X-Factor

When ambitious sports teams lose, they hire. And they hire aggressively. In the summer transfer window in the UK, Chelsea FC spent £224m on five players in an attempt to challenge for the Premiership and seek European glory. And that’s against a backdrop of having no supporters in the stadium and falling revenues from the broadcasters. It’s a win-at-all-costs, take-no-prisoners strategy played by aggressive billionaires and it’s being replicated by other rich owners who want to emerge from the pandemic stronger and capitalise on this, hopefully, once in a thousand year situation. Money is a marvellous insulator from reality.

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In cycling, the Ineos Grenadiers had an absolutely shocking Tour de France but pulled it together and miraculously won the Giro d’Italia despite their lead man in that race, Geraint Thomas, breaking his hip in a fall when he ran over a rogue water bottle early in the race. Tao Geoghan Hart, the young Londoner who has been coming through the ranks for years, seized his opportunity and in youthful exuberance, snatched the race. All credit to him but when you are operating in a team with an eye-watering budget that’s larger than all the others in the pro peleton, it’s not really good enough to rely on youthful exuberance and hope for the best. The Grenadiers can’t afford another year of making up the numbers. They have to win. So what did they do? They hired aggressively in the off-season and funny enough, this weekend they won.

As we come into the final throes of the America’s Cup, it is looking likely that the AC75s will be retained for wherever in the world they will be sailed in the next defence and it could be a boom-time extravaganza for the sailors, designers, boat builders, electronics experts, mechatronics demons and sailmakers.

If you’re Team Ineos and eyeing the next Cup cycle, perhaps as Challenger of Record, you would be daft if you’re not running the rule over all the team members of the other teams – the talent pool is so sparse. And if you’re Team New Zealand, the rumoured lowest payers in the field, it’s a nervous time. Forget the Coutts/Butterworth defection, we could see half the team being lured to the money-no-object brigades that are forming. The knowledge that they would leave with is priceless. The skills they possess are hard won but it’s the out-of-the-box thinking that is the most prized. In the Kiwi team, it’s an innate, in-built psyche that can propel an Ineos/Prada/Magic/Whoever to the top step of the podium. Hiring the Kiwi linchpins would be worth every dollar.

©KOS Picture Source / www.kospictures.com

And then if the Cup goes abroad in 2025, and new teams are brought in, the market could get super-hot. A Chinese entry could do an awful lot worse than hire Dean Barker or Terry Hutchinson. A European team would be nuts not to secure Nathan Outeridge. And someone likes Giles Scott could be very attractive to lead a new team on mega money. I would suspect Paul Goodison would be in line for a helming shot if we go to a light-weather venue where his Moth skills in tweaking at the high performance end would be so highly prized.

The interesting one would be Jimmy Spithill. If Red Bull could be convinced to step up and sponsor a big team – perhaps a Middle Eastern or Asian team – we could well see him contractually obliged as a sponsored athlete or so deep in the process of the sponsorship negotiation that he would leave and lead for the Austrian drinks manufacturer. It would be akin to Formula 1 where drivers are selected not necessarily on pure driving ability but on the sponsorship dollars they can bring to the team. This year in Formula 1 we will see Nikita Mazepin driving a Haas car. He is the son of Dmitry Mazepin who is the core shareholder and chairman of the Uralchem Integrated Chemicals Company and you can be damn certain that being the son of a billionaire means cash will flow to the American outfit. It’s a model that I’m certain will follow into the America’s Cup.

©KOS Picture Source / www.kospictures.com

In Britain, awash with great sailors, it’s Ben Ainslie that sits quite rightly at the top of the tables in terms of star quality that sponsors are so eager to secure. The medals, the Knighthood, the Royal connections and the ability to thrill and entertain when it matters are what makes Ben the star that he is. Thankfully the pre-Christmas mess was swiftly resolved and quickly forgotten. That was image tarnishing stuff – akin to Lewis Hamilton being lapped in the Mercedes in pre-season testing. It’s not a good look. But that’s water under the bridge and his star has shone probably brighter than all through this series. And going forward, there will be any number of suitors looking for his signature but in Jim Ratcliffe and his sports team behind the scenes he has the wiliest of operators who will nail down his services quickly.

If I were Team New Zealand though, I would be seriously worried. The sharks are circling in a very shallow pond and talent on a low fee is easy prey. It’s a money game. It always was and always will be.

Watch out, it’s about to get interesting.

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