010

Jim O'Toole, CEO of World Match Racing Tour, talks to Valencia Sailing

One month ago, the World Match Racing Tour held a press conference in London where they made a number of announcements concerning the future of the world's premiere professional sailing circuit that set the basic strategy for the ISAF World Match Racing Championship. Valencia Sailing talked to Jim O'Toole, CEO of the WMRT, about the main points of the Tour's future.

According to O'Toole, the strategy will focus on ensuring the tour continues to provide close combative head-to-head racing on monohull yachts. The WMRT will be doubling the tour's bonus prize pool to US$ 500,000 meaning sailors will compete for a total prize fund in excess of US$ 1,750,000 in 2011.

Finally, WMRT has launched a new host city bidding process, which will add six new venues by 2013. To complement the addition of new cities and to ensure the Tour embraces developing technology, submissions will be invited from international designers and boat builders to create boats for the new events joining the tour.

Valencia Sailing: The America's Cup, considered to be the pinnacle event of our sport, moved from monohulls to multihulls. The World Match Racing Tour decided not to follow suit and remain in monohulls. Why?
Jim O'Toole: I think the expression you just used, "the pinnacle of our sport", is an important one because the America's Cup moved from the pinnacle of our discipline, which is match racing, to another space, which is catamarans. The history of this discipline has been in monohulls and historically, the America's Cup has been raced in monohulls and therefore sat at the very pinnacle of our sport. We believe that the move to catamarans for AC34 and potentially the next couple of Cups positions them in a different place. They are seeking to support this new space with a program of regattas that feature smaller catamarans. BMW Oracle clearly believe it's about fast boats as opposed to what is the history of our discipline, that is close, one-on-one, tactics-based racing.

Valencia Sailing: Their argument is that those boats will also be able to provide the kind of racing you mention.
Jim O'Toole: I know it's their argument but we disagree with it. All our stakeholders, our teams, our media, our promoters, our fans, told us, during the consultations that we did with them, that it would be very difficult for them to recreate with big fast catamarans the one-on-one, close-combat match racing that we offer. Without any doubt, the AC45's and AC72's will be amongst the fastest sailing yachts in the planet but they run the risk of becoming a drag race. Two boats setting off, very, very fast, in opposite directions.

Valencia Sailing: An important aspect of your decision to continue racing on monohulls is the new yacht you have announced. Can you give more details on that issue?
Jim O'Toole: Let me explain the rationale first. Our entire business and racing models are based upon the local promoters providing identical boats in which our skippers and our teams can have a test of their sailing abilities, team work, rules knowledge, all the elements that make a match race. We believe that the optimum size for those boats is between 42 and 48 feet.

Where did that come from? When we decided to increase the size of the Tour from 9 to 15 events by the start of 2013 we realized that a key element for the new venues is the equipment they will use. Rather than accept bids from those cities which have adequate equipment we decided that one of the criteria was that we would like to have the best equipment for match racing. Out of that came the decision to encourage those new venues to use new boats that have been designed according to a specific brief, which we are finalizing now and will be issuing in the month of November.

Let's suppose your represent Valencia and you bid to host an event, we develop a proposal together and it looks like you are going to be an acceptable venue. The best venues are those that invest in yachts and use them not only for WMRT events but also other regattas and qualifying events throughout the year. In our case, we will present you with a list of acceptable and approved designs that have come out of the process we are running with some of the world's top designers and builders. As a result, you will have a list of a number of approved designers and builders that will provide you with the boats you will use in your match race event.

Valencia Sailing: Are they going to be one-design boats?
Jim O'Toole: No, we could have two, five or six designs. We first issue a general specification for boats that will meet the criteria. The boat designers will look at the specifications, design a boat that meets them, submit the designs and if approved, you as Valencia decide what designer you want to go with. If there are existing yachts that fall within the size range and meet the criteria then the venues can absolutely use them.

Peter Gilmour presents the World Match Racing Strategy for the future.

Valencia Sailing: Isn't this a potential problem or risk though? You seem to oblige the potential new venues to use a boat that, probably, doesn't currently exist. As a result, they will have to choose a designer, commission a new yacht and build it from scratch.
Jim O'Toole: Yes, if they are serious about staging a WMRT event they will go with the right equipment. It doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be more expensive than older models and when we issue the brief, you will see it because it will be public, there might be a designer that already has the right design. It could be an existing design or an existing yacht already in production but we aren't trying to fit it into a brand or a specific design.

Valencia Sailing: Who is preparing the design brief with the specifications for the yachts?
Jim O'Toole: The process is being led by Craig Mitchell, our Tour Director, with input from Terry Newby, our venue consultant from Regatta International who has a lot of experience in that field. What we are trying to do is avoid having boats that are too small for the venues that stage the events. The reason we will ultimately end up with more than one design is that one boat that works well in a strong-wind venue is not ideal for another venue with lighter winds. We want to offer the venues flexibility so that they can choose and purchase boats that are right for them.

Valencia Sailing: What about the current 9 venues? Do they also have to switch to the new designs or will they keep their existing yachts?
Jim O'Toole: The existing events will keep their current equipment unless they wish to change or have plans to do so. The new designs are specifically targeted at the new venues but if an existing event likes the new designs, they can obviously adopt them.

Valencia Sailing: What feedback did you have from the current events about the new yachts? For some of them it means moving to a bigger boat. Are they supportive of that?
Jim O'Toole: Yes, they understand it completely because they know what the challenges are of getting the right equipment. Some of them own their equipment while others don't. They understand it very well and in addition we haven't insisted on them changing their equipment.

Valencia Sailing: The proposed yachts will probably have a crew of 5 or 6 sailors. Won't that make it more complicated for talented, aspiring teams to find the right crew?
Jim O'Toole: No, I don't think so. Most of them already have a crew of five and part of the design specs will be for the boats to be equally competitive with either 5 or 6.

Valencia Sailing: What media advances will you incorporate into the new yachts, compared to the existing ones?
Jim O'Toole: The goal is to get to a much more technology-based proposition where we can share more information, more communication from the boats to the shore. In the press conference we talked about things like heart monitors on the skippers that will try to capture the basic element of this discipline, which is the tension and anxiety that goes into match racing. That is the sort of information that could be incorporated into the commentary, the television coverage and our website where you could sense the drama online in real time.

Other data such as boat speed, the distance between the boats and the marks timing to the start of the race. That's all the kind of information you would love to have on a pit wall if the pit wall existed in match racing and all the information you like your TV viewers to have.

Valencia Sailing: Let's move to another major issue of the presentation. You announced you started a bidding process for the prospective venues wishing to stage a WMRT event. In what aspect is that different from what was taking place so far?
Jim O'Toole: In the past, the process was very simple. It was a selling exercise, so we would basically go to the market trying to sell events to the potential venues. It was a push exercise where we were targeting potential cities. From now on it will be the other way round, it will be a pull exercise where we are inviting cities to bid, listening to their proposal as to why we should stage an event in their city.

Valencia Sailing: Why should cities come to you and "sell" themselves? Have you had any approaches since the process started?
Jim O'Toole: The process started on the 23rd of October and in less than three weeks we had more new applications than we had existing contacts. We now have more fresh, competitive applications that have come from nowhere than people engaged with us in our database in the last few years. We are very positively, pleasantly surprised from the immediate response that came from all 5 continents.

Valencia Sailing: What safeguards do you now have in place in order to avoid issues such as Vietnam and Qingdao withdrawing after you had announced them as venues?
Jim O'Toole: It's very simple. We will be much more rigorous in the organizational, logistical and sporting criteria to make sure that the potential city has the ability to organize a race. It's simple things. It has to be a city with good winds. They must guarantee they have the support of their regional and national governments. They must guarantee they have the support of a local yacht club or marina that will support them and us with the logistical requirements of a sailing event. They must prove they have organized other events or at least that they can make things happen.

The final thing is that they must prove they have the adequate financial resources to host the event. There is no point being in a city with plenty of money but unable to organize an event!! They have to prove their bid is superior to the competing ones in terms of infrastructure, organization, logistics, promotion and marketing as well. They have to tick all the boxes, not just the one that says "money". As a business, we learned a lot form the Qingdao experience. Vietnam hasn't disappeared and discussions are ongoing with the Sports Ministry.

Valencia Sailing: What is the geographical spread of the bids you received?
Jim O'Toole: They are from all over the world, from all continents.

Valencia Sailing: Is that going to materialize into new events next year? How many do you have scheduled for 2011?
Jim O'Toole: As we sit here today, it will be 9 events. One of the lessons we learned in Qingdao is that rather than rush we have to get it right. We are deep in discussion with a couple of new venues that want to host an event in 2011 and they are very keen to make that happen. To come back to your initial question, we will not be rushing any of those until they are absolutely ready.

Valencia Sailing: Last but certainly not least, let's talk about the sailors. Given your decision to continue racing on monohulls do you fear losing the world's top sailors to the catamarans or missing the future ambitious talents that will skip the Tour altogether?
Jim O'Toole: Let me ask you a question. How many teams will there be in this Cup? Let's suppose they get the 8 teams they are aiming for. That means 8 skippers and, at most, another 8 B-boat skippers, since some teams could only have one yacht. So, at most you will have 16 AC skippers.

Our research has shown that there is a group of sailors in certain age brackets that will be disenfranchised by the way BOR is doing it. There is an entire generation that is too old to be seen as youth for the AC45's but at the same time too young to be AC skipper material. This entire generation will miss the America's Cup and I think we have a compelling proposition why they should be sailing with us.

Valencia Sailing: Do you expect major names to drop out of the Tour in 2011? One name that comes in my mind could be Bertrand Pacé that has publicly stated his aim to lead a potential America's Cup team.
Jim O'Toole: We obviously wish him nothing but success and we hope they manage to pull together the substantial resources required to make a team happen. We also know we will lose Adam Minoprio because he's committed to the Volvo Ocean Race and Ben Ainslie because he's committed to the 2012 Olympics campaign.

Still without revealing anything confidential, some of the big names have already approached us to check the details about competing in the tour next year. I have absolutely no doubt that we will have no trouble whatsoever to fill the 9 Tour Card Holder places. Nor will there be a shortage of talented non Tour Cardholders who will take part through the wild cards and the qualifying events.

Valencia Sailing: You have also announced you will increase the total prize pool to over 1.75 US million dollars. That's by far the richest professional sailing circuit. Who is going to provide the additional funds?
Jim O'Toole: It's ourselves, as a business, that will provide the additional money. The Tour has made this commitment as an investment. The logic behind it is that if we are going to be the only professional series in sailing that pays prize money and the place where professional sailors can make a living, we felt we needed to enhance it. As you know, we don't control the prize money individual events offer but we can control the bonus pool. Increasing the pool IS another example of our commitment to investing in the Tour.

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