Baltimore bid to host Volvo Ocean Race in final review

Volvo Ocean Race officials will visit Baltimore on Monday to evaluate a bid to host the only U.S. stop of the 2014-2015 edition of the round-the-world contest known as the Super Bowl of sailing.

Volvo officials are expected to begin announcing the ports along the route next week. Announcements will continue into February.

"I really believe we're going to win this thing," said Rob Housman, an executive director of Ocean Racing USA, the private-sector bidder. "The success of Sailabration last summer shows Baltimore knows how to do fantastic water events."

Baltimore, which has hosted the race three times, is in a pool of about 30 finalists to be one of about 10 stopovers. The Volvo evaluation team will tour the city, meet with officials and be briefed by the bid team, Housman said. Newport, R.I., the only other U.S. city under consideration, will be visited by Volvo officials on Tuesday.

A successful bid to host the race would likely cost significantly more than the $2.3 million it cost the last time the race called on Baltimore in 2006.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said he believes Baltimore has "a real solid shot" at getting picked.

"It's very important to the state. The Volvo Ocean Race is a huge attraction," O'Malley said. "It's important jobs. It's important for economic development, for Maryland's long-term tourism sector because there are people who might visit us for the Volvo Ocean Race and then come back again and again."

The city played host to the race in 1997-98, when it was called the Whitbread, and again in 2001-2002 and 2005-2006. Political and civic leaders embraced it as both a crowd pleaser and a financial force.

The last two-week visit attracted 350,000 daily visitors to the Baltimore Waterfront Festival in the Inner Harbor and generated $40 million in local economic impact, according to Ocean Race Chesapeake, the local organizing committee.

More than 3,500 boats gathered under the Bay Bridge and 40,000 spectators stood on the span to watch the restart of the race as the yachts sprinted to New York City for a brief pit stop before sailing for Europe and the finish line.

But Maryland lost the prize in the lead-up to the 2008-2009 race, when it could not meet one of the conditions: finding a sponsor willing to pay $20 million to build and race a boat. Boston, with the backing of athletic clothing company Puma, got a boat and a stopover.

For the 2011-2012 race, Volvo organizers chose a Miami stop, which the editors at Sailing World magazine dubbed "a vast expanse of concrete encircled by elaborate sponsor pavilions, but experienced by hardly a soul."

Last year, Ocean Racing USA, based in downtown Washington, D.C., decided to enter the bidding. Ocean Racing is collaborating with WorldSport South Africa, the manager of the 2011-2012 stopovers in Cape Town and in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

"The city wants the race back," Housman said of Baltimore. "There's a hunger for it. It's a great brand."

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sent a letter in December to Knut Frostad, the longtime yachtsman who serves as Volvo's CEO, outlining that the city would allow free use of its Inner Harbor property, which is customary with large events. A fee for municipal services such as police coverage and trash removal would be negotiated at a later date, the letter said.

Rawlings-Blake named the Baltimore Office of Promotion and Arts as the liaison with Volvo; Executive Director Bill Gilmore was in New York on Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, said planning for the event has been unique because the idea to bring it back did not start with the city. Officials were approached six or seven months ago by the racing partnership and, won over by the group's previous experience organizing Volvo Ocean Race events, began negotiations.

"This can bring hundreds of thousands of people to the city," Noonan said. "It's a natural as far as building off the success of Sailabration. … This is the only U.S. stop so we'll draw those interested in sailing from across the country."

Baltimore will host the finale of the War of 1812 commemoration in September 2014 — including the return of tall ships and naval vessels — and the Volvo stopover would follow in the spring of 2015.

Noonan said support personnel for the event would require 20,000 hotel room nights during the two-week event, and that downtown would benefit from a carnival-like atmosphere taking over the Inner Harbor.

That's not to say there aren't pitfalls. The race committee in Galway, Ireland — the finish line last July — was left with $483,000 in debts, and performers and businesses went unpaid. Miami organizers who signed a contract with Sony Entertainment to put on several major headliner concerts during its stopover lost the deal when it could not find sponsors to pay for the concerts.

But Housman said the Baltimore bid is driven by the private sector and has "strong support" from local corporations, which he won't name until after Volvo announces the winner.

Constellation Energy gave $500,000 last time, but the company, which has since been acquired by Exelon, had not been approached, a spokesman said. Comcast, which gave $275,000, did not respond to a request for comment.

Bob Leffler, who has extensive experience working in sports advertising as founder and president of the Leffler Agency, said organizers will have to fight for sponsorship money in a saturated market but have more than enough time to do so.

"There's going to be some local sponsor fatigue," he said. "But that's part of the situation with Baltimore: It's a back-office town at this point."

Competition is intense for the region's sponsorship dollars, with the Ravens and Orioles commanding a big slice of the market. Sailabration, which needs private-sector support, will have just ended and the organizers for the Grand Prix of Baltimore hope they'll still be seeking sponsorship money from locals in 2016.

But Leffler also sees Baltimore developing a reputation for staging sporting events and predicts large out-of-town companies or local midsized businesses will find a way to capitalize. The Volvo race also would appeal to a robust set of sailing sponsors.

"We're never going to get that third pro sports team, so putting on things like Preakness, Grand Prix or this is our third sport," he said.

A loser in the bidding is Annapolis, which hosted the boats for the final weekend of past stopovers. The Ocean Racing bid keeps the entire stay in Baltimore.

Robert Datnow, a spokesman for the London-based company that is handling the bidding process for Volvo, said in an email that the announcements of the stopovers will be made "sequentially from next week, through the remainder of January and into February. The exact date of the announcement of a U.S. stopover has not yet been confirmed within this timetable."

In Baltimore and Newport, which bills itself as the "Sailing Capital of the World," the Volvo race has two cities steeped in sailing tradition with a knack for organizing waterfront events.

Brad Read, executive director of Sail Newport, said he is comfortable with his bid and with the healthy rivalry.

Housman thinks Baltimore will win not only because of its Volvo track record and veteran management team but also because the city sits in a much larger, more economically robust region.

"I'm not doing this because I love sailing," Housman said. "This is a business, and we think we have a successful business model here in Baltimore."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

Volvo Ocean Race 2005-2006 by the numbers

$40 million: Local economic impact

350,000: Daily visitors to the Baltimore Waterfront Festival

40,000: Spectators on the Bay Bridge for the restart

3,500: Boats at the race restart

1,500: Boats at the in-port race April 28

50,000: In-port spectators

4,000: Students visiting the race village at the Inner Harbor

Source: Ocean Race Chesapeake

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