Sailing: British let down by lack of sponsorship

Stuart Alexander reports on a serious threat to Britannia's rule over the waves
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From a wild southern ocean to an equally vicious screaming run home up an angry English Channel to Southampton, the 1993/94 Whitbread race burned itself into the memories and imagination of thousands of followers around the world. It had come of age as the top ocean sailing event, a heady mixture of danger, nerve-testing skill and gruelling endurance. Then the bandwagon hit the buffers.

A little team headed by the director, Ian Bailey-Willmot, and the marketing man, Andrew McCall, has been clocking up enough air miles recently to cover several Whitbread Round the World Races. They were not just visiting the ports of call in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America.

They were on the stump for about pounds 7m of sponsorship cash from companies they hope to attract as partners in the 1997/98 event. It has not been easy, time is ticking away, the rush to snap up a golden opportunity has been rather underwhelming.

It is a common problem. Britain has struggled at the top level in all but the Olympics. The British are languishing in the Southern Cross Cup in Australia, did badly in the Champagne Mumm Admiral's Cup earlier this year, and have had no contender at the America's Cup since 1986/87. All the skills and talents are there, but the commercial partnerships have not been forthcoming.

In Whitbread terms, some blame the high price tag and the confusing reality that the race already has a sponsor: the brewers, Whitbread. However, Whitbread as a brand is promoted almost wholly in the home UK market so, not least because much of the race and its media exposure takes place overseas, they want to lay off the bulk of the cost.

"British industry is aware, but the real benefits accrue to those looking for global exposure and there aren't too many UK companies in that league," Bailey-Willmot said. But this week brings him the good news that ESPN, the American cable channel, will broadcast half-hour programmes twice a week during the race, and its parent, ABC, will network a one-hour review each month after the finish in June 1998.

At home half a dozen syndicates, with Lawrie Smith's having the highest profile, have also been tramping the corporate corridors looking for their own bank rolls of pounds 4m to pounds 5m to take part in what is the premier ocean racing grand prix. Time for them is running out and only the Welsh Dragon team sounds as though it will scarcely have time to celebrate at Christmas before it throws itself into an accelerated programme in the New Year.

September to November is traditionally decision time in big companies looking forward to and confirming not just next year's budgets but their financial set-up through into 1997. According to Duncan Lee, of the Hammerhead consultancy: "Things are not very healthy at the moment. It's hard to put your finger on why, and it applies also to other sports, but apart from companies already in sponsorship, there is a reluctance to make decisions."

If Whitbread is to give up the title name of the race, and some feel that is vital if a big sponsor is to be brought in, then they will want more money back. That is a tall order in today's tough world.

The original marketing strategy of selling individual leg sponsorships for up to pounds 1m a time has not worked out, so Whitbread has gone back to looking for two or three majors and has appointed Alan Pascoe and Associates as their agents and brokers.

Looking the most hopeful British team are the Welsh. The project spokesman, Mike Shaw, is upbeat: "Things seem to be brightening up. We have official endorsement from the Welsh Yachting Association, backing from the Welsh Tourist Board and Development Authority, are talking quite warmly to two or three industrial sponsors and have an innovative plan for initial funding.