Shifting Winds: Professional Sailing’s Reach for a Mainstream Niche
Two years ago, the officials who run the America’s Cup made an important decision: They were going to change professional sailing into a sport that was actually fun to watch.
This was a big shift for a sport that has traditionally been indifferent to the idea of an audience. But new revenue was needed to help sailing teams struggling to raise the tens of millions of dollars needed to build and sail the boats for the Cup, so the organization decided to chase the broadcast television deals and sponsorships that are the lifeblood of many other sports.
The basic strategy was to add increasing speed and danger to sailing by using winged catamarans, boats that move much faster but also capsize easily, and holding races close to shore, where wind patterns are less predictable.
The America’s Cup will get its first chance to test its product with a US audience this weekend, when a part of the World Series race in Newport, R.I., will be broadcast on NBC. This is the first time a professional sailing race will be shown live on a major US network in 20 years.
Assuming that faster, more dangerous races can generate interest, there is still one major challenge: Even sailors acknowledge that their sport can be almost incomprehensible to the naked eye.
The task of changing this belongs to Stan Honey, whom the America’s Cup hired as its director of technology last spring. Honey has made a career out of creating augmented reality for sports broadcasts. He is best known for the glowing first-down line in football telecasts, and he has also developed glowing hockey pucks for NHL games, the illuminated strike zone for baseball and various graphics for NASCAR races.
Sailing is in more dire need of augmented reality than perhaps any other sport, said Honey, a former professional sailor. Boats tack back and forth, trying to catch pockets of wind that will propel them through a race’s various legs. It can be difficult to determine who is ahead, or what strategy is being employed to remain there.
‘’If you don’t put the graphics on the water, you end up with people saying, OK, white triangles on a blue background,” Honey said.
So Honey has developed the LiveLine system, a virtual playing field that lays on top of the telecast. On television, boats fly flags identifying themselves. White lines appear at regular intervals, and blue lines mark boundaries, turning a patch of open water into something resembling a nautical football field. Yellow circles surround the motorboats that mark the end of each leg, identifying the areas where the changes in which a boat has the right of way can come into play.
To do this, Honey’s team has to measure the position of every boat to within an inch at all times, while also measuring the position and angle of every helicopter-mounted television camera. It is also collecting data on wind and water conditions, which play heavily into sailing strategy, and looking for ways to incorporate that into the television display.
By collecting this data, Honey’s team has ended up changing how the races operate. Race officials now watch the sailing on monitors from a control room on the shore, and any decision that relies on the objective knowledge of a boat’s position is made using the same positional data used to create the graphics.
The new approach has also inspired some new rules. Until recently, the penalty for certain fouls required a team to stop its boat and spin it in a circle. Now, a virtual line appears two boat lengths behind the offender, which must move behind the line to pay off the penalty. For 10 seconds, that line moves at the same speed as the boat. After that, the line slows to three-quarters of the boat’s speed.
The America’s Cup has also begun using computerized data analysis to change the course of the race, while the race is in progress, to make sure that the event fits easily into broadcast time slots. Of course, race officials have always tried to adjust courses for wind conditions; they just have not been able to do it with such precision.
‘’It is not inconsistent with the previous rules of sailing, but it’s inconsistent with the previous reality of sailing,” Honey said. “In the past, if you had a big wind shift before the start, then you had to change the course and re-anchor all the marks. It could take 45 minutes. The broadcasters would go mad.”
As it tries to attract larger crowds to races, the America’s Cup is also working to incorporate the positional data to make the sailing more engaging to watch live. Sailing officials have not spent much time worrying about that in the past; when the Cup was previously held in Newport, the event was invisible from the city.
‘’You saw them going out to sea, and you saw them come back,” said Rudy Borgueta, the club steward of the Newport Yacht Club. “You never saw them race.”
The America’s Cup is designing an augmented reality smartphone app, which will allow spectators on shore to hold their phones up to the water and get the type of information available on television. It hopes to have the app ready by the time the Cup is contested off San Francisco next year.
The technological achievements underpinning the America’s Cup’s have not gone unnoticed. The organization won an Emmy this year for the LiveLine system.
What is less clear is whether the changes to racing will be enough to improve the ailing finances of professional sailing teams. The World Series was developed in part as a way to help teams raise money to compete in the America’s Cup in fall 2013. But while nine teams have participated in the World Series, only five are prepared to compete in the Cup, and one team has dropped out of this week’s race.
Meanwhile, the America’s Cup organization went through staff cuts and a management shake-up in March, and Honey said that he might have to scale back his plans as a result.
Some people within professional sailing talk about next year’s race in San Francisco as a deadline of sorts, when these efforts will either pay off or leave professional sailing in deeper financial trouble. But Stephen Barclay, the chief executive of the America’s Cup, said that the seeds of a virtuous cycle were in place.
‘’The real benefits to the teams will come down the track as the spectators and the series grow,” he said. “That’s when the exponential growth will start to kick in.”
The New York Times