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Sails Pitch 

Born to sell, would-be America's Cup skipper Dawn Riley puts her birthright to work

Wednesday, Jun 11 1997
In sport more than elsewhere, pedigree can make all the difference. No matter how hard you train, no matter how technically advanced your coaching, if your birthright doesn't include acres of fast-twitch muscle, you'll never beat Michael Johnson. If you weren't bequeathed a mammoth heart and lungs, you won't become the next Greg Lemond.

And if you wish to compete in the America's Cup, the world's premier yacht race, it helps to be a born pitchman, or in the case of San Francisco sailor Dawn Riley, pitchwoman.

"It's a matter of putting together a power-point sales presentation, distributing brochures, making cold calls, closing the deal," Riley says, showing off the technique she hopes will bring her America True syndicate to the 2000 America's Cup finals in New Zealand.

In world-class yachting -- where hulls, sails, and shoreside support pits sport a cacophony of sponsor logos -- convincing corporate executives of your team's marketing potential can mean the difference between fielding a $15 million state-of-the-art boat, or a cheaper also-ran. For this, the 32-year-old Riley, daughter of former Young & Rubicam Vice President Chuck Riley, may have the finest pedigree in the field.

Her dad has been a high-profile advertising executive most of her life, representing Big Three automakers. He inspired her to get herself an advertising degree at Michigan State University, "one of the best advertising programs in the country," she says.

Riley, a veteran of two previous America's Cups, is skipper and director of the America True yachting syndicate, backed by the San Francisco Yacht Club.

Although the New Zealand 2000 is three years off, this summer represents the most important part of the race: to raise the cash needed to design and build the boats. For Riley that means a summerlong, ad-sales field sprint, aided by her father, who has signed on as the syndicate's marketing director.

To stay ahead of the international field, which includes an entry from San Francisco's St. Francis Yacht Club, Riley spends her waking hours flattering corporate executives, offering kindness to journalists, and otherwise flexing her pitchman skills.

"It's exhausting," she says of a racing/ad-sales schedule that had her crisscrossing the East Coast last week.

The father-daughter Riley team are using their combined prowess to hone America True's "story," or publicity hook, in order to help close future advertising deals. Compelling news pegs get sponsors' logos in newspaper photos, which in turn entice more cash-rich sponsors to come aboard, the younger Riley explains.

"You've got to know what the sponsors want," she says. "While they want you to win, they need to pay their bills before they can get you to win. That means being nice to the press, having a unique story, and hoping it will pay off."

Having the America's Cup's only woman-led crew is, of course, by itself one of the best story angles in the field. But Riley realizes the women-in-sport hook has already been exploited during her previous America's Cup attempts, and she is glad to help reporters dig up fresher angles.

Just last week she invited a maker of sports-relaxation tapes to mingle with her crew, perhaps to make some sailing-specific recordings -- and, not incidentally, to serve as a great potential subject for an article, Riley suggests.

"The tapes could be a way to stay focused when we're in competition," Riley offers as a possible quote.

Riley thinks Amy Fuller, a brawny Olympic rower she's hoping to recruit for one of her boat's strength positions, would also make a great subject for an article.

"She's from California, but now she's living in Tennessee," Riley says, pointing up her prospect's broad geographic marketing appeal.

Riley's pitches appear on target. Last month she earned herself a one-third-page article in the New York Times. The hook: Riley leases, rather than buys, her training boats.

America True has yet to sign its marquee sponsors -- the Chevrolets and Gallo wines of the world. Those sorts of big guys take longest in making their advertising decisions, and probably won't come aboard for a while yet, Chuck Riley explains.

Courting marquee sponsors for a yachting syndicate involves a careful dance with ad agency staffers, then company executives -- just like the old days at Young & Rubicam, he says.

"You have agency staff employees looking at cost per thousand viewers, their return in terms of exposures," Chuck Riley says. "But I think the more senior marketing people take a broader view; they understand the more emotional benefits, the benefits of affinity with the type of team we have, the quality of our followers, and frankly the networking with other sponsors of our team."

Early sponsors -- seed sponsors, to the Rileys' way of thinking -- include Sperry Top Siders shoes, Golden State Lumber, Gold's Gym, and Golden Pacific Brewing Company, a Berkeley microbrewery.

Golden Pacific will give away beer at America True's races, set up Golden Pacific/America True grocery-store parking lot displays, and host meet-Dawn-Riley events in Bay Area taverns, says David Rosenberg, the brewery's vice president for marketing. Rosenberg recalls Chuck Riley's initial sales presentation to Golden Pacific management as a near-spiritual moment. He describes it with a tone that could only come from someone who has felt the touch of an advertising Olympian.

"When he first came to speak with us, we thought, 'Is it really right to have a microbrewery associated with a yachting program?' And when he walked away, we looked at each other and realized that there was no doubt," Rosenberg recalls. "That's a terrific feeling when you're on the receiving end of that sort of proposal."

Kind of like taking a pass from Michael Jordan, or a 400-meter relay baton from Carl Lewis.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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