Boat Race in search of new name

The Boat Race challenge only became a public event in the 1970s, when the race was struggling for cash and publicity.

Prior to that, as Oxford coach Dan Topolski recalls in his book on the era, rival presidents would swap a couple of letters, perhaps with an affectedly offhand “hope you can turn up on the day”.

The arrival of sponsors brought the need for headlines, hence the official challenge from the president of last year’s losers to his counterpart to field, in affectedly olde worlde language, “nine good men and true” in an “eight-oared race from Putney to Mortlake”.

This year it was the turn of Cambridge’s Australian president Dave Nelson to challenge Oxford counterpart Karl Hudspith to meet on the Thames on 7 April 2012.

Undaunted by a man who lists hunting crocodiles among his hobbies, Hudspith – all 6ft7 of him – promptly accepted and the assembled gathering returned to their champagne and canapés.

As it prepares for its 158th running, the Boat Race is resolutely traditional but it keeps evolving and, as it costs almost £1m a year to stage, it has to.

The bubbly on Wednesday evening was provided by Bollinger, unveiled as the new official champagne supplier, but the Boat Race organisation needs to do more in the next year as  Xchanging ends an eight-year sponsorship deal.

The company behind the event is looking to line up a pyramid of corporate partners: a title sponsor, which is likely to be another business-to-business proposition; a presentation partner, which could be more consumer-driven and a clutch of official providers like Bollinger, clothing company Hackett and Hunters, who have provided a natty line in Cambridge-blue wellies over the last few years.

The people engaged to manage the last year of Xchanging’s involvement and to help root out a group of new names are Professional Sports Group, who run events, manage sponsorship deals and represent athletes like world triathlon champion Alistair Brownlee and Sir Matthew Pinsent.

As they hunt for a new name, they are likely to face a challenge in potential partners’ commitments to corporate social responsibility – a requirement for diversity and equal opportunity that arguably jars with the traditional elitism of the Boat Race.

The recent involvement with London Youth Rowing is in part an attempt to address that. Meanwhile, the Women’s Boat Race is talking about building “sustainable high performance programmes, equal in magnitude to those offered to their male counterparts”, which would require a move from the current level, alongside the best club crews, towards international standard. Might that also mean a move from their current base in Henley to join the men on the Tideway? Also, at some point there has to be a better answer to the old chestnut, “Why do the same two teams reach the final each year?”

While work continues behind the scenes, the squads continue their work on the water, with Trial Eights on 13 December the first chance to race the course this season. November’s Fours Head gave few clues on supremacy as Oxford had the fastest four but Cambridge showed better strength in depth.

There has also been competition on the upper-lip front as the squads take part in Movember. So far, Oxford’s £702 raised dwarfs CUBC’s £235 but the best ‘tasch so far is probably being sported by towering Wisconsonian Steve Dudek, whose bushy effort (building on the evidence of this earlier photo), accompanied by a bright red blazer, helped give a traditional feel to the first public outing of the year for an age-old event.

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