The 2017-18 Volvo Ocean race gets under way in its now-established start port of Alicante in Spain on 22 October and the organisers consider the prospects to be better than at any time in the last two decades, given the line-up, commercial support and route.
Moreover, the historic decision has already been taken to hold the race biennially, as opposed to every three years, after the forthcoming edition.
This, it is felt, will provide more continuity, as teams, sponsors and host cities will be more confident about making a long-term commitment to a regular competition.
Mark Turner, the race's chief executive, tells Sportcal Insight: “We’ll get to more markets in a two-year campaign than we do now. That gives us more flexibility as we’ll not be trying to go to every market in every race.”
He adds: “It’s a game-changer, to be honest, on a number of fronts. The best time to sell the race is when it’s on, whether that’s for brands or stopovers. Going forward with a two-year package, we’re going out this month with a package for the following two races.
“Two years is a good number in terms of a business commitment. In the past six years, it was too long for anyone to [fully] commit. There will be more consistency, with teams in for more than one race and their sponsors in for more than one race. You will have new teams each time, but more continuity.
Mark Turner, Volvo Ocean race chief executive
“By the end of this race, we will hope to have all the teams signed up for the next race. In the past, it ended and everyone went away and you lost the momentum.”
The Volvo Ocean Race, which dates back to 1973, looks set to be cut from eight months to six months and from 12 stops to eight stops in the future, but will still present a formidable challenge, and could enter new waters in the southern seas.
Turner says: “We expect in the next edition or subsequent one to go around Antarctica. It could be Melbourne to Melbourne or Santiago to Santiago in one leg of 25 to 30 days, but with the fastest sailing in the world, which has never been done before.”
The Briton will be overseeing his first race, having joined from OC Sport in 2016, but has considerable experience in the event, notably as a sailor in 1989-90 and in managing the Dongfeng Race Team, the Chinese entry, in 2014-15,
The event is returning to its heritage for the forthcoming 13th edition, with several long-haul legs, including visits to popular destinations in Cape Town, Melbourne. Hong Kong, Auckland, Itajai in Brazil and Newport in Rhode Island, USA, before finishing in The Hague in the Netherlands late in June 2018.
This entails three times more Southern Ocean sailing than has been the case in recent editions, complemented by the in-port races, which take the boats nearer the public.
Turner says: “We’ve got seven amazing teams lined up, better sailors than we’ve had in 20 years and four returning [team] sponsors for the first time.”
However, having taken in Abu Dhabi in 2014-15, the race is not revisiting the Middle East, and, although it could feature in a future edition, Turner claims the integrity of the event is more important than potentially lucrative markets.
He says: “We’re no longer chasing the money. We did that with Abu Dhabi. We got a team [Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing] and a stopover, but we took the race away from its core DNA. That took three months [of quality ocean racing] out of the race and it looked uninteresting. We lost the leg from Cape Town across the Southern Ocean to Australia.”
Turner adds: “We can add other countries, but we’ve got to keep the balance. Would we go to India in the future? Yes, but not by going away from the Southern Ocean.”
The Volvo Ocean Race has already opened the host city tender process for the next three editions, starting with 2019-20, when a new boat will be introduced to take the competing and viewing experience to a new level, as has been the case with the America’s Cup, sailing’s blue riband event.
Turner says: “It will be more spectacular, even to non-sailors. The boats will look like spaceships and there will be two sets of boats – monohulls for the offshore and catamarans for the inshore, which will look like the America’s Cup boats.
“There’s countries we can go to with the monohull and there’s ones we can go to with the catamarans. Between the two we’re repositioning the race. The offshore will still be the main part, but there will also be the inshore, making it the biggest all-round challenge in the sport.”
He commends Volvo, which is now preparing for its sixth race as main backer and title sponsor, for its contribution to the boat design process, but also to the new calendar.
Turner says: “There’s no way we would have launched the next 10-year cycle or switched to a biennial schedule without them. They are both sponsor and owner, which is unusual in sport, but means they don’t have to sign a new contract every two years.
“They’re a really solid brand and activate in a great way, bringing thousands of VIPs, but they do not over-dominate and the teams are free to do their own thing.”
It is believed that staging the Volvo Ocean Race every two years could draw in popular consumer brands to the event, inspired by some of the human stories involved, although this is not a priority at present.
Turner says: “We need to do things in the right order. There’s no question we are head and shoulders above other properties on the B2B side. Race host cities are only going to bid if there is that focus.
“Sailing hasn’t managed to attract consumer brands over the decades, but if there is a property that can, it is the Volvo Ocean Race. We need in the next 18 months to see through the changes we’ve made, and then to pitch to consumer brands.
“We have a mix this time, but not the big consumer brands like Coca-Cola. Can we get these in the future? Maybe. Is it a priority? Probably not. We can’t compete with football and should we be chasing the same dollars? No.”