How do you popularize an obscure sporting event that runs through the remotest oceans for three quarters of a year? That is Knut Frostad’s task as CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race, a round-the-world yachting competition that takes place every two years. The race, which covers nearly 40,000 miles, features half a dozen teams from every corner of the earth who battle high winds and dangerous seas for over nine months. An amazing race in every sense of the word, it has been called the Everest of sailing.
As a four-time competitor and skipper in the race, Frostad is well-equipped to lead it. He’s also Scandinavian (Norwegian) — which wasn’t a requirement, but as the public face of an event sponsored by a Nordic car company, it doesn’t hurt. During his tenure, Frostad has worked to modernize the race, from its marketing to its coverage; for example, each racing boat harbors an “embedded” reporter who blogs and takes videos and photos on a daily basis, allowing online spectators to follow racers around the globe, through every storm and every sunrise.
With the 2014-15 race set to begin in October, Frostad has been on the road a lot. We sat down with him in Newport, Rhode Island, which will serve as a stopover in the upcoming race, to discuss the race’s global appeal, incredibly high-tech sailboats, and how GoPros have changed the sailing landscape.
Q. What are the goals for the Volvo Ocean Race?
We want to invest in the sport, build the sport. We want to be there for the whole ride. We don’t have to be the most visible, but we want be part of it. Volvo is not doing this race or owning it because of the branding, it’s not because they want to make Volvo famous, because most people know Volvo… Our objective is to build more fans, and the fans may be fans of Volvo, they may not be. We are developing [the race] as a brand, and you will see that the things we do. You don’t see the Volvo logo in many places. Its kind of in the background, because the event has to live and be focused on its own history, its own merits, and we focus a lot on building the story — a human-driven story about these people who do these crazy things.
Q. I’m trying to imagine a person who doesn’t know anything about, or have interest in, sailing. What do you hope draws them in?
I think we can do a better job on that. In the past we have been way too much of a sailing event, in our communication. It’s a lost opportunity. It had a lot to do with the people who produced television… Now we see for the next event, we have people in our TV crew today who are 21 years old, who are fantastic guys who have backgrounds from Red Bull Extreme Sports, do all kinds of things. They have a completely different perspective, because today you don’t need a TV company to produce television, you just need five GoPro cameras and a Mac and you’re off. If you’re clever and you have the skills you can do amazing productions with that.
That is one element for us. The other element for us is that we have worked very hard on a globalized event, not in the sense of necessarily where the money comes from, but because sailing was quite a traditional sport. In some markets it had not-so-good associations; like in the U.S., for example, it’s associated with the high end, a bit elitist, a luxury thing. In France it’s not like that, it’s different in different markets. We needed to break some of those barriers, so we had focused hard on China, for example.
Why would a Chinese person be interested in this sport? If you start to read the history, it’s Newport and John Kennedy. “No, that’s not me, I’m Chinese.” You have to build a national side, and then it’s a lot about focusing on people and not on boats. That’s one of the reasons we changed boats in this race. It was not only cost-driven, it was also story-driven. It’s a way for us to avoid this constant talk about carbon and titanium, by talking about carbon and titanium, you lose 60 to 70 percent of your audience immediately.
In the past, when the race started, the teams all wanted their own boats, when the race finished they all wanted the boat that won. Now they all get the boat that won.
Q. The plan is to use the same boats?
Same designs. Even the same boats! They’re built to last for two events. One of the beauties of having an identical boat is that last time you had to develop new boats every race. That’s a huge investment. We only had to make the boats slightly stronger, and they will be more than strong enough to do two events, and that’s a huge, huge benefit.
Q. So the concept with the boat design is that every team gets the same boat. Rather than every team building their own, you have a set design for this race, and the teams, once they sign up for the race, buy that boat and have it built by one of the shipwrights?
No, we even build them.
Q. Then you sell them to the teams?
We don’t sell them. We appointed four yards to build them, together, different parts of the boat. One of the yards delivers the boats in the end, and all the teams buy their boats from the same yards. So they have exactly the same boats. There’s a tolerance of 1 millimeter on the boats, on everything. So they’re exactly the same, and they have the same spare parts, the same tools, the same steerage systems. And then we also provide the service teams that service the boats in the race. So they can do the race with much smaller teams than they had in the past.
This brings the cost down a lot, and the other part of it is that it makes it possible for new teams to enter that would not consider doing this if we had the old model. You don’t start a Formula One team tomorrow and think you’re going to beat the top guys because they’re miles ahead of you. Now everyone starts in the same place.
Q. With the old boats, you had certain guidelines, right?
With the old boats, we had a big book of rules and a box, and the boats had to fit inside that box. Inside that box, they could do pretty much what they wanted, but they ended up more and more similar, because they all know what works. There were always differences, so there was always one boat faster than the other boat. When the race started, they all wanted their own boats, when the race finished they all wanted the boat that won. Now they all get the boat that won. It makes a lot of sense. The only element that it takes away is the R & D side of the event.
Q. When a race focuses so much on the equipment and the boat, it only perpetuates that. I think you get away from that here. The boats are expensive, certainly, but it’s not this arms race that the America’s Cup is.
People are not interested in it, at all. I had a press conference on Thursday in France with the Chinese team. It’s taken us now seven years to get where that we have a Chinese team. Now, it’s not 100 percent Chinese; it’s four Chinese guys out of eight crew members, but that is amazing… It’s interesting because in China they still haven’t picked up on this “rich man’s sport” kind of thing, so for them this is just the most crazy human adventure you can ever do. They go back 600 years, they’re talking about their history when the seafaring captains from China discovered the world. They only really talk about people. They’re so proud of these four Chinese guys that are willing to do the race, it’s amazing. We had Chinese media in France, and they look at them [the sailors] like Armstrong landing on the moon. It’s like, “Wow, you’re going to go out there in the ocean, with the Chinese flag?”
Q. This is really about people having an epic adventure.
The story is what’s happening between eight people who go around the world, and everything they experience — inter-personal, themselves, the drama, the danger, all these things — it’s interesting for most people. We have a program series coming up about family life. We have a channel that’s working with us on this, producing extreme family-life situations, and they have found our event perfect. So they are going to do a lot of other things. We have mothers and fathers who do this race, who leave their kids for nine months, and the kids are at the dock waving good-bye.
Q. I know that Team SCA is an all-women’s crew. That’s all new for the race, right?
No, it’s happened before. It’s just that it’s quite a few years since we had it. We had it in 2002. I think this is the sixth team we’ve had. After 2002, we changed to a boat type that was so powerful and so physically heavy to sail that it made it impossible for women. We changed the boat now, made it slightly smaller, and because everyone has the same now, we changed some of the gearing on the systems, the grinding winches and stuff, so women can actually handle it. So that’s why we have a team again, which is great.
Q. Sailing is not exactly a spectator sport. The live feeds and the regular updates on the website… what about in terms of the mass media or people that maybe aren’t going to tune in to the website? Is there any opportunity to watch it on TV in the U.S.?
For the first time, I think we are going to have good coverage in the U.S. We are finalizing a deal with NBC, and we already have four TV agreements now. We are going to be on four different platforms, and NBC will be the biggest. But we’re not a live sport. We’re going to have live, but live is going to be digital. You will have the race live on your phone or your iPad. We will do live shows pretty much every day that people call in to the boats. You can tune in on your phone and see, “Wow, here they are talking.” You can send questions.
To do a live 60 minute Saturday afternoon production, we’re not that kind of event. Now we’re going back to more of the documentary weekly shows. We’re going to have 39 weekly shows, 20 to 25 minutes long, which are much more feature and documentary oriented, following the people that are doing this event while they’re doing it, everything that happens on board. Their lives, what scares them, why they do this.
Q. What led to Newport’s selection as a stopover port? It’s a great sailing city but rather small for a major sporting event.
Newport is fantastic. It took us 40 years to get here. The race has never been to Newport. It’s the first time, and it’s really strange, but I was with this local journalist before who was from Newport, and he asked me, “Do you think it’s going to work?” I said, “I know it’s going to work”, because personally I’ve always been a fan of being a big fish in a small pond. Always. I’ve seen the opposite so many times. Not only ours, all the sport events that go to these massive cities and they drown. Of course, if you are soccer in Rio de Janeiro, you will be seen. But even there it’s difficult, the city’s so big.
In the past, we’d always be in Cape Town, Sydney, Miami. We’ve been to New York. We’ve been to Boston. We’ve been to Baltimore, but never to Newport. What I see now is that Newport is becoming one of the more popular places for the sponsors. A lot of sponsors are bringing in more guests here than they did in the big cities, and they are saying that people like to get invited to Newport. The people come here, spend two days with us, then you kind of own them because they are here with you and they cannot escape. If you are in Manhattan, they’re gone; they might go to another event, a concert for example.
Q. I think a small city this size, they really pull out all the stops to accommodate the event. They must love when an event like this comes to town, because they embrace it so much.
It’s interesting, we used to be in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil for every race, then last race I moved the event from Rio to a very small city in Brazil, Itajai. It’s small in the sense that it’s only half a million people living there, but in a one-hour drive there are nine million people, so there’s more people. We had the biggest event in Brazil that ever happened, by a huge margin. I think every single citizen was involved in the event. Every single one. We were like Olympics for them. They were like, “Screw the World Cup, screw the Olympics. You’re our event.” They were so proud, and they did everything for you. Every taxi driver, everyone. So when we brought foreigners and media to the event, they were like, “Wow, you guys rule.”
Q. When do you start planning the next Volvo Ocean Race?
We already have eight small teams now that are planning the 2017-18 race. We have three teams signed up already for the following one. We have about 50 percent of the stopovers contracted and we are now starting the process to contract the last. It takes a long time to plan. Although 2017 seems far away, it’s not really.
Learn more about the Volvo Ocean Race here.