Monday, January 17, 2011

The Path to FAIRNESS

The recent talk on Tillerman’s blog and discussion on the Laser Forum mark another milestone down a new road for laser sailing and perhaps a new understanding of the term “one design.” The old laser map to FAIRNESS directed us down one of two over priced toll roads (New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway), but the sailors’ free market, global positioning systems have recalculated and shown us another road. The new road is getting a lot of traffic, perhaps most of it, but there seems to be a question about whether both the old and the new are headed to the same FAIRNESS. One FAIRNESS is in the state of supplier to customer relationships, and the other is in the state of competitor to competitor relationships. I believe that they are sister cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Boston and Cambridge.
I contend that both roads will lead you to fairness among competitors. Despite the highway confusion, I think laser sailing is as fair and equal as any sailing, except for the influence of those damn #@*&^% mommy boats. I also think that the free market is more effective than the class rules in keeping it that way.

I don’t mean to promote a free market like some damn #@*&^% Republican politician with tunnel vision. Instead, I mean to encourage equity in the context of a little guy vs. big guy, David vs. Goliath story.

When it comes to sails, Big Laser has used its monopolistic position to exploit its customers for a long time now. They sell a lousy product (mediocre, at best) for a ridiculously high price, a combination of planned obsolescence and authoritarian pricing that would make any damn #@*&^% super-capitalist proud. To the customers, it seems like extortion. To Big Laser, it may just be making a living and keeping the wheels of business turning. After all, they are sailors and boat builders, not damn #@*&^% Wall Street bankers. I like to think that they did not anticipate that the requirement to use overly-expensive sails would come to undermine the universally acclaimed goal of fairness. BUT IT HAS. Many sailors can not or will not spend what it takes to keep up with those who have unlimited budgets. Do the class rules help even the playing field? Not so far.

Thankfully, the free market has allowed a young upstart like Jim Meyers at Intensity sails to jump in, make a living for himself, and fulfill a need in the marketplace. (Cue America the Beautiful in a medley with the Chinese national anthem – that’s where the sails are actually made.) From my talks with Jim, I understand his business to be mostly a response to overpriced products he finds in the market, most notably the class legal Laser sail. By giving us more bang for our buck, he is leading us to FAIRNESS in the state of supplier to customer relationships. He is giving us the same product for one third the price, complete with prompt and friendly service.

But is it really the same product? It sure seems to be. Jim says it is as close to the North sail as possible. (The North cloth is proprietary, so he uses the closest product he can find, which seems to be slightly more durable.) Sailors don’t seem to be finding any competitive differences. Although Intensity makes no claims about this, it seems to me that with its sails, we maintain FAIRNESS in the state of competitor to competitor relationships.

For several years now, more and more Intensity sails have been used for local club racing - to the chagrin of Big Laser (as I discussed last year). Tillerman reports that Cedar Point has altered their sailing instructions to include them. I did the same for our local regatta three years ago. In the two places I sail most frequently, there are far more Intensity sails on the water than North sails. I suspect that in the fleet as a whole in our local club there are at least five Intensity sails for each North sail. I wonder what percentage of North sail owners also have an Intensity sail or two.

The market is shouting its approval of equal or better products at lower prices. And the shout is increasing in intensity. (Pun intended.) Intensity sails will be seen more and more at bigger regattas. Is anyone going to complain that those of us in the middle (I wish) to the back of the pack are using them? Will we be asked to leave? (So far, I have been non-confrontational and have used my North sail at Regattas, even though I might do better with a newer Intensity.) Does anyone really think that the $180 sail has an advantage over the $563 sail? I think the only advantage is a new sail versus an old sail. If we could buy sails for $180, everyone would be more likely to have a new sail, and therefore a more level playing field. The rules say buying a $180 sail instead of a $563 sail is cheating, but common sense and the marketplace know that FAIRNESS is not the operative concept here.

The consternation over all this will continue to go on for a number of years, but the market forces will eventually win out in some way. The Intensity Laser class will thrive at the local and regional level, and we’ll all have fun and FAIR sailing. Big Laser will have to decide if it wants a separate class for world class and Olympic sailors or whether it should make some compromises to keep it all together. Assuming that those who make the rules and set the prices want to keep it all together, why are taking so long to do something about it?

No comments:

Post a Comment