Ullman on Pros, Again
In these pages in 1986, Dave Ullman declared we should “get the pros out of racing.” As a professional sailor himself, it was a startling pronouncement, calling out the elephant in the room. Even today, it’s not unusual for that interview to come up in discussions about the role of pro sailors in sailing. More than three decades later, in a sport where the landscape has transformed in many areas, Ullman shares his perspective on the past and present role of professionals in sailing.
What prompted your conclusion in 1986 that pros don’t belong in sailing?
In Southern California, in the early 1980s, people started bringing pros on board PHRF boats. That was in the early stages of professional sailing, where most of the pros were sailmakers, such as myself, or other industry people. We weren’t actually paid to go sailing. We raced with customers, helped them sail their boats, but we were basically promoting or selling our prod-
After 30 years and a steady evolution of the sport, Dave Ullman revisits his earlier opinion on a hot-button topic.
ucts. As I said in that interview, one problem with that was there were only so many good sailors in the industry, which meant a limited pool of talent, and without them, you probably didn’t have a good chance of winning. Plus, and maybe more important, it took the fun out of it for owners because they realized they didn’t have a chance of winning without a pro on board.
How would you describe the Southern California big-boat fleets today?
There are no longer many families, middle-class people or teams sailing PHRF boats. It’s become much more focused with much more expensive programs and, in many cases, bigger boats. As you get over 50 feet, you almost need to have pros on board. But I think this has more to do with the economy than the presence of professional sailors. Middle-class regular people can’t afford to have ocean-racing boats. There are still Wednesday night beer-can races and things like that, where you can find smaller PHRF boats and a more casual atmosphere. In those situations, not having pros there makes perfect sense. If we were talking basketball, it would be like having Lebron James coming in and playing in an AAU tournament. That’s not who PHRF was meant for. It was meant for racing at a more relaxed level.
What changes have you seen in the actual profession of pro sailing?
Professional sailing really came into its own with Dennis Connor’s 1987 America’s Cup campaign. That program was really well-managed and thorough, and as I understand it, people got paid to go sailing in that campaign. From there, into the 1990s, there was some purely professional sailing, but people like myself ended up basically double- dipping: selling products, such as sails, and getting paid to sail with customers. By the 2000s, most of the professional sailors didn’t actually work in the industry. They make a real living just as professional sailors, which to me means making enough money to support a family. Today, the whole definition of what a pro is has changed dramatically. You have professionals who actually are professionals. Then you had professionals who were selling and pushing products and, in lots of cases, getting people to overbuy the product to get their expertise. That doesn’t happen much anymore. It’s much more straightforward. You have a pro, you pay them, you know what you’re getting, and you know what it costs.
How big a pool of pro sailors do you think exists today?
Back in 2007, just before the recession, my wife and I did some research on this because we were looking at starting a sort of talent agency for pro sailing, a way to join owners and pros to provide a good mix for both. The recession killed that idea, but back then, we did figure that the numbers were probably in the 400 to 500 range in the United States, which includes the $ 200 to $ 300 per diem guys, as well as maybe 200 to 300 at the top end, those who can actually make a living doing this, meaning they can support a family.
Have you changed your mind about excluding pros from sailing?
Yes, because the sport has changed. Now I think it’s more, keep pros out of some facets of racing. Take a look at one- design racing. Some classes have no pros, some classes such as the Etchells are wide open — and it seems to be working quite well — and then there are classes like the J/70, which I’m quite familiar with, where professional sailing will certainly hurt the class and might even be the demise of the class. There, to sustain growth, they should limit the number of pros — maybe one pro on board. But it’s really up to the class. It must be controlled by class rules, reflecting where the membership wants it to go.
Is the problem of having pros sailing in fleets today much different than it was in 1986?
To some extent, there’s still limited expertise; there are only so many pros. But more important, it makes the expense of going to regattas way too high for the middle of the class. Back to the J/70: If you’re paying three pros per day, and per practice, that’s quite expensive, and most of the class probably doesn’t want to compete against that. The idea there was to have equal racing at a relatively economic budget, but now, it’s really expensive to win in that class. It runs the risk of losing the bottom half of the class. And the result will be a further decrease in the number of boats racing.
So is it mostly about cost?
It’s also that the pros are so much better, or they wouldn’t be pros. A big part of it is the number of days on the water. Sure, they became pros because they were quite good to begin with, but add to that their time on the water, and it far outweighs what anybody who makes a normal living could ever do.
Are today’s owner- driver rules a step in the right direction?
Yes, for many classes. Again, it depends on the class, but for most one-designs, it’s the right thing. Part of the problem right now is that a number of owners sail in many classes, and they would like it if their preferences extend across all of those classes.
For those who think pros should not be allowed to race, do you think if the pros were suddenly removed from a fleet, the same people who are winning now would still be winning? Would it really change the results much?
In most cases, the owners who are driving are really good sailors. So it wouldn’t dramatically change, but it would give the people in the middle of the class a much better chance. And if it’s only a perceived change for the middle of the class, then that’s OK. Perception is reality. I think you’d also find that really good amateur crews would rise to the top.
What about the argument that even if you’re an average sailor, pitting yourself against the best in the sport will make you better? Is that perspective valid?
It’s nice to pit yourself against the best, but on a regular basis, no. Most people are too competitive to go out and get totally beaten up every time. So there needs to be classes in which they can race. At one end are classes where anything goes. You want to race against the best people? Get one of those boats and race against them. Not interested in racing at that level? Figure out whether the class you’re sailing in matches your expectations. Understand the money you want to spend, the time you want to spend on practice, how much expertise you need to race your boat. Some classes should be reserved for a different level of competition. There needs to be something for everybody.
Do you see the pros as having other roles in our sport beyond making boats go fast and helping win regattas?
Sure. By doing clinics, coaching, giving seminars in one-design classes — giving back. Most of the really good pros do that. More of those are being done by sailmakers trying to sell products, but that’s not to say that pros shouldn’t be enlisted to help. So there’s definitely a give-back. And pros could certainly do that in classes, even where they’re not allowed to sail. It would help the level of sailors. It’s not what’s best for the professional; it’s what’s best for the sport. “For the sport” means for the people who own boats and are participating and the people crewing — not the professional crews. We always have to keep that in mind. Q
“Today, the whole definition of what a pro is has changed dramatically. You have professionals who actually are professionals.”