(Adds quotes, details from Ainslie interview)
By Alexander Smith
LONDON, Oct 6 (Reuters) – Ben Ainslie has bought a majority stake in the franchise for the Great Britain SailGP Team he leads, in the first such move by one of the eight crews in the $1 million prize competition.
SailGP, established in 2018 and bankrolled by Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison, is run by New Zealander Russell Coutts whose aim is to turn it into a self-sustaining circuit which appeals to a far wider audience than sailing has previously.
Ainslie, who is the most successful Olympic sailor and is separately embarking on his third attempt to win the America’s Cup for Britain, said he had exercised an option to own the franchise alongside businessman and sailor Chris Bake.
“It (SailGP) is modelled on a U.S. sports franchise … This is a really exciting chapter in the evolution of sailing,” Ainslie told Reuters on Wednesday. He declined to disclose financial details, but said that the size of the long-term investments he and Bake were making was “meaningful”.
SailGP’s second season is due to resume in Cadiz, Spain for the final event of its European leg this weekend, with the teams aboard F50 catamarans which “fly” above the water on hydrofoils and have hit nearly 100 kilometres per hour.
A SailGP campaign costs each team millions of dollars a year and Ainslie said that as majority equity owners of the Great Britain franchise he and Bake would have to bring this cash in.
“I can see massive potential to bring in the commercial partners that want to be associated with the team, as well as younger sailors and female sailors and the sustainability angle that comes with the league,” Ainslie added.
SailGP aims to be “100% powered by nature, both on and off the water” by 2025 and its plans include development pathways for both female athletes and aspiring young sailors as well as a sustainability league which ranks teams by their environmental performance rather than their showing on the water.
Bake, who is a member of the executive committee at energy and commodities trading group Vitol, previously invested in Ainslie’s 35th America’s Cup campaign and owns a team in the RC44 racing class, which was inspired and co-designed by Coutts.
Ainslie said that Bake’s expertise in developing biofuels was also likely to play a part in his involvement in SailGP, adding that the two had become friends through the America’s Cup and began talking about the SailGP idea “some time ago”.
“Mutual friendship and his (Bake’s) love of the sport are what drove it forward,” Ainslie said.
Two additional third-party owned franchise teams will be joining SailGP for its third season, which will start in May 2022, the organisers said in a statement. (Reporting by Alexander Smith; Editing by Christian Radnedge and Ed Osmond)