Mark Turner- Owner & Executive Chairman, OC Thirdpole Share PDF Print E-mail
Profile of the week
Mark Turner is the Owner and Executive Chairman of OC ThirdPole.
Having spent six years in the Royal Navy, Mark started his first company, Winning Winches in 1990. After three years, he moved on to Spinlock Ltd, where he served as Marketing Director for six years (1992-1998). Prior to his departure, Mark founded Offshore Challenges.
Mark would leave the organisation to focus solely on OC Group business, which would merge with ThirdPole in 2010 to become OC Thirdpole, a global sports marketing company that organises various events including the Extreme Sailing Series, the Artemis Offshore Academy, the Haute Route and the Geneva Marathon.
Mark studied BSc Physics/Maths at Exeter University. Born in the Isle of Wight, he currently shares his time between France and Switzerland, with his wife and child.
By Edward Rangsi
How valuable has your experience as a sailing competitor proven in event and athlete management?
I think it’s very important to remember the perspective of the team or the athlete to have a very different view of things. To be able to think like a team or like a skipper clearly helps when managing all the different stakeholders. For example, the Extreme Sailing Series has so many stakeholders, the biggest challenge is just trying to manage all of those. The teams are obviously a very important one of those and usually a fairly vocal one. They may not always agree, but they know that I know what I’m talking about, that I know what it means to be on a boat and that I’m not just someone who’s good at sports business. It helps to have that credibility. There’s always a balance for a lot of sport businesses and we’re no different to anyone else. You want to bring in expertise from other areas, sports and disciplines, but you need to balance that with real internal knowledge of the specific sport you’re working on as well.
The races OC Thirdpole has put together are exciting, but also gruelling for the participant. What was the thinking behind these events?
Ultimately, we are focused on outdoor sports, but within that you’ve got two quite different types of sport. The top end of professional sailing, where we are with the ESS, is not mass participation and involves a small number of high-level teams. On the other end, we’ve got a marathon, which is the ultimate mass-participation event. They’re quite different business models in terms of entry fees being more important in one, sponsorship being more important in the other. It’s a good thing overall. Because we’re in different sports and different countries, we have a whole load of different cycles. We’re not all linked to one cycle or one geographical area. While that makes it challenging for a small business to work like that, it also means we’re not wholly dependent on the external factors of one particular sport. It’s a good defensive mechanism for a business our size. We don’t have the ability to absorb shocks in quite the same way as perhaps an IMG would.
Do you find one sport more challenging to market than another?
Certainly sailing remains viewed as a niche sport in general so that’s the most challenging. When you try to explain it to someone who’s completely new to it, it can be pretty confusing. It’s difficult trying to sell something that doesn’t necessarily have the structure that sponsors are accustomed to in other sports.
On the mass participation side, we’re just seeing continued growth in the amount of activity and competition that people want to go partake in, so while some events are on the slide, most outdoor events continue to grow.
What does sailing need to do as a sport to appeal to more people and become more mainstream?
I suppose there’s a part of sailing that neither wants, nor should try, to become mainstream. I don’t think that all sailing should be entertaining or should be trying to entertain people, but there’s a commercially funded part of professional sailing that, if it wants to exist, must be entertaining to a group of people. The ESS is a product, which is funded commercially so we need brands and venues to get value from it, and it needs to be a top end sporting event or we won’t have players wanting to be there, wanting to win. At the end of the day, we’ve got to make it entertaining and what we tried to do is make a product that can go into the mainstream. Most of the surveys show that 95% of people at an event, whether there on the VIP side or on the public side, usually don’t follow sailing and it works. Some people may stay the whole afternoon, watch more than one race and some may obviously get to go sailing. It shows that it can be entertaining, it does engage people and it has been very rewarding to see that happening. At the same time, the level sporting-wise is phenomenally high. It’s a different kind of sailing and it’s a different format, but it hasn’t made it any easier to win. The desire to win is as strong as ever and that’s very important.
Is there a particular target group that you’re looking to attract?
You’re a bit driven by your stakeholders on this one. For the first three years with iShares as a titled partner, we had a very specific target customer. It was a B2B partnership so they were inviting their guests and were keen to be attracting high-end people that might match their high-end profile. When that partnership came to an end, we certainly tried to go a lot wider. Without stepping too far away from the fact that sailing is generally seen as a premium brand sport, which probably would’ve been dangerous, we wanted to open it up and make it more accessible. In some ways, the last couple of years have been a bit static, so we’ve gone quite wide and haven’t had any main partners in place to drive us into a corner. It’s all been influenced by the team sponsors and the venues. The sport will always be perceived as that, yet if we can make it accessible to a wider public, then that’s the best of both worlds. We have got a VIP side and an image that’s high end, but actually anyone can go along and enjoy. That’s really what we’re trying to do – maintain the premium product, but make it accessible for everyone else.
How do you educate a potential new audience without alienating fans?
It’s certainly challenging. I don’t think we’ve got that right, yet. Firstly, we’ve got the people on site. The format of the event allows people on site to see the entire racecourse so you maybe don’t have to treat them too differently, because if they’re a sailing fan, they’re looking and understanding things differently than someone’s whose never watched sailing before.
Remotely, we’ve got sailing fans and people that are seeing a bit of the footage on television, watching the programme, reading something in the newspaper and you’re trying to pull them in. I think we’ve perhaps, not neglected, but we certainly went below the line we probably should’ve done in terms of looking after the core sailing audience last year. It’s a relatively small world of hardcore sailing fans that will watch every event. We have to look after those guys better and this year we will step up that side with a lot more live tracking and actually get people to follow the races in a much better way, which is expensive, but at the same time it’s worthwhile.
Trying to get the balance between those two sets of people is difficult. Sailing is a complex sport once you do dig down into it, which is why it intrigues people and pulls top business people in.
Sailing seems to be behind in terms of making better use of communication tools. With the unfavourable economic climate, how important is it to take full advantage of social media and the internet? What are you doing in terms of this medium?
I don’t know if sailing’s behind. In that sailing fan world, we’ve always been the first movers and sailing fans are very tech-savvy.
We’ve got a full array of things from apps to obviously the social media side, which has been steadily growing. Again, I think you have to recognise that on the sailing fan side, it’s not necessarily millions of people. It’s a relatively small audience, but it’s not too hard to get to them with social media. I don’t think the numbers are unreasonable, but in reality, that’s that core base of people.
We do need to do better. Fans follow individuals or teams, not necessarily the event. A lot of professional sailors are not as good communicators as they need to be, but they have quite a strange challenge; they spend half their time sailing for a private owner and the other half sailing for a brand. They’re not good at flicking between the two or understanding that they need to behave differently on the commercial side. They need to share and communicate more. One of our roles is certainly trying to facilitate that and bring out the human side as much as possible. We could do the most amazing television production in the world, but we’re not going to grow a technical sport to tens of millions through a T.V product. We can grow it in terms of people getting attached to the guys out on the water trying to win.
The Olympics are important in drawing more attention to any sport, but there are so many different layers to sailing. Do you think a better job needs to be done defining the sport?
Well, the federation really struggles with the fast pace of change. It’s a very cumbersome organisation with a lot of committees and volunteers. It’s quite disconnected with the rest of the sport. We have a very good relationship with ISAF and have a special event status, alongside America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race, but the federation’s focus on the Olympics is almost total. Unfortunately, they’re quite stuck in terms of how much they can change and I think there’s some frustrated people in there as well.
While what happens in the Olympics is very good for sailing, ultimately it doesn’t change, it doesn’t evolve and it doesn’t become more entertaining. The reality is Olympic sailing will bit-by-bit be reduced in its scale and perhaps, at some point, disappear completely. There could be one simple thing like, and it’s not something I’m trying to push, but if you took the kind of boats we use at the ESS, add one per country and race in a stadium, you would tick all the boxes on the issues of accessibility for different countries. I think it’ll take a bigger space of Olympic slots as time went on. The reason given why there aren’t bigger boats is cost, but someone trying to win in a small boat class still spends hundreds of thousands. For me, it’s obvious they should do that and I’m sure it would cost more.
Since going global, have you found one part of the world more challenging to ‘break’ than another?
What’s interesting is there are obviously two very different worlds in sailing today - what was the old world, where sailing has got years of strong competitive history and the emerging sailing countries, where it’s all pretty new.
In terms getting people interested in the sport, somewhere like China or the Middle East is a tough place to take the sport since there’s no natural inclination to go on a boat. For example, in New China people don’t swim so even the notion of going on a boat is one step harder. You’ve got lots of challenges, which you don’t necessarily have in Europe and you have to find a way of opening that up.
The toughest place to make it work commercially is probably the United States. You’ve got a lot of private sailing, but virtually no commercial sponsorship and virtually no support from cities for sailing events. I would say the States is the sport most difficult to crack for any sport that is not necessarily an American sports.
What do you require from a venue for ‘stadium’ sailing?
There’s a long list of variables. Clearly, we need, from a sporting perspective, somewhere we can run a good event, which means a good stadium in an area where we can sail in a stadium format. That limits your venues quite quickly.  There’s no point at all going to somewhere where there’s no wind at all. We like iconic venues with city backdrops, rather than a conventional sailing place up on the horizon. Obviously, the support you’re going to get is important if you want a successful event so there’s an element of cash funding from a venue or a region, but we don’t follow the money particularly. There are some places we haven’t gone to already that wouldn’t fit the other criteria, although offering significant amounts of money.
The ESS is growing in popularity, what’s the next step in terms of expansion?
The big step for us was going from European to global. The reality is you end up with venue deals that are two or three years, but at least now we know we’ll evolve two or three venues per year if not more than that. Over the next couple of years, we will stay with eight or nine venues, grow those events, maintain the sporting level and try and touch more people. We want to widen the entertainment package on site and remotely. I think it’s a bit more evolution rather than revolution.
We’re now only a few days away from Muscat. How are preparations going?
Good! In reality, our off-season isn’t really long enough. It’s quite hard to fit in nine venues in less than ten months when you’re going to all corners of the world, unless you’ve got the money and the carbon footprint to fly stuff from A to B, which we have no intention of doing. We start working on the following year a long time before we’ve finished the previous one. We’re a small team so it stretches us quite a lot, but we’ve got a lot of good things in place for Muscat. Muscat is a great sailing venue to kick off. We have a great relationship with Oman Sail and they’re affectively our partners for that event. Most of the teams have been there for a month training and refitting their boats, so we’re all set up and ready to go really.
Because it’s almost a continual event, we can introduce new innovations and new technology and new ideas as we go event-by-event. We don’t necessarily have to put it all in place at the beginning of a season. We’re working on improving something in each event and in each different area as we move on, rather than needing to have it all in place right at the beginning.
What has been your proudest ESS moment up until this point?
It’s hard to say. A lot of good things came together for Istanbul in 2011. On the Sunday, we had a live national TV broadcast for an hour following straight on from Formula One. We had a stadium set up, an iconic background, full on action on the water and a public watching sailing that had never seen it before. We got some great branded teams and some great brands backing those teams. We got an Omani sailor in one of the boats that in 2007 had never seen a boat before. We pulled a lot of things together and that was pretty rewarding to be honest. Equally, knowing we managed to run a good event in China, where very few people have ever really managed to run an event, was pretty rewarding as well I think. 2011 was certainly a year when a lot of things came together for the first time in a big way.

mark turner1

Mark Turner is the Owner and Executive Chairman of OC ThirdPole.

Having spent six years in the Royal Navy, Mark started his first company, Winning Winches in 1990. After three years, he moved on to Spinlock Ltd, where he served as Marketing Director for six years (1992-1998). Prior to his departure, Mark founded Offshore Challenges. Mark would leave the organisation to focus solely on OC Group business, which would merge with ThirdPole in 2010 to become OC Thirdpole, a global sports marketing company that organises various events including the Extreme Sailing Series, the Artemis Offshore Academy, the Haute Route and the Geneva Marathon.

Mark studied BSc Physics/Maths at Exeter University. Born in the Isle of Wight, he currently shares his time between France and Switzerland, with his wife and child. 

By Edward Rangsi

 

How valuable has your experience as a sailing competitor proven in event and athlete management? 

I think it’s very important to remember the perspective of the team or the athlete to have a very different view of things. To be able to think like a team or like a skipper clearly helps when managing all the different stakeholders. For example, the Extreme Sailing Series has so many stakeholders, the biggest challenge is just trying to manage all of those. The teams are obviously a very important one of those and usually a fairly vocal one. They may not always agree, but they know that I know what I’m talking about, that I know what it means to be on a boat and that I’m not just someone who’s good at sports business. It helps to have that credibility. There’s always a balance for a lot of sport businesses and we’re no different to anyone else. You want to bring in expertise from other areas, sports and disciplines, but you need to balance that with real internal knowledge of the specific sport you’re working on as well.

 

The races OC Thirdpole has put together are exciting, but also gruelling for the participants. What was the thinking behind these events? 

Ultimately, we are focused on outdoor sports, but within that you’ve got two quite different types of sport. The top end of professional sailing, where we are with the ESS, is not mass participation and involves a small number of high-level teams. On the other end, we’ve got a marathon, which is the ultimate mass-participation event. They’re quite different business models in terms of entry fees being more important in one, sponsorship being more important in the other. It’s a good thing overall. Because we’re in different sports and different countries, we have a whole load of different cycles. We’re not all linked to one cycle or one geographical area. While that makes it challenging for a small business to work like that, it also means we’re not wholly dependent on the external factors of one particular sport. It’s a good defensive mechanism for a business our size. We don’t have the ability to absorb shocks in quite the same way as perhaps an IMG would.

 

Do you find one sport more challenging to market than another? 

Certainly sailing remains viewed as a niche sport in general so that’s the most challenging. When you try to explain it to someone who’s completely new to it, it can be pretty confusing. It’s difficult trying to sell something that doesn’t necessarily have the structure that sponsors are accustomed to in other sports. On the mass participation side, we’re just seeing continued growth in the amount of activity and competition that people want to go partake in, so while some events are on the slide, most outdoor events continue to grow. 

 

What does sailing need to do as a sport to appeal to more people and become more mainstream? 

I suppose there’s a part of sailing that neither wants, nor should try, to become mainstream. I don’t think that all sailing should be entertaining or should be trying to entertain people, but there’s a commercially funded part of professional sailing that, if it wants to exist, must be entertaining to a group of people. The ESS is a product, which is funded commercially so we need brands and venues to get value from it, and it needs to be a top end sporting event or we won’t have players wanting to be there, wanting to win.

At the end of the day, we’ve got to make it entertaining and what we tried to do is make a product that can go into the mainstream. Most of the surveys show that 95% of people at an event, whether there on the VIP side or on the public side, usually don’t follow sailing and it works. Some people may stay the whole afternoon, watch more than one race and some may obviously get to go sailing. It shows that it can be entertaining, it does engage people and it has been very rewarding to see that happening. At the same time, the level sporting-wise is phenomenally high. It’s a different kind of sailing and it’s a different format, but it hasn’t made it any easier to win. The desire to win is as strong as ever and that’s very important. 

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