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Can This Sailing League Finally Bring Gender Equity to Sports?

Could sailing become the biggest sport in the world? The people behind SailGP, the sports league and international F50 catamaran racing competition, think it can. After all, it boasts high-speed, perfect-for-TV races, a new approach to gender diversity, and an impressive slate of investors that includes Issa Rae. Late last week, it was announced that Tommy Hilfiger would be its official lifestyle apparel partner.

This past weekend, SailGP, which was founded by Oracle’s Larry Ellison, returned to New York City for the first time since 2019 with a series of regattas that circled lower Manhattan. The 10 teams in the league competed on Saturday and Sunday, with New Zealand coming in first. The 2024 finals happen next year.

peter burling, co ceo and driver of new zealand sailgp team, lifts the trophy as the new zealand sailgp team celebrate with barons de rothschild champagne on board their f50 catamaran after winning the mubadala new york sail grand prix in new york, usa sunday 23rd june 2024 photo bob martin for sailgp handout image supplied by sailgp

Bob Martin for SailGP

With 12 events in 2024 alone, SailGP hopes to capture new sailing fans in a way that America’s Cup, which happens every few years, hasn’t. Tickets to the New York races were sold out, despite there being a heat advisory, an indication that SailGP might be successful in their attempt to harness an F1-like super fandom.

Since 2021, SailGP has mandated that a woman sailor be part of each four- and six-person boat crew in every race through its Women’s Pathway initiative. The eventual goal is to have complete equity, with a woman in the driver position within the sixth season. (The fifth season begins in November 2024.) The biggest message that Mike Buckley, co-owner and CEO of the U.S. SailGP team, wants to underscore is that sailing’s reputation as a sport exclusively for wealthy, white men is changing. Specifically, he cites Rae’s involvement as an investor as well as SailGP’s growing relevance in fashion circles.

a woman with her hand on her chin

Courtesy of Rolex

While in New York for the races, Hannah Mills, an Olympic sailor, new mom, Rolex ambassador, and current advisor for the Emirates Great Britain SailGP team, reflected on SailGP’s commitment to increasing women’s participation, which she sees as a model that should be studied across all sports. F50 racing has been popular in the America’s Cup since 2013. “That was the big transition point, but then, and still now, the America’s Cup is completely dominated by guys,” she says. “The big learning curve for this type of sailing [is] the experience gap and opportunity gap. With SailGP’s Women’s Pathway, there’s a 10- to 12-year experience gap, but we’re trying to close as quick as we can.”

She continued: “Sports are the best vehicle to show young people the world—having mixed sailing teams really showcases that. For me, [showing] gender equality on the boat for the next generation is so, so important.”

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