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America’s Cup (Sailing)

July 26, 2012

I’ve been fairly busy this past week, and among other things I’ve been following the Tour de France for the first time ever. I intend to talk about it a bit more in the future, but I want to put some more time into it, and so for the time being I’m going to talk about another kind of race that probably mystifies most red-blooded Americans: sailing.

A friend of mine drew my attention to an article in the New York Times last week highlighting some major changes going on in the world of competitive sailing. Apparently a couple of years ago, the organizers of the America’s Cup realized they had a bit of a problem: they were running out of money. They attributed this to the fact that a) sailing is very expensive and b) nobody watches it. So, they set about trying to re-invent the sport in order to be more spectate-able. Spectat-ability is perhaps the most important aspect of a sport’s success, and one of the primary differentiators between sports and other types of games. I mentioned in a previous post that I would have more upcoming on spectate-ability in the future, and I still intend to, but in the meantime it’s interesting to see how professionals decided to address the issue with literally millions of dollars on the line.

From what I understand, the changes they elected for amount to the following:

  1. Courses closer to the shoreline to allow for live spectators to view the races from shore. This has the concomitant effect of making the wind more unpredictable, and thus more exciting.
  2. Faster, more easily capsize-able boats.
  3. Clearer penalty enforcement.
  4. Course and visualization modification for TV-friendliness.

To accomplish this last, they turned to Stan Honey, apparently the leader (and perhaps only practitioner) of the professional sports TV visualization field. Apparently, the yellow football first down line is his. In addition to improved visualizations, modern technology allows the course designers to stretch or contract the course as the wind shifts to allow it to be completed within the time slots allotted to them. Here is a very real illustration of the design constraints imposed on a sport’s design based on the requirement of not only spectate-ability, but on the limitations of the television broadcast format for reaching those spectators.

I’d like to get to know professional sailing a bit better, but at the moment, I feel like the America’s Cup is still missing something in terms of welcoming new viewers. For instance, I’d like to try to find out the extent to which course design matters, and what the parameters of the courses are. I’d also like to find out what the existing penalties are in order to look at how appropriate they are to the penalized behavior. Unfortunately, the America’s Cup website still appears to assume a fair level of familiarity with sailboat racing in general, and lacks a simple “what the hell am I watching” button. Nonetheless, I’ll do my best to acquire a little more information on it, and maybe I’ll eventually be able to speak about it with some authority.

The New York times article is available here.

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