By this time next week, competitive sailing will likely have a legion of new fans throughout Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan. Thousands of Midwesterners and prospective sailing “nuts” will get their first taste of world class sailing as the America’s Cup brings the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series to Chicago, a historic first on fresh water.
Logistically, the race could have only ever happened here sometime in the contest’s more recent history, because the same advances in ship design have doubled the boats’ top-speed and swiftly replaced sheet-style sails and wooden hulls. Those historic features have morphed into impressively efficient Kevlar and carbon fiber skeletons, which have also made it more possible for easy transportation of the ships themselves.
Where once upon a time, sailing the ships to port for each contest was customary, they can now be dismantled, shipped across the country or world, and reassembled ahead of each contest. Advancements that made the sport nimbler on the water, also made it nimbler from an activation standpoint – and subsequently the sport can now reach new fans the way fans are best reached … live.
It’s a lucky advancement, because the Chicago shoreline offers a venue nearly impossible to replicate anywhere else in the world, effectively utilizing historical Navy Pier and the harbor to create an aquatic “stadium” on which to view the race. The general viewing public, that is to say, those who aren’t floating out there on boats of their own, is going to get the closest look yet, at an America’s Cup race. Not a bad first impression.
At the end of the day that’s the goal of the Chicago stop of the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series — to make an inimitable, first impression on a new segment of fans — those who until recently, could not have been exposed to the sport. While television channels and livestream options seem to expand infinitely outward, it is tough to create enough broadcast space to air any and every sporting event that can draw enough eyeballs to justify a TV truck. The bottom line is that nothing beats watching sports live, especially, if it’s your first exposure to a sport.
The Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series qualification format itself is rooted in the idea of spreading the sport to new parts of the globe – that is why you are likely to see the word “first” alongside it so frequently. Apart from its introduction in Chicago, the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series reintroduced itself to New York earlier this year, holding a contest on the East Coast of the United States for the first time in 100 years. In November, the ships will arrive in Asia for the first time, hosting a race on the eager shores of Fukuoka, Japan.
Thanks to technological advancement and a governing body focused on growth, America’s Cup is simply employing a battle-tested strategy seen for growing interest — taking the show on the road.
While the NFL is king in America, it is still something of a niche sport outside of the United States. To grow the game, the NFL has invested in a now, near-decade old International Series, playing regular season games at Wembley Stadium in London. In 2016, the series will expand for the first time, taking the game to the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City and to Twickenham Stadium in London. It’s a long-term strategy that appears to be paying dividends, with the league growing increasingly vocal about the possibility of a London franchise.
As with America’s Cup, the sport can only grow as much as technology is capable of facilitating. To reach the sport across the ocean organically, infrastructure and logistics have to be considered. Fans need an authentic touchpoint to connect with the sport, something they can feel ownership over. The NFL hasn’t yet quite found that with the Jaguars in London.
But, America’s Cup has one ace in the hole on its tour to the middle of the U.S. — the home team is the reigning champ — and this country loves winners.
This weekend, as the race gets underway, attendees will be treated to a world class athletic spectacle, top-of-the-line hospitality and entertainment for the whole family. Sailing enthusiasts across the globe will be looking to add a few more to their ranks. We will be among the throngs of future fans watching from the shore, thankful that logistics, technology and a passion for sport have converged once again to bring a world class sporting event to our backyard in Chicago.