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In the U.S., many equate sailing with wealth, weather, and whiteness. Because of this perception, some see the sport as a niche. But Sail Grand Prix chief content officer Melissa Lawton has a different perspective.
“Every country has a product that is considered niche but is huge in other countries,” Lawton says. “Niche is a state of mind. It’s about how you exploit a sport to become a bigger moment for a larger group of people.”
SailGP is a global sailing competition where teams race identical high-performance F50 foiling catamarans in iconic locations around the world. Points are awarded to the winners of each race and event, and the season culminates with the top three boats competing in a winner-takes-all Season Grand Final.
Getting her feet wet
Lawton was the head of live production at Meta when she attended her first SailGP event. The native Australian was familiar with the sport, yet she still found herself enthralled with the intensity of the race. Lawton’s additional experience at RedBull TV taught her that the youth wanted something “disruptive and different.” After attending a SailGP event, she decided sailing fit this mold. Wanting to get in near the ground floor, Lawton joined SailGP shortly after the third season. Her vision for the company is simple. She wants to bring in fans by educating viewers a little while entertaining them a lot. The key: catering to the core fans without alienating the casuals. She feels her job is to find the characteristics of the sport that appeal to the broader audience.
“Sailing is not niche,” she said. “Niche is just the sum of different communities. There’s a big audience for sailing, but the bigger audience is racing.”
Turning the tides
Lawton’s goal is to expand the audience for sailing by marketing it as a racing product. SailGP avoids sailing jargon on the broadcast, opting for popular racing terms like “jockeying for position” to describe the action. Lawton’s content strategy is to create “surprising and raw” content for short-form platforms like TikTok, hoping to draw people in and get them to watch the longer-form content on platforms like Youtube.
Outside of exciting clips, SailGP also has a docu-series on Youtube entitled Racing on the Edge, reminiscent of the famous Formula 1 Netflix series Drive To Survive. The series highlights the individual teams and competitors, emphasizing the mental extremes these racers face.
“Sailing is a cerebral sport,” says Lawton. “A lot of mental finesse is required to race at these speeds.”
Lawton and SailGP have made other moves to diversify their audience beyond adopting a new philosophy. One of these moves was creating the Inspire program, a global youth and community program that aims to bring more young people into the sailing business, whether on the boat or otherwise. One of the main goals is closing the gender gap in sailing and providing more opportunities for women at the highest levels of the sport. In service of this goal, the program must be at least 50% female. Inspire occurs at every SailGP event, offering work experience and networking opportunities for those who sign up. The initial goal for Inspire was 10,000 sign-ups in the first five years. By season three, they have 14,665 and counting.
“Diversity isn’t just important for the sake of doing good,” Lawton says. “It is important because it helps to grow the sport and introduce it to new markets.”
While a sailor’s success depends on the winds, the success of a product depends on the public’s interest. As Lawton says, the best sailors can see how strong the wind is and how the water goes. If SailGP maintains this philosophy, it should be smooth sailing.