How technology and sustainability are helping SailGP modernise sailing

‘The Formula One of Sailing’. When SailGP launched three years ago it had grand ambitions of becoming the first commercially successful global competition in the history of the sport, providing an annual circuit that complemented the Olympics and the America’s Cup.

It looked to combine the high-speed foiling boats and broadcast innovations that have transformed the America’s Cup into a genuine spectator event built on a modern franchise-based structure with consistent teams and branding like in Formula One or even soccer.

Led by Sir Russell Coutts, an Olympic champion and five-time America’s Cup winner, and bankrolled by Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison, Sail GP hoped greater continuity would engage fans, boost the profile of athletes, and drive commercial interest. A global circuit, 90-minute races, and a digital focus would ensure that even casual sports fans would be interested and more able to understand the nuances of the sport. 

A lot has happened since the first time SailGP hit the water in 2019. A global pandemic disrupted the second season and some of its initial ambitions, but the wind hasn’t been taken out of its sails. There has been strong interest from spectators, sponsors, and athletes and the series has strengthened its sense of purpose.

Three years on and it’s clear that the sustainability and technology are firmly established as key pillars of the series’ existence and the progress in both these areas is helping drive SailGP’s success and providing a framework for other sports to follow.

The eight SailGP teams line up underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

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“Sailing didn’t have a product that was marketable and watchable prior to these high-speed foiling boats,” Coutts tells SportsPro, speaking at March’s season two grand final in San Francisco.

“We’ve ended up with a product that was very broadcastable and pretty exciting to watch and it appealed to a wider demographic and we were able to package that up into a 90-minute product.

“You had these competitions like the round the world race or the America’s Cup that would come along every so often. But teams would come and go, and fans wouldn’t know who the next teams were. You couldn’t really build brand equity into the teams like you can with most other sports. Teams might go through ownership changes, personnel changes like in soccer but the brand would live on.

“In sailing, you would have some cool brands that would appear but disappear just as quickly and all that investment was gone.”

But SailGP wanted to be more than just a successful sporting competition. Sustainability has been a core element of its bid to succeed where no sailing event had done before, as demonstrated by the fact that there were two titles awarded in San Francisco.

Team Australia won the season championship for being the best boat on the water, while New Zealand were the winners of the inaugural ‘Impact League’ which rewards the team that has performed the best against a series of sustainability criteria.

SailGP is the first major sports league to award a trophy in this way and by making sustainability a competitive metric, it hopes to drive competition and innovation that delivers benefits beyond sport.

Two years ago, Fiona Morgan joined the organisation as director of purpose and impact, a role that she recognises as “fairly unique” in the world of sport. She joined from Sky, where she was the driving force behind its cycling activities and many of its environmental campaigns.

“It’s all about engaging people about what we’re doing, whether it’s on social issues or sustainability,” she explains. “I work with our teams, on the Impact League, the way we operate as a business and the way we work with our host cities. It’s an expansive role across the whole ecosystem of SailGP.

The Impact League is arguably the signature initiative, taking into account everything from the use of single use plastics and travel arrangements through to how sustainably-sourced a team’s food is and what their accommodation requirements are. All of these activities are externally audited, and the teams take it very seriously.

“When we started the concept, we knew we had to get the teams to buy in,” continued Morgan. “When we had the first call with the CEOs, I think they thought we were slightly mad! But I also think they were all like, well, ‘why wouldn’t you try this?’.

“They want to be sustainable in the way they operate and because they’re competitive they opted in. Sometimes they don’t how to be as sustainable as possible, so we gave them a bit of structure. The athletes care because they are sailors, but they also see the commercial value of sustainability.

“It’s easier to do things like the Impact League than more traditional sports because we’re starting afresh [with a franchise-based system].”

What was clear from speaking to the sailors involved is that they take the Impact League seriously. As a sport that relies on, and takes place in, natural environments, they understand the issues of climate change. Furthermore, they view it as another form of competition and are eager to do anything they can to beat the other boats and win the US$100,000 that is awarded to the winning team’s cause of choice.

“There are two elements to what we’re trying to do: better sport, better planet,” says Morgan. “We want sailing to grow as a sport and we want to race for a better future. We want more people to watch, get involved and then use this platform for good. The Impact League is a huge tangible example that sport can be sustainable and successful. We wanted to show sport can be done differently and well.”

Team Australia were the champions of season two

The athlete view

It’s a vision that has attracted the attention of Britain’s most successful sailor, Sir Ben Ainslie. The four-time Olympic champion and America’s Cup winner wasn’t involved in SailGP from day one, but was immediately impressed by the quality of the racing. Having known Coutts and Ellison from Team Oracle, he was eager to get involved on the business side too.

“I think there’s a responsibility for my generation of sailors to support the league and make it a success,” said Ainslie. “Sailing has never had a commercially successful league or [series of] events before. The key is continuity here, racing around the globe and getting the balance between the integrity of the racing and the commercial success.

“It’s a similar approach to Formula One and that’s where we want it to be. We want young kids at the sailing club to want to be in Sail GP in ten years’ time.

“The continuity has been missing. We have the Olympics every four years, the America’s Cup generally every four years and nothing in the middle team. SailGP is filling that void year in, year out with 11 or 12 events, and that’s what it needs. It’s doing a reasonable job of explaining a sport a lot of people don’t understand and trying to simplify how it is presented is something we can always do better.

“Sailing has in the past been somewhat of a niche sport and SailGP can change that. The boats are much more exciting, the televisual project is better, and I think it’s more of a draw for younger audiences.”

But having wished so long for a commercially successful sailing series, does Ainslie not fear the full technological potential is diluted because of the need to be sustainable? Far from it. He says all the teams are hugely invested in the Impact League but equally, first and foremost, SailGP is a racing competition.

“To be honest, I was a bit sceptical at first [of the Impact League] but I’m now a huge fan of it,” he said. “I think it’s adding [another] competitive element. It motivates people. I’ve been really impressed by the collaboration between the teams who aren’t just hoarding ideas to themselves.

“Everyone’s really bought into it and they need to because it can’t be just a nice tagline. The credibility of the competition has to be first and foremost because once you lose that you’re going to lose your fan base because they think it’s more like a show than a competition.”

A strong performance in the Impact League could make a team more attractive to sponsors, so it makes commercial sense for teams too. Equally, the focus on sustainability is making SailGP more attractive to commercial partners as an organisation.

There is a certain contradiction in that a globe-spanning sailing series that requires huge amounts of international travel should be so concerned about sustainability, but all involved believe this is necessary to promote the sport. A global circuit is essential to spread the word, but so are broadcast and digital channels. Technology is crucial to minimising the environmental impact of both.

From the seas to the cloud

Cloud software and platforms from Ellison’s Oracle significantly reduces the number of people and volume of equipment required on the ground at SailGP events and helps drive the series’ innovative broadcast presentation.

“Virtually everything we do now is in the Oracle Cloud using data centres in London powered 100 per cent by renewable energy,” SailGP head of technology Warren Jones explains.

“[For the America’s Cup] we used to ship 28 containers around the world to support our broadcast [operations]. Now with everything in the cloud we use just one container [for SailGP]. On top of that, we don’t need to have around 100 people travelling. They can stay back in London with their families and use the same equipment for each event, so it’s more consistent.”

An antenna on the wing of each boat sends telemetry, video and voice data from around 30,000 sensors in each boat via 4G to the shore, where it is then transmitted by fibre to data centres in London where it supports an array of applications and user groups. Information gathered from the boats also helps identify anomalies – saving time and reducing waste.

SailGP avoids the public internet as much as possible in order to reduce latency – the amount of time it takes to transmit data across a network – down to 160 milliseconds. This is crucial in getting real-time data from the boats and turning it into insights for television and digital audiences.

“We have eight boats on the water, two cameras on each boat and we generate around 14 billion data requests every afternoon,” adds Jones. “All those requests are generated in our autonomous database and are used to power data-driven insights and augmented reality graphics in our broadcast. We can actually project a racecourse over the water so the viewer can see what’s going on.

“We get around 20 terabytes of video data from each boat from the two cameras and we also have a helicopter and three camera boats. All of this goes back to London to be produced. But I also need the producers to get the show back to San Francisco to put on the big screens, the hospitality tents, the media centre. That’s where the [latency] comes in.

“We send 52 streams back to London and then it’s produced and distributed to our broadcast partners and to our OTT platforms like YouTube, Facebook and SailGP Insights.

“Our race official in Australia couldn’t go to a race because he was in lockdown so he ran the race from his garden in Sydney. He was talking to all the boats and had all the feeds. Our commentators can also work together [from different countries].”

In the future, the data could be accessible via wearables worn by the sailors, while Jones says 5G could be a “game changer” in the amount of throughput it provides for data to be transmitted to and from the boat.

Jones adds that if there was a product or service that was more expensive but also more sustainable, then he has the green light to procure it. But there are some things that can be done better and SailGP is also working with startups to find solutions to environmental challenges that it hasn’t yet solved.

At present, markers for the race have to be taken out to sea via a conventional motorboat, while the media, chase and support boats all rely on fossil fuels. The argument is that current electric engines cannot support SailGP’s needs, especially when it comes to range. Helicopters are another necessary evil where it will take time to find alternatives like drones.

The hope is that SailGP can advance marine technology in the same way that many innovations in Formula One have eventually made their way into road cars, with Tesla one of the companies it is collaborating with on battery technology.

Meanwhile, there has also been progress on automated markers that can be remotely controlled and use GPS technology to stay in place as opposed to using anchors – eliminating the need for boats to take them out to sea altogether.

SailGP believes there are plenty of other areas of marine technology that can be improved, such as GPS and electronics, and have use cases beyond the sea, like in disaster relief operations.

Just getting started

Three years on from launch and SailGP believes its vision has been vindicated by its commercial performance and its broadcast figures, as well as the progress it has achieved with its sustainability initiatives.

Two new teams will join for season three, there are plans to add more events, and a team in the future will be owned by a decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO) – another area where organisers are looking to innovate.

Technology will be at the forefront of SailGP’s drive to modernise sailing and provide a legacy that goes beyond sport.

“You don’t get a chance to rebirth a sport very often,” reflects Coutts. “Even the most successful sports would say that if they were starting again, they’d do something differently. I’m not suggesting we’ve got everything right, but we’ve benefitted from that.”

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