Sunday, 22 May 2011

One Down on the WMRT...

The first event on the 2011 World Match Racing Tour ended last Sunday, and the second – Match Race Germany - kicks off in Langenargen this coming Wednesday. Sometimes Match Race France is a good indicator for the overall Tour and sometimes it isn't - in 2009, Adam Minoprio won in Marseille, and then won it all. Last year, Matt Richard beat Ben Ainslie to take Match Race France, and we know how that turned out in the final act at the Monsoon Cup. But I still think we can draw a few pointers from what went down in Marseille last weekend.

First up, it was a great, winning performance from Damien Iehl, who’s clearly put the work in over the winter. He looked slick, calm and polished – not always Damien's MO. And while Iehl has won an individual Tour event before (not to mention the ISAF Match Racing World Championship in 1997), his best overall Tour result is a lowly eighth. He already looks a solid bet to seriously improve on that this year – and the fact that he won in Germany in 2008 can only be a confidence booster going into next week.

Torvar Mirsky was a little unlucky to lose to Bertrand Pace in the semi-final in Marseille, but I thought it crucial for the Aussie team that they toughed it out to get the third place from Jesper Radich in the Petite Final. Mirsky and co. gave up far too many soft points last year by losing finals and petite finals. If they want to make a serious challenge in 2011 this is exactly the sort of performance they need to deliver – bouncing back from a tough break in the semi’s to take the extra three Tour points available for third place. After a second and a third place overall in the last couple of years - and with new financial support from The Wave Muscat - these guys can no longer posture as the young pretenders running their operation on the whiff of an oily rag. It’s time to deliver, and Torvar knows it.

Jesper Radich and his new look Adrian Lee and Partners Racing Team looked just that – new. The performances were a little uneven, and a bad final day cost them dearly. But they’re a class act with two of Adam Minoprio’s Black Match alumni aboard – Dave Swete and Nick Blackman – and I think they will have a lot more to show us once they’ve sailed together a bit more.

But if Jesper Radich has problems to smooth out, it’s nothing to compare to what faces Ian Williams and his Team GAC Pindar boys. After being reunited with his 2007 World Tour winning tactician, Bill Hardesty, and a honking pre-season - wins at the Congressional Cup and then the Spanish Open - Williams was the form guy coming into the Tour opener. So leaving Marseille with a tenth place and just two Tour points will have put a serious dent in their confidence. They need to bounce back fast, but with Extreme Sailing Series commitments forcing them to miss Germany, they will have to wait till Korea to re-establish their challenge. Fortunately, Korea has previously been a very happy hunting ground for them - beaten finalists last year, and the year before.

I’m looking forward to seeing Matt Richard back in action, joining the Tour in Germany after missing France due to his RC44 ride. Matt’s a terrific match racer and it will be interesting to see how this more measured approach to the Tour works for him. In 2010 he threw everything bar the kitchen sink at it, doing almost no other sailing, only to see a season-long lead unravel against Ben Ainslie in the quarter finals in Malaysia. Perhaps combining the Tour with some other sailing will help him keep it in perspective, and produce his best performances when he really needs them.

Meanwhile, the tv team are geared up to do another two hours a day of live coverage, plus pre- and post race shows from Germany. So it will be another busy week for everyone involved in the Red Handed tv gig. I was intrigued to see Mark Turner question (via Twitter) the wisdom of live coverage (oc_markturner: “Interesting comparing live sailing today to see what is worth doing or not. How many viewers I wonder?”). If you don’t know Mark Turner, he’s the impresario behind Offshore Challenges (now OC Thirdpole), whose Extreme Sailing Series seems to rely more heavily on the spectator experience than television, for a return to its stake-holders.

Obviously my views are next to worthless in any objective sense, given my involvement with the WMRT as a commentator. And what I’m about to say ignores the huge resources being thrown at the next America’s Cup in an effort to make it mainstream sports television. But some recent experiences nudged me into making a comparison between sports broadcasting and what’s been happening in other parts of the media jungle.

The recent experience was directly publishing my two novels as eBooks onto Amazon’s Kindle platform. The first, The Defector has risen to the top of the charts for freebie thrillers in the UK, while the sequel, The Wrecking Crew, is still climbing the paid-for charts in its wake.

I've a long way to go, but I took as role models writers like Scott Nicholson, who's already busted the doors down in book publishing. Scott's ridden roughshod over the traditional gatekeepers in New York and London... and all the way to the top of the Amazon Kindle charts. Like me, he's published his own books directly to the Kindle. And we're just following the lead blazed by bands like the Arctic Monkeys in leveraging the opportunities provided by the internet.

Just as perfectly good, sale-able writers found themselves previously locked out by the traditional print publishers, so live sailing has been largely shut out of the mainstream media by the gatekeepers of broadcasting. But just as it does for indie writers, bands and film makers, the internet provides sports with an opportunity to find a niche and a market – just look at Danny MacAskill’s awesome trials bike videos; nine million views and counting on YouTube. MacAskill broke through into the mainstream a few months ago, but when did you last see this stuff commissioned by NBC or the BBC?

Will sailing generally, or the World Match Racing Tour specifically, succeed in the wake of the Arctic Monkeys, Scott Nicholson and Danny MacAskill? It’s too early to say. Should we be trying? Of course we should, and it’s a shame that Mark Turner’s not willing to throw his own hugely entrepreneurial talents into the ring. After all, competition is what drives us to be better. Just ask Ian Williams.