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Lessons In Winning Fans From The World’s Most Elite Niche Sport

The infrequent Volvo Ocean Race features unfamiliar athletes with skills you won’t understand on expensive boats in the middle of nowhere. You won’t be able to look away. Seriously.

Lessons In Winning Fans From The World’s Most Elite Niche Sport

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The Volvo Ocean Race practically dares you to give a damn.

It
involves the niche-est of niche sports (round-the-world yacht racing) where the
majority of the action takes place in the middle of nowhere (the middle of the
ocean), carried out by athletes you’ve never heard of (quick, name another world-class sailor other than Dennis Conner), on a handful of multi-million-dollar boats ($10
million or so to build), competing in a single race that’s longer than most
sports seasons (nine months) and occurs almost as infrequently as the Olympic
Games (every three years). Sounds as irresistible as Christopher Cross.

And yet the Volvo Ocean Race, which arrived Wednesday in Miami
for a 10-day stopover, is using technology cleverly to outmaneuver those
shortcomings. Its website is focused on bridging the distance–physical and
otherwise–between spectators and the action in ways that other sports could learn from. 

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Start with the breathtaking on-board video, like the clip below of a wave
engulfing the Telefonica boat. The clip went viral (nearly 500,000 views) after
fans shared and embedded it everywhere. Unlike sports
leagues that are restricted by various broadcast contracts and often wary of rocking the corporate boat, this nautical marathon embraces social media as much as any sport.

In addition to the 11-person sailing crew, each boat has a
media crew member. He shoots photos and video and records audio dispatches, chronicling
the grueling work of sailing 24 hours a day: the four-hour shifts on deck; the extreme
weather, from snow storms near South Africa to brutal heat during multiple
equatorial crossings; the three or so weeks at sea on each of the nine legs,
during which sailors consume around 5,000 calories a day and still lose 20 or
so pounds. “I don’t think another sport puts a journalist at the heart of the
sporting action,” says Kevin Fylan, who covered sports for Reuters and works as
editorial chief for the race site. “They’re there to tell the story.”

In the 1980s, sailboats reported their location once a week.
(Try following that race). Today’s media crew members file continuously, and Fylan’s
team pieces together dispatches from the different boats to weave a beautifully
shot narrative of the action:

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The Volvo Ocean Race staff has created a number of nifty tools to
translate reams of data into meaningful information for fans. The race tracker showed
the boats’ real-time progress from Itajai, Brazil, to Miami the past few weeks
and is loaded with all sorts of bells and whistles. A sliding toolbar traces
each boat’s path, revealing its different routes in pursuit of the best wind.
A geo-content button displays icons for photos, audio, or video posted en route.
A spherical view shows a global map, conveying the enormity of the
39,000-nautical-mile circumnavigation. A digital ruler measures the distance
between boats. On Wednesday, it showed just five nautical miles separating
first-place Puma (led by skipper Ken Read) and second-place Camper (led by
skipper Chris Nicholson), a nail-biting finish. (Now you know two more world-class
sailors.)

“We’re able to see this race and learn more about the environment
than before–the wave height, wind speed, boat speed, the angle of the
keel,” says Marion Brennan, the race’s online chief for the past decade. “The most rabid racing fans want this. We have to find the balance–how much is too much. We don’t want to turn off
people new to the sport.”

This year’s race has provided plenty of drama to draw in
newbies. The boats set sail last November from Alicante, Spain, heading for Cape
Town, and within the first 10 hours two vessels were badly damaged. A boat
repair team immediately hopped a plane to South Africa. A 100-foot mast had to
be flown in as well. Team Telefonica, however, “took off like Usain Bolt,” says
Fylan. It won the first three legs, racking up a big points lead. Since then,
three other competitors have gradually made up ground through the in-port
racing competitions and the other legs. With the conclusion of leg six in Miami, the competition is suddenly a three- and perhaps a four-boat race.

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It’s exciting stuff. No wonder pageviews on the site and
media coverage have already matched the levels for the entire race last time. Following
the boats between Brazil and the U.S., it was hard not to imagine how these
various tools could be applied to the basketball or hockey playoffs or the
baseball season. A tracker you could position to show the position of players or the ball or puck on any given play or throughout the game? Hope the NBA,
NHL, and MLB are watching–and willing to test the waters.

Follow Chuck Salter and Fast Company on Twitter.

[Image: Volvo Ocean Race]

About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug.

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