Mike Buckley, co-owner and CEO of the U.S. SailGP team. Mike Buckley, co-owner and CEO of the U.S. SailGP team. (SailGP.)

The SailGP sailboat racing series is wrapping up its fourth season, with its Canadian debut and 11th of 13 season events Saturday and Sunday. That race, the Rockwool Canada Sail Grand Prix Halifax in Nova Scotia will be carried live on CBS Sports Network at 3 p.m. ET both days, with companion coverage available on Facebook, YouTube, and the SailGP app.

SailGP, founded in 2019 by Oracle founder Larry Ellison and famed New Zealand yachtsman Sir Russell Coutts, features regular races in top cities around the world with high-performance F50 foiling catamarans. It has 10 teams representing different countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Great Britain, and more. The races take place in stadium-style arenas at speeds up to 60 miles per hour close to shore, and the sport bills itself as “The F1 of the Water.”

The current SailGP season, which started last June in Chicago, sees that penultimate race in Halifax this weekend. (YouTube coverage is available here.) It will then wrap up with the Mubadala New York Sail Grand Prix on June 22 and 23 and the 13th and final event, the Season 4 Grand Final San Francisco, on July 13 and 14.

Ahead of those races, United States team CEO and two-time world champion sailor Mike Buckley spoke to AA. Buckley talked about the league, his team (which he bought alongside technology investor and founding Uber engineer Ryan McKillen and Margaret McKillen in the largest team acquisition in SailGP history last fall, with a remarkable group of athletes, media figures, and more also coming in as investors), and what he sees ahead for SailGP. To start with, Buckley said SailGP stood out to him as a sailing property that understands the importance of media and entertainment.

“I’ve always kind of subscribed to the more than an athlete mentality and wanted to commercialize my teams, myself, and our sport,” he said. “I think there’s an incredible opportunity and had been looking to put a group of investors together that could actually invest in a sports business. And SailGP has been the first platform for that in our sport ever where they really get what’s required to build a business, to build the league, to build franchises. It’s really a media and entertainment platform, it’s not a sailing team.”

Buckley said that focus beyond just the sailing is how they were able to get such a wide list of investors, which includes Avenue Sports Fund (led by CEO Marc Lasry, past co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks), actress and producer Issa Rae, boxer Deontay Wilder, global DJ and producer Gryffin, NFL stars DeAndre Hopkins, Malik Jackson, Roquan Smith, and Kayvon Thibodeaux, former USMNT star Jozy Altidore, and more.

“I think when Ryan and I went out to market with it, we went with ‘Do you want to invest in a media and entertainment platform that is a professional sports team that happens to race sailboats?’ And what professional sports have gone through the last 20 years as an asset class has been nothing short of phenomenal. And with emerging leagues and teams, that is a really desired class to get into. I think we just kind of were in the right place at the right time, and knocked it out of the park.”

The U.S. SailGP Team, helmed by Taylor Canfield, sail past Cambria during a practice session on Race Day 1 of the KPMG Australia Sail Grand Prix in Sydney, Australia on February 24, 2024.
The U.S. SailGP Team, helmed by Taylor Canfield, sail past Cambria during a practice session on Race Day 1 of the KPMG Australia Sail Grand Prix in Sydney, Australia on February 24, 2024. (Ricardo Pinto for SailGP.)

Buckley said it was critical for him and the McKillens to bring in faces outside sailing so they’d be open to change.

“We wanted no sailors on our cap[italization] table, because if you were going to succeed in changing and commercializing and bringing our sport to the mainstream, we felt like having investors that that have been in the sport forever, that’s going to make it tough to make some substantial change. So that was one of our rules. The second was, we were looking for people that were doing epic things in their space, whether that was a sports fund or an NBA team, or behind the big screen or on the football field or in the boxing ring or in a DJ booth. …And then our final rule was we want to be around good people, we want to form partnerships with our investors, not transactions.”

Buckley said the outside experiences of those investors will be crucial to what he’s trying to build, too.

“I learned this phrase from [management consulting firm] McKinsey & Company in the very first meeting I had with them five years ago, and that’s diversity is a competitive advantage. And I’ve never heard it phrased like that before, and I use it, I’d like to think I even say it almost every day.

“If you sit in a room, whether it be a boardroom or an executive group or a racing team or whatever it may be, and everybody always agrees, you’ve got a real problem, right? You’re not going to move the needle anywhere. People that think differently, obviously we want to think collaboratively, but we really wanted to find people that had unique experiences in their careers, that could help us bring SailGP to the mainstream. Because that is truly our goal, and something that if we’re going to be really successful, we have to nail.”

Buckley said he still sometimes has a hard time believing that he’s been able to get this group.

“I think I’ve laid in bed a long time dreaming of putting a group like this together, and I think a lot of people probably laughed at my ideas for a long time. And to wake up and see that we kind of pulled the first step of a very long process off, I kind of have to pinch myself every now and then.”

But Buckley said a key part of that is what SailGP has built.

“This season is the fourth season of SailGP. We’re in 13 iconic cities around the world, cities like New York, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sydney, St. Tropez, LA, San Francisco, Chicago. I think the league has taken an always-on approach, similar to Formula 1.”

Buckley said there have been other great sailing events, including the America’s Cup (which Ellison and Coutts have been heavily involved with over the years), but SailGP stands out for its regular races around the globe.

“Previously, I think kind of the top of our sport was the America’s Cup. That’s been around since 1851, and it has tremendous history. But it’s every four years, roughly, and that’s hard to keep momentum, right? It’s hard to keep momentum with the commercial partners, broadcast deals, fans. It turns on for a short period of time, and it’s epic, but then it turns off.

“And so what Larry and Russell saw from their years of being at the top of the America’s Cup is they needed to build a commercially sustainable product. And that is what SailGP aspires to be, that is their number-one goal, and our number-one goal as owners and operators of a team. And I believe they’re doing just that.”

Taylor Canfield, driver of USA SailGP Team, and Victor Diaz de Leon, wing trimmer of USA SailGP Team, runs across the boat on Race Day 1 of the Emirates Sail Grand Prix presented by P&O Marinas in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. 9th December 2023. Photo: Ricardo Pinto for SailGP. Handout image supplied by SailGP
Taylor Canfield, driver of USA SailGP Team, and Victor Diaz de Leon, wing trimmer of USA SailGP Team, run across the boat on Race Day 1 of the Emirates Sail Grand Prix presented by P&O Marinas in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on December 9, 2023. (Ricardo Pinto for SailGP.)

On the broadcasting side, SailGP’s races are available in a wide variety of ways. As mentioned above, they have some races (including this weekend’s) carried live on CBS Sports Network, but they also have companion coverage available live on Facebook, YouTube, their app, and more. Buckley said it’s critical for them to present their product across platforms to appeal to multiple types of viewers while also maintaining a linear presence that’s useful when talking to business partners and picking up new fans who stumble across it.

“Broadcasting and media is changing every day. Nobody saw streaming 20 years ago. Nobody saw direct to consumer 10 years ago. I think it’s important to be present on all those platforms. With linear TV, they report the TV numbers, which is really important for us when we when we go out to commercial partners: ‘Hey, on CBS a month ago, we had 1.78 million viewers.’

“You can’t do that with some of the streaming platforms because they don’t report the numbers. So I think as we build a fan base, it’s really important to have a linear presence so that somebody that’s just flipping through the channels or watching an NFL game and the game ends and all of a sudden SailGP’s on, they get to see something new that they’ve probably never seen before.”

“Whereas streaming or direct to consumer, you kind of have to already know about it to check it out. So I think they all play a really important role in our growth. And all the leagues are going through this transformation with how they deal with all the different platforms. We’re going through that same thing you know, but earlier in our life cycle.”

While SailGP itself is a relatively new league, Buckley said it’s useful for them to tap into the history of sailing and the memories of it.

“I think what’s unique about sailing is some people talk about SailGP as an emerging sport, but sailing’s been around forever. And I think that’s pretty unique and it’s a pretty powerful tool for us, whereas pickleball is something that was just created. It’s going, they’re having their moment right now. But time will tell if pickleball will be around forever. Sailing has shown that: your father and grandfather and their grandfather, sailing was happening when they were around. So I think that’s a powerful tool.”

And Buckley sees sailing’s other prominent competitions, including its presence at the Paris Olympics this summer, as something that can help SailGP.

“I think there’s opportunities to tap into other sailing platforms around the world. We’re all a big family: it’s like ‘How do we how do we tap into what the Olympics are doing? How do we tap into the grassroots level?’ And I that that’s what the big five leagues do really well and it’s not talked about enough. They’re starting to groom children to play their sport because they know that eventually they will become a fan, a paying fan. And so I think we could take a page out of their book and really start to open doors to new people getting in our sport.

But Buckley said SailGP’s focus on racing (and close-to-shore, high-speed racing) also is a useful differentiator from negative impressions people might have about sailing in general.

“I also like to say that we’re not really sailing, we’re racing in SailGP. It’s truly a racing property.”

And he’s particularly excited for that New York City race on June 22 and 23.

“We’ve got an awesome race in New York City. The Mubadala Grand Prix June 22-23, it’s going to be raced right off the financial district of New York City between the Statue of Liberty and Governor’s Island. We would love to have people come check it out. It’s the kind of the first weekend of the summer, it should be beautiful weather in an iconic city, and we’d love for people to give SailGP a look.”

Correction: this piece initially missed the San Francisco race.


About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.