Billionaire Larry Ellison turned the sailing world upside down in 2013 when he put America’s Cup boats on catamarans with foils. The event forever changed the sport, infusing technology, speed, and excitement. The result were ripples of foiling and other technology from the event permeated sailing and the broader boating industry.
When Ellison lost in 2017 to Team New Zealand, the Kiwis took over control of the rules. The Kiwis immediately announced the move back to monohulls. In effect, they said “no catamarans in my AC back yard.”
Ellison declined to participate, seeing this shift back to monohulls as a shift back in time. He decided instead to create his own racing series based on the 50-foot catamarans from the America’s Cup in 2017. The event is called SailGP and is based on using identical foiling catamarans with teams from around the world. The series, which will visit many great sailing cities around the world, kicks off in the Spring of 2020.
Very quickly Ellison gained entrants from several nations who recognized that foiling catamarans were part of sailing’s future. He even plowed his own money into the event to accelerate its progress and eliminate bureaucracy. Many in sailing bemoan the continuous legal battles between billionaires that plague the America’s Cup.
In the meantime, the America’s Cup plows ahead toward 2021 with a innovative monohulls that look like they defy gravity. Sailing’s history of racing monohulls gives way to innovation – but on one hull at a time.
The big question now is which event will capture the imagination of the global sailing public for the years ahead? Will the America’s Cup continue to be perceived as the ultimate sailing event? Or will Ellison’s SailGP deliver enough excitement to take over? It’s anyone’s guess – and it will be fascinating to see both events unfold.
The winner in total audience between SailGP and the America’s Cup will determine who owns the future of sailing. The more prominent event will own the focus of technology development. Similar to Formula1 auto racing, one will emerge that will set the tone for years to come.
Ellison’s efforts instilled new energy into the America’s Cup in 2013 with foiling catamarans simply because it was better TV. When NBC witnessed how the big cats could crash, burn, and flip, they were in. It had just enough NASCAR about it to create a wider television audience. Today, television coverage will most likely be the “x factor” for determining the winner. If one event emerges with a much higher ratings, it will most likely crown the winner.
The America’s Cup has the advantage of name recognition as one of the oldest competitive events in the world. But sailing events rarely generate large audiences, so the event has to above and beyond. Ellision’s SailGP looks to continue the excitement of the last two America’s Cups with fast, foiling catamarans. The problem is that few will be aware of the event. SailGP will need some secret sauce to break through to gain a wider audience without the history behind it.
SailGP and the America’s Cup are harnessing technology and innovation to gain advantage. Both promise to fly above the water at speeds no one dreamed of just a few years ago. Both sets of boats are redefining what it means to watch the highest level of sailing racing. Game on!