Loving his sport

hating its direction

Commercialism irks sailing commentator

Volvo Ocean Race

April 30, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

Norfolk, Va. -- As six giant Volvo Ocean Race sailboats sped through the mouth of the Chesapeake toward Baltimore a week and a half ago, Gary Jobson stood on a dock, steaming mad.

The ESPN commentator's carefully plotted plan to jump aboard a yacht appeared to be in shambles. The camera crew was late getting to the marina. The weather wasn't cooperating. A boat that was to ferry him to the racing yacht was 70 miles behind schedule.

Jobson, once a force in the round-the-world race, was now, literally and figuratively, left waiting on the dock. His role in the race diminished, his enthusiasm dampened, Jobson was on the outside looking in, telling anyone who will listen how disgusted he is with the evolution of a race that was founded 32 years ago.

Pervasive commercialism, and a lack of national identify for the boats, has, in his view, converted an event that should be a contest of seamanship among nations into a global hospitality tent for multinational corporations which threatens to alienate fans.

"When I did the America's Cup, the name of the boat was Courageous. It wasn't Bank of America," he said.

But Jobson, a sailor first and foremost, still reveres those who compete in the Volvo race. He will emcee an awards ceremony for them today in Baltimore and lend his name to other events. And despite his worries about the direction of the race, the little boy in him couldn't resist the chance to ride on one of the boats.

Jobson spent most of the 1990s lobbying to bring the race -- then called the Whitbread Round the World Race -- to Maryland. The first two times the Volvo race came here, Jobson was involved with its management.

New leadership took over in 2002, and Jobson wasn't asked to be part of it. Now, his participation is limited to Ocean Race Chesapeake, the local organization in charge of the three-week stopover in Baltimore and Annapolis.

Jobson made his name in racing in the late 1970s as Ted Turner's tactician on the winning America's Cup yacht in 1977. He moved to television in the 1980s and is known by many as Mr. Sailing. "He's one of the most talented sailors of his generation," Turner, CNN founder and America's Cup sailor, said in an interview last week.

Jobson has proved that he knows how to promote the sport -- he has written 15 books about sailing, produced dozens of ESPN sailing shows and won an Emmy for his 1988 coverage of Olympic sailing in South Korea.

Because of his experience, he understands that sailing is a difficult sport to bring to a national audience. But he says people who don't know much about sailing get excited about the contests that pit countries against each other.

He recalls the worldwide attention focused on the America's Cup race after Dennis Conner lost the trophy in 1983 to Australia, and then won it back five years later aboard Stars and Stripes. He remembers the thousands who came out to see Chessie Racing, a Maryland boat that competed in the Whitbread in 1998.

In the Volvo Ocean Race, the nationalist element is missing. The top "Dutch" boat, ABN AMRO One, has no Dutch sailors. The "American" boat, Pirates of the Caribbean, has two Americans on board -- a U.S.-born skipper and one of the crew members. Brasil 1, the only yacht carrying a national name, includes five Brazilians in the crew of 10.

"I think sailing will take off if we can get back to our nationalistic roots," Jobson said.

Part of the problem, he said, is that the Volvo race has become too expensive for even millionaires to bankroll. "The whole thing needs to cost less so there can be more participation," he said.

Seven boats started the Volvo Ocean Race in November, the smallest number since it was first sailed in 1973. One of those boats -- Brunel from Australia -- dropped out and rejoined the race yesterday in Baltimore.

Race organizers say sponsoring a Volvo yacht costs $12 million to $18 million. Privately, representatives from syndicates say the racing costs much more than that, and the figure does not include elaborate client hospitality events that sponsors host at ports.

Volvo Ocean Race Chief Executive Officer Glenn Bourke said his corporate bosses at Volvo are pleased with the way the race is going. He pointed out that the last race produced 15,000 press clippings. This time, there were 10,000 in the first three months of the eight-month competition.

Bourke said that nationalist branding wouldn't work for the sponsors. Their priority, he said, is to get a roughly equal amount of news coverage in all media markets. An American boat, he argued, would make a big splash here but would be overshadowed in other ports. The pitch to the sponsors is that they receive global, not national, coverage.

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