Day Two of the America’s Cup round robin stage taking place in Bermuda’s Great Sounds made for fascinating but variable viewing yesterday on BT Sport.
Sailing – historically more a sport for participants than spectators because of its technicalities and the fact that of necessity the action takes place away from dry land (thus allowing only those with access to boats to get ‘close and personal’ enough to appreciate what was going on) – has made great strides over the past fifteen years presumably because commercial imperatives prompted its elite organisers to try and get their act together.
Sometimes these things work and sometimes they don’t.
In the 1970s – buoyed by the ‘lightning bolt’ effect of the arrival of colour television –snooker became a household obsession in the United Kingdom.
More recently (and I still don’t ‘get’ this one) darts has shot from being a facile pub game to the absurdities of television glory featuring fat blokes with odd haircuts in Hawaiian-style shirts being roared on in licenced clubs by hordes of drunken fans wearing fancy dress costumes.
Cricket first addressed its ‘spectating’ issues way back in the 1960s with the advent of its one-day version and has since sped light years beyond the then derided novelty of the Kerry Packet years and ‘hit & giggle action dressed in pyjamas’ to a point where its T20 competitions now threaten the very existence of the game as first devised and then worshipped between the middle of the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Another typical example, football, sprang to its current global domination primarily through broadcaster innovation and the establishment of England’s Premier League.
Practically every sport worth its salt has tried to make this heady jump.
I was once involved in a programme pitch to ITV trying to promote the ‘sport’ of croquet – after all, if ‘coloured balls’ could make snooker a peak-time television staple, why couldn’t they do similar for one featuring dastardly acts plus hoops and mallets?
Only this past weekend track & field (not a sport I retain much respect for given its ‘druggy’ issues) demonstrated its willingness to try new things in an effort to develop its commercial appeal with its elite meet staged upon the streets of the still-in-shock city of Manchester.
Ah, but as I mentioned above … sometimes these things don’t work.
Croquet never ‘got off the ground’.
Those responsible for the game of squash tried transparent court walls and different coloured balls yet they couldn’t get around the fact that excellence at their particular ‘little ball’ game in a tiny box of a court, sometimes involving extended rallies where (to be honest) nothing much happens, would never cut the mustard with the average television viewer, who would much prefer lights, actions, thrills, spills and preferably an add-on touch of physical violence.
Which brings me back to sailing.
Here’s the recipe. Make the boats sleeker, faster, riskier and a bit similar in look to Formula One cars. Take the action as close to shore as you possibly can. Add an air of ‘this is cutting edge technological development at its best’. Devise a competition in which countries compete against each other in something patently highly-tuned and very, very expensive that requires teams of highly-tuned specialists and athletes to make it work. Get the broadcasters to throw in everything that modern camera, camera work, editing, directing and space-age computer graphics, animation and technology can bring to bear.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ve got something that in terms of publicity, sponsorship and commercial success can send you rocketing into the global stratosphere.
Modern television coverage of elite sailing – as provided by the current America’s Cup – is compulsive viewing. Almost, but not quite.
Yesterday evening, staying on the south coast in a house known to be one of the few in the village with a satellite TV package that included the BT sports channels, we hosted a party of people interested in sailing for the latest three-hour chapter in Sir Ben Ainslie’s quest for sporting immortality.
Yes, it is a full-on, ‘bells and whistles’ added, extravaganza with dazzling camera work that makes a clever fist of showing the extraordinary speeds these 21st Century sailing craft can reach. And yes, the commentators and pundits do a great job of explaining what is going on and advising viewers upon what tactical options unfold as one team or another gains advantage because of a sudden wind shift and/or make a complete horlicks of some high-speed manoeuvre.
And yet. The fact is that, even whilst these improbably-complicated yachts are zig-zagging precariously upon the edge of potential disaster across the water towards their next course-marking buoy, the amount of ‘epic’ comings-together or mano-a-mano incidents that materially affect the outcome in any race are relatively few.
It’s rather like watching a Formula One race with only two cars on the track, with most of the time one of them about half a lap ahead of the other. Even if the lead should change for any reason, the physical fact of it happening can be over in a second … and then they’re back to racing around the track again about half a mile apart.
For me, despite that it is happening at all as a worthy television sport being a matter worthy of note, it’s still ‘not quite there yet’ if you see what I mean.
[For the anoraks amongst Rust readers, Ainslie’s Land Rover BAR yacht had a poor day yesterday – two races and two losses, a collision and a major sailing ‘mistake’ in each. It doesn’t bode well …].