The most honest place in sports is the locker room. Boxers whip themselves to a frenzy pre-bout and then pray, cry or celebrate having faced uncomfortable truths. Jockeys jockey. Footballers get shouted at by desperate managers. Rugby players collectively fuel testosterone. It’s an inner sanctum beloved of Netflix documentary-makers. The locker room is real and revealing at just about every level of sport. Even your local sailing club is a hive of chat, gossip and a natural pecking-order.
It might be a soggy place to don a wetsuit that’s seen better days with a trickle shower or it could be Squadron-esque finery with dedicated oak lockers and brass hinges to put on your foulies but it’s where friendships are made, real gossip is passed, tales are told, banter is given, true character is exposed and it’s far more real than the bar. Truth outs in locker-rooms. Emotion is expressed. Feelings are exposed. And for the professionals in our sport it’s a sanctum away from the numbers, the team bosses, and the owners.
If there is such a thing in Cadiz this weekend at the final SailGP regatta on the European circuit, the locker-room chat would be priceless. Netflix would pay a king’s ransom to record it. You can picture the scene, imagine it if you will. Jimmy and Tom locked in quiet chat discussing animatedly the merits of Cagliari. Nathan politely joshing with Ben about Qatar or Bahrain, getting obviously enthused at the light winds. Pete coming in discussing the merits of Geneva and house prices on the lake with Blair and how his missus is spending a fortune in furniture shops.
As the wetsuits get applied, the conversation cross-pollinates – “hey Tom did you get the call from Ernesto?” and “Is that a Mercedes helmet Ben – wow that’s cool, let’s have a look…” “Hey Blair how are you getting on wing foiling?” Before the conversation descends to: “Jimmy are you going to be in Milton Keynes next week – do you even know where Milton Keynes is?…Red Bull Private jet?” and “Hey Ben – where was Goody? You got him?”
Whilst we in the media like to angle sailors against sailors at the top end, the real fact is that they are mostly all mates behind the scenes, cordial at worst. The America’s Cup or SailGP are just sporting vehicles with pantomime overtones and farcical undertones. They are games with a prize. Yes, serious at times when the spotlights are on, billionaires getting antsy and the media asking dumb questions but see it for what it is, it’s a well-paid hobby with benefits.
It’s also a relatively short career, a pit-stop for many, at the apex but to get there they’ve all come largely through the same ranks, the same regattas and once they depart the top-level they’ll be on the classic circuit, steering rich men’s boats for years to come. Inevitable friendship borne from shared experiences is much in evidence at the top. The current rumour mill is something that they are well ahead of so no wonder they develop a true loathing of the media, casting around for tidbits. I don’t blame them. We get the story wrong more than we get it right and they know it. They know the truth and share it freely in the locker room.
But we’re into a new media age now with Formula 1 entering the ring and their vast communications teams who have lived and breathed 24/7 global commentary from all angles are now going to be on full brief in the Cup.
Messaging is crafted and delivered carefully. Journalists are played and cajoled. Media is identified and cosseted. Opinion formers are managed. Threats can be veiled or explicit. Embargoes applied. Sifting through the chaff is going to be the name of the game in this America’s Cup cycle and we’ve only just begun.
Ineos will now retreat to communicating directly and controlling the message tightly. Quite right too. It’s a great strategy. When Alinghi goes over the top next week, it will be Swiss efficiency combined with Austrian F1 nous. Team New Zealand probably do it best with a more open approach and direct contact whilst the Americans are refreshingly welcoming to both their national and the international press. The Italians court and coset their home media and wonder what they’ve done wrong too late. It’s a fascinating mix of styles, largely completely over-thought in the main and far easier to solve than they imagine. But it’s the Great Game and it’s all on now.
We’ve got a great weekend coming up in Cadiz at the SailGP with all the big names in attendance – whether any of them will stray into Cup-land is debatable – but with more questions than answers at the moment, it’s a fertile ground for rumours to be quashed or enhanced and appetites whetted.
This week defined the British side of the America’s Cup 2024, next week we’ll find out just how hot the tournament is going to be.
Oh to be a fly on the wall in the locker-room.