The future of sailing:10 strategies for a bright future

The future of sailing: 10 powerful strategies for a bright future

Sailing has undergone some huge changes over the last few years. However, the sports has some huge challenges to deal with in order to secure the future of sailing. In this artice we discuss 10 potential strategies which could become important for the future of sailing.

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How can sailing become more attractive again?

Sailing is of all times and so is competitive sailing. The sports has undergone huge changes over the years. Who could have imagined in 1852 when the first Americas Cup was organised that roughly two centuries later boatspeeds would have increased by as much as 9 times? To give you an impression, in 1852, the winner of the race, the schooner America managed a speed of 6 knots (about 11 km per hour), whereas today’s new generation of Americas Cup yachts are able to manage boat speeds well above 50 knots. That’s more than 90 km per hour, mind you! 

First winner of Americas Cup

That is pretty spectacular and amazing, is it not? The Americas Cup no doubt is the Formula 1 of sailing. The technology in this class is just awesome and the match races are incredibly spectacular to watch. Similar to F1, the Americas Cup (and possibly the Ocean Race) can be seen as an incubator for new sailing innovations and for the sports in general.

Nevertheless, in spite of spectacular innovations, somehow sailing is not that popular and the future of sailing seems uncertain. It is seen as a somewhat elitist sport, as expensive, as difficult to watch and understand. Participation levels unfortunately (but not surprisingly) have been on the decline for some time, partly due to the new generations Z (see my blogpost) and Alpha (see blogpost) having much different priorities and having limited time. It will be quite a challenge for the sports to turn this trend around, but simultaneously the sports carries everything in it, to make it more popular again, particularly with these new generations. In fact the future of sailing could be bright!

Who are these new generations?

Why am I saying this? Let’s first briefly review these generations. What are they like? They are called the Tech generation or the screenagers, they are GenZ and GenAlpha! Without tech no deal! 

They are utterly independent and free spirited and like adventure to emphasize their identity. They want to pay only for what they consume. In fact they are frugal to some extent. This is one of the reasons why sharing platforms  and streaming are gaining ground; pay for usage only. They are extremely environmentally and health conscious. They have limited time on their sleeves and hence an extremely short attention span. They like to meet up with their buddies and have fun. They are for equality as far as gender, race etc is concerned.

Ok, read again and now with the future of sailing in the back of your mind. How can sailing re-invent itself to make itself more attractive for these generations. In fact, it should not be too difficult to come up with a couple of ideas. Maybe easier said than done you might think, but surely it is possible! I bet that if you think for a minute or two you can come up with several solutions yourself, solutions that will make a bright future of sailing. Below I have described 10 potential strategies that might become important for the future of sailing. Some of them are already apparent and some might be new.

10 strategies for the future of sailing

The future of sailing strategy 1: Boats are likely to become even faster leading to spectacular and high adrenaline sailing. Foiling is here to stay!

Gen Z and GenAlpha have extremely short attention spans and like adventure. Fast, furious and spectacular, that’s what they are into and high adrenaline adventure  with your buddies sells, because as you know, each experience should be shareable! 

Clearly the world of sailing is already turning into this direction. We all have seen what foiling has done for the sports. It creates not only spectacular views but also gives sailors a sense of freedom, it feels like kind of flying over the water. Watch the footage below and you will understand what I mean. 

Foiling has given an entirely new dimension to sailing (and surfing) and will continue to make further strides. If you are a purist you might regret this development, but it is unlikely that these new generations will turn the clock back, traditional sailing might be just too boring for them. High adrenaline is what they are looking for. In the future of sailing foiling is here to stay! Clearly events like the Americas Cup are attractive to many. Such events do not only result in new fans, they are also perfect breeding grounds for new sailing technology, which can be used in much smaller boats that can be sailed by you and me.

The future of sailing strategy 2: 3D Printing and sharing platforms should be ways to make sailing more accessible

Sailing is too expensive and too elitist. That’s an often heard complaint and perception, which could hurt the future of sailing if not addressed. There will be a huge challenge going forward to keep sailing accessible to the masses. Participation rates have come down and accessibility and elitism surely are reasons for this development This is unlikely to change unless the sports will become less capital intensive. As said, GenZ and Gen Alpha are somewhat frugal and extremely price conscious. It means, the industry has to adjust and come up with new solutions.

No doubt 3D printing could be one of the solutions that could come to the rescue. This technology does not only print spare parts, it also is already able to print entire boats. Watch the video below and see what 3D printing is capable of and you will realise immediately why it will impact the future of sailing.

Clearly it will take some time before the first sailing boats will be printed, but it will only be a matter of time. Obviously the big advantage is that this technology is an awful lot cheaper and requires less time to market. Clearly, it may disrupt the traditional yachtbuilding business but it also will result in more people being able to buy a vessel, which should be good news for the future of sailing.

Simultaneously I believe ownership models will also change. Having a good experience is what the new Gens are looking for. However, as sailing is time consuming, time might become a big issue for this time-poor generation. This generation is probably not really interested into maintenance or time consuming activities related to the sports. The ability to go daysailing in a simple to operate yacht will be critical for the future of sailing! Hence I would not be surprised if pay and play formats will become more important. Walk in, pay and go. Pay for usage instead of ownership! 

Additionally, similar to car sharing, boat sharing will also become more important than it is right now. Look around when in an average harbour and you see many yachts that are inactive or even never used. That’s unlikely to go on. Shared services and ownership concepts will come to the fore and will be very important for the future of sailing. Such formats are not only cheaper for its users, these solutions are also more environmentally friendly, another tick in the box for the new kids in town. With above described developments, the future of sailing might well become a cheaper and more accessible one compared to the past.

Also interesting to read: 10 high adrenaline surfing spin-offs

The future of sailing strategy 3: Make sailing more all inclusive and create a level playing field in competitive sailing.

All inclusiveness is something which is a big thing with the new generations. Wherever you look, issues like gender equality, race, discrimination etc are becoming ever more important. Sailing is unlikely to escape. As long as one in five sailors is female, a clear plan has to be made to reduce this enormous gap. Make sailing more attractive to women! This not only will give the sports a new incentive, it also is a way to increase participation rates again. For the future of sailing, this will be a big thing as far as I am concerned.

Another important issue is weight. Weight is extremely important in order to be competitive in sailing, which simultaneously implies that there is never a level playing field in the different classes, even if boats are the same. With current technology, it should be possible to just do that, to create a yacht that are simple to operate for both men and women and for light and heavyweights. Such a boat would would certainly address gender equality and mixed racing! It just requires creative thinking for the boating industry, but it will be important for the future of sailing is my opinion!

Sailing strategies for the future

The future of sailing strategy 4: Increased focus on environment and health

Sustainability, environment, ecofriendliness, no carbon footprint. Well-known buzzwords that are extremely important going forward, not only because of the new generations are focussing on these items, also because responsible leadership will prioritize these issues. 

The sweet thing is that sailing is uniquely positioned to market itself as an environmentally friendly sport. Recycling of boats and equipment, making use of the elements (wind, water, sun etc), no CO2 emissions, and clean oceans are just a few subjects that will count. If sailing will position itself as a sustainable minded sport (and it is increasingly doing so), it is in a good position to reap the benefits in the future.

Additionally, Covid 19 has proven that outdoor sports are healthy. Fresh air and a healthy living style have gained ground during the crisis and are likely here to stay, certainly in view of the priorities of the new Gens. Again this should be beneficial for the sports going forward.

The future of sailing strategy 5: Sailing being marketed as a great social experience both for the active and passive

We sailors know it already for a long time! Sailing is super social, unless you are going on a single hand crossing of course, but such crossings are the exceptions. Nothing beats a good sailing trip with a couple of friends and that’s exactly what these new generations Alpha and Z are looking for; experiences with your buddies! In order to relax they want to meet up with their friends and chill out! Relaxed day sailing is likely to become more important going forward.

Besides active sailing, passively enjoying it, will also become more important. We all have witnessed how popular big events such as the Volvo Ocean Race and the Americas Cup are with the fans. Venues are seeing huge crowds visiting the race villages and enjoying the races and social experience. These are valuable day outs with a festival atmosphere in a high technology environment. Hanging out with friends and having a beer whilst witnessing a race in front of you or alternatively watching it on big screens definitely makes the sport more attractive to many, certainly if these races are high octane and spectecular.

City racing on small in-stadium courses are already common, but are likely to gain further ground in the future. Seeing is the first step before doing. Hence, whenever and whereever possible, try to get these races in cities and make them easy accessible to crowds. In fact why not making stadium racing part of major world-championships rather than setting out offshore courses. Maybe this might be a bit more complicated, but you definitely gain fans with it! It seems like sailing is going more into this direction.

Also interesting to read: 10 super reasons why outdoor sports will grow

The future of sailing strategy 6: Make footage more fun and understandable to watch

the future of sailing

For many, looking at a sailing race is kind of a boring experience. For the new generations this is killing! They definitely will quit watching streamed content if there is nothing to their liking, let alone if they are watching content that they do not understand or which is taking too much of their time. Short, sweet, spectacular and understandable, that’s what will probably win you the war and which will be very important for the future of sailing. It should be an experience, remember!

Yes, for us sailing buffs it is great to see two yachts circling each other in the starting area of a match race, but newbees won’t understand! Yes, we understand all the graphics of nowadays, the laylines to the buoys, windspeed in knots etc, but a newbee sees only lines and dots. Besides content for fanatics, thought should be given to how watching sailing content can become more of an experience. With some creativity and the available new technology such as VR and AR, racing content could definitely become even more attractive than it already is right now.

What to think of? Onboard 360 cameras (choose your own angle), drones, VR headsets with audio that let you be part of the crew, AR goggles in which you can see all the stats you want etc etc. But also short highlight shows with bloopers, fun facts and spectacular actions will do well for the future of sailing. There are many possibilities. I believe footage is slowly improving. For exaple I love the coverage on the Americas Cup series (watch this round robin race of the Prada Cup, one of the best matchraces ever!), but there are still steps to be made in order to lure in new younger fans!

The future of sailing strategy 7: Technology needs to be prioritized as it is an ever more becoming force to reckon with

Robotics, VR, AR, AI, sensors, drones. These are just a few of the technologies that are having a huge impact on sports and hence also on the future of sailing. Whether it is Artificial Intelligence helping designers building their yachts, creating perfect autopilots or finding the ideal racecourse. Whether it is Virtual Reality helping you to learn or experience the sports from the comfort of your home or practicing a liferaft drill. Whether is is Augmented Reality with the latest data and stats displayed in your goggles, the opportunities and apps are endless.

These technologies should not only bring the sports to the next level, they also offer great leveraging opportunities towards the tech crazed new kids. If somehow sailing can emphasize that it is a high tech sports, it certainly will gain popularity amongst these new gens. This truly will be one of the major challenges for the future of sailing!

The future of sailing strategy 8: Gamification should continue to attract new fans

Gamification (see my earlier blogpost) in sailing is a big thing! Actually, sailing has been one of the first sports that entered into gamification. The 2008-2009 Volvo Ocean Race game was one of the first to experiment with virtual on-line sailing and from the start on it was a huge success. It attracted a whopping 220,000 participants in its first edition and ever since, it has shown tremendous growth. Being a virtual stage winner of one of the early editions myself, I can only say that this is of no surprise to me as it is an awful lot of fun. 

But besides this, it is a great thing for the sports as games are attracting a potential new group of youngsters that not only want to play the game but also want to experience the real thing! It is one of the ways to attract the new e-game generation, who can playfully learn online what sailing is all about. Yes I know, it is entirely different from the real experience but it definitely may serve as a catalyst. Mind you, if you know that by now one of the most popular platforms Virtual Regatta has 1,5 mln registered active players and organizes more than 50 offshore races per year, you may understand what gamification can do for the future of sailing.

The future of sailing strategy 9: Fan involvement and fan decisionmaking should become more important

The modern fan wants to be involved! GenZ and Gen Alpha are used to make their own decisions (remember, they are the game generation). They do want to have a say in what’s happening. Federations should give this a serious thought if they want to build up a good relationship with their future fans. What should you think of? Involve fans in major decisions on issues such as events, colored sails, coverage, content, you name it. But you could even think of direct involvement in races. The technology is there. For example, let the crowd decide on tactics in offshore races.

During the edition of 2009 Volvo Ocean Race, the virtual gaming community was steering one of the boats (Green Dragon) during the last few legs of the race. Every night they could vote for 4 alternative scenarios set out by the skipper and navigator of the Green Dragon. These guys had to follow the scenario with the most votes. This was and is a true example of how the virtual and the real world could converge. Green Dragon managed to realise its best results during the race when steered by this virtual community which proved the phenomenons of “virtual wisdom of the crowd”. It is fanengagement taken to the extreme.(See article.). 

Fans are important for a sports and want to have a say in what’s happening. The Green Dragon initiative is just an example, but there are plenty more examples to think of in order to get fans aboard and feeling important. In my mind fan decision making will be important for the future of sailing.

The future of sailing strategy 10:  Prioritize digitization, social media, storytelling, influencers and engagement

Although the world of sailing is already active in above mentioned fields to some extent, it is by no means sufficient to reach the younger audiences. Digitization is the way how to reach them! It is the way how they communicate. It is almost their identity! Digital transformation is the magic formula going forward where fan engagement and potential new participants are concerned. It is an absolute must for the future of sailing and should be one of the main pillars in any digital strategy. In this perspective the sailing federations will play a pivotal role.

The fan of the future is a digial one! In fact and as stated before, technology is totally embedded in the minds of these new generations. Smartphones, tablets, streaming platforms and social media are the new toolkits of the future fan. Traditional and new types of content can be leveraged towards these new forms of communication. Digital marketing is still very underdeveloped, also within the world of sailing, but will rapidly gain ground as sailing will realize this could be a unique additional source of revenues to develop the sports. Loyalty and customer relations should become the new spearpoint in any fan engagement strategy.

But that’s not all! Digitization will also provide different stakeholders with a wealth of data, which should be seen as the new gold. The data of sailing fans and participants will provide better knowledge of their habits, preferences and demographics, which will translate into new product opportunities. These data will not only be useful for sports organisations themselves but also to numerous other parties such as sponsors, advertisers, manufacturers, media conglomerates etc. Partnering and sharing as well as selling data will therefore become very valuable assets and generate new revenues. 

How can this be realized? Fans like good stories and emotional content. Social media and storytelling are ways to realize this besides the use of influencers and role models that are important to these new generation. Sailing lends itself for good content with a big wow factor, so it should be possible! Without a good social media strategy aimed on these new generations you will not win the war.

Clearly, some of the trends mentioned above are already becoming apparent and not all of these are new. In fact sailing has been trying for a while and has to balance its act between the more traditional old gen sailors and the new kids on the block, which is far from easy. I have just put in my own thoughts on the future of sailing and on how to make this sports more popular. No doubt you may have a different opinion, which I would love to hear. Please share your thoughts or send me a private mail.

Published by Jan Kees Mons

I am Jan Kees Mons. Just call me JK, that’s easier I guess. I am a Dutchman living in the heart of the city of Amsterdam. Right now I am living on my own. However, not for much longer, as I plan to live together with my lovely girlfriend.