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Sailing drifts to Asia for greener pastures

By Anuradha Raghu

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Like many other professional sports, sailing was not spared by the 2008 global financial crisis as sponsors in Europe pulled out and governments were not keen to host large-scale tournaments.

However, halfway across the world, Asia's resilient economy fueled by strong domestic consumption from a rapidly growing population raised hope of providing the boost the ailing sport needed to tread Europe's rough water.

The World Match Racing Tour, an international sailing championship which first kicked off more than two decades ago, was facing bankruptcy following the eurozone debt crisis when Malaysian businessman Patrick Lim picked it up.

"Because of the financial crisis, it was in a state of almost neglect by the time we bought over," Lim told Reuters in an interview in Kuala Lumpur.

Lim said although the "traditional" sailing countries in Europe were keen on the sport, they could no longer afford to host the tour, which can chalk up to $6 million per venue.

Whereas Asian countries, said Lim, despite being fairly new to sailing would grab the opportunity to host a world championship for the tourism dollars and to notch an identity in the global sports arena.

"The Asian economy views sport very differently. They look at it as a platform to launch a product," Lim said.

"They want to stand out in the world, and sport is a good platform," he added, citing China as an example.

The biggest global sponsors, however, still come from Europe where large corporations eye robust Asian markets to expand their businesses.

In February, London-based global foreign exchange broker Alpari inked a title sponsorship deal with the sailing regatta, joining sportscar maker Lotus and British top-end jewelers Garrard as the tour's main sponsors.

MORE THAN JUST DEEP POCKET

Lim said it needed more than just deep pockets to host a world championship as venues need to be up to the mark with the right infrastructure and boats.

"In Asia, while they can afford it, they still need time to set things up," the 47-year-old Lim said, adding that the tour helps smaller sailing communities in South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore to set up their own racing circuits to develop the sport in the region.

To boost viewership and rekindle interest in the tour, he revamped venues so that races could take place closer to shore. Previous championships were held in deeper seas, miles away from spectators which Lim said could be "boring".

Lim, who has been accused of "commercializing" the regatta, insisted commerce was vital for growth.

"I need to be commercial because it needs to pay the bills. Every sailor that gets paid better will then attract more sailors. It's a normal economic activity," he explained.

A match race is a one-on-one sailing duel on identical boats where sailors race to complete a course and the first boat across the finish line wins the race.

The Alpari championships, now the second-largest of its kind in the world after the America's Cup, spans across three continents with a prize fund of $1.75 million.

Events are held in France, Germany, South Korea, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and Bermuda while Malaysia hosted the 2012 finals earlier this month.

"The thing about the world tour is as a team, you don't have to ship boats from place to place. You simply arrive at that venue, and sail the boats there," said four-time championship winner and veteran sailor Peter Gilmour in a video interview from Australia.

"The Alpari tour is so important in the sailing world because typically, the best sailors come out of it," added Gilmour, whose team came in fifth at the 2012 regatta.

(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

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