Thanks to the nice people at Sailing Spoken Here, I had the privilege of interviewing the great Gary Jobson. Gary is reporting for Sailing Spoken Here, covering regattas, sailing issues and everything in between over the next two months.
There were a million things I could have asked Gary but what interested me most was his perspective on the state of sailing media, in particular TV. Coincidentally, this was also the week that NBC announced that it would be covering the America's Cup.
Gary has covered sailing on TV since the 1983 America's Cup, There is no one better qualified to talk on the subject and he doesn’t mince his words. In his view, sailing on TV attracts an audience when three things happen:
- Close racing with lots of lead changes
- There is a great story behind the racing
- Compelling characters are involved
Close racing is a tough one. Match racing can be incredibly exciting (Remember the last race of AC32 in Valencia) but it can also be like watching paint dry to anyone but real fans of the sport.
We talked about the way the AC will be covered. A few months ago I saw an impressive demonstration by Stan Honey on the new techniques being used for the AC. This will overlay a wide array of race-related information over the sailing images to explain what’s going on. (Think what the yellow line has done for watching football and multiply that by 10 and you’ll get a sense of what’s in store). It will make the AC match races much easier to understand and much more engaging for novice and veteran watchers of the sport.
In Gary’s view, the technology is good but there is still a question mark about whether or not the AC will deliver close racing with lead changes. Cool graphics can’t make a drag race worth watching.
In any sport, especially less popular sports like sailing, intriguing stories are what draw you in. Gary will be covering the 2012 Olympic sailing for NBC as he has done for many years. He recounted some of the great stories from past Olympics. He recalled the story of Lawrence Lemieux, who competed for Canada in the Finn class at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Lawrence was in second place in the fifth of seven races. A storm blew through wiping out several boats that were prepping for other races. A nearby 470 capsized violently, injuring the crew. Lawrence abandoned his race and medal hopes to sail in the other direction and rescue the two injured crew.
Soon after the regatta, the jury of the International Yacht Racing Union unanimously decided that Lemieux should be awarded second place, the position he was in when he went to the aid of the Singapore crew. At the medal awards ceremony, Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee, awarded Lemieux the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for Sportsmanship. "By your sportsmanship, self-sacrifice and courage," said Samaranch, "you embody all that is right with the Olympic ideal."
One of the greatest stories in sports, let alone sailing, was Dennis Conner reclaiming the America’s Cup in 1987. In 1983, after 132 years of continuously being held by New York Yacht Club, Conner lost the Cup to the Australian, Alan Bond. Four years later, racing the aptly named Stars and Stripes, Conner went to Perth, Australia and won it back. It’s one of the greatest stories of redemption in sports.
Nationalism and the rivalry between nations can help create a great story but the top sailing events, the VOR and the AC, have lost the nationalistic aspect. The VOR is compelling but sadly not prime time TV, especially with only six boats competing. The AC is somewhat nationalistic in terms of the clubs and the countries they represent but you are cheering for a boat named after an airline, a brand of computer software or a sports shoe crewed by sailors from all over the world. It works for Formula 1 but it’s hard to say that will it work for sailing in the long term.
Gary was most passionate about the lack of characters in the sport. There are still many engaging characters like Ken Read and Paul Cayard. You only have to watch Anna Tunnicliffe’s moving speech at the Rolex Yachtsman of the year award to see that there is still some heart in the sport. Sadly these seem to be the exception to the rule.
In Gary’s words, these days many of the sailors seem like “dullards” compared to the characters of the past. They are so heavily media-trained that they always say the right thing and avoid saying anything provocative. Gone are the days when you could count on Ted Turner, the Mouth From The South to stir things up.
In the most recent Sailing World, Gary Jobson recounts stories about these great characters. My favorite was about racing with both Ted Turner and Buddy Melges. Melges was unsure which end of the start was favored. Turner asked “Buddy are you having trouble, making up your mind?” Melges’ response? “Well, yes and no.”
When I spoke with him, Gary had just completed a documentary on the 1987 AC in Perth. One of the highlights was the rivalry between Conner and the late Tom Blackaller in the Challenger Series. What a character! Blackaller was world champion in Stars, AC skipper, accomplished catamaran racer and a champion racing car driver. Above all, Tom was beloved in the sport. Scuttlebutt created a great tribute to his life on the twentieth anniversary of his death. There are dozens of warm and funny stories about the guy.
I asked Gary what interests him most about sailing media these days. He is still having a lot of fun. In addition to his TV work, he is doing much more online. Most recently, he covered the NOOD in Florida for Sailing Spoken Here. For Jobson this was an opportunity to reconnect with some more down-to-earth racing where the crews are there “to have fun with their mates". It was reinvigorating for Gary to get back to some more raw, emotional racing and chat with racers who are doing it purely for the fun of it.
In his view, TV will always be important in covering the sport for the masses but online media creates new ways to engage real fans. He is experimenting with different video formats for covering races, playing around with different movie lengths and trying to find new ways to bring to life tight, exciting racing. You can see some of his work from the last year at his web site.