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The first ever virtual boat race: a collaboration story

The first ever virtual boat race: a collaboration story

Four years ago, John Willis — founder of sports charity Power2Inspire — had an idea. While watching the women compete in their Boat Race on the Thames, just before the men’s race, he dreamt of creating an inclusive event: a rowing race where many different people were united in competition.

On Saturday the 13th of June, that vision became a reality in the first ever MCH.London virtual boat race. Two teams of Olympic, Paralympic, World Championship and club rowers joined forces across the web and the globe, turning their collective talents to virtual fundraising.

The story of how it all came together is just as inspiring as the final outcome. And it’s one in which GingerMay is extremely proud to have played a part.

Cambridge team member Jonathan “Freddie” Markanday and John Willis cross oars. Image courtesy of Claire Borley: https://www.claireborley.co.uk/

Stage one: a dream takes shape

John’s dream wasn’t solely the result of one moment by the Thames. Born without fully formed limbs, he had spent much of his childhood excluded from sports and founded Power2Inspire with the aim of ensuring those experiences weren’t repeated. The charity had already held several Inclusive Festivals — physical events covering hockey, badminton, tennis and golf — that successfully encouraged people of different abilities to enjoy sports together. Now, he was determined to apply the same open philosophy to rowing; not least because he was a long-time fan and former cox at Cambridge.

Strong focus on minimising barriers to participation meant this was always intended to be a virtual event, even before coronavirus. But there were other factors to consider. While John had already started recruiting global rowers, further support was still required.

Stage two: the players are assembled

COVID-19 disruption certainly accelerated the plans. With the rowers unable to train or compete in the real world, it was clear the virtual event could offer an opportunity to team up for a good cause. Recent cancellations — including the annual race organised by Oxford and Cambridge universities — also meant it would give fans at home a much-missed shared sporting experience.

 

Cambridge team member Jonathan “Freddie” Markanday training for the virtual boat race. Image courtesy of Claire Borley: https://www.claireborley.co.uk/

But the major breakthrough came when responsible advertising agency, MCH.London, went from adviser to project manager, and then sponsor. MCH.London set to work on a whirlwind collaboration mission, and within weeks it had assembled all the ingredients needed to make the race happen.

Give as you Live was enlisted as the main viewing platform and digital fundraising tool for collecting donations. Small Films took on video logistics: including merging footage from each rower into a second-by-second video of the competitors and their progress. And GingerMay joined the team to provide strategic marketing guidance, drive PR activity, and help secure coverage that would raise vital awareness and funds.

Stage three: the show goes live

At 3pm BST on Saturday the 13th of June, the MCH.London virtual boat race went live; with inclusive, global teams representing Oxford and Cambridge competing using ergometers.

The exhilarating event saw diverse rowers take part from home: including World Champion Oliver Cook, Rio Paralympic Champion Grace Clough, Olympic Triple Gold Medallist Pete Reed, Australian Renae Domaschenz — who coxes a para crew — and Gold Medallist Tom Ransley. Extra energy was brought to each stage of the 6,838m collective rowing distance by donated commentary from well-known BBC sports pundits Garry Herbert and Martin Cross.

Grace Clough, Rio Paralympic Champion, Rowing for Oxford. Image courtesy of Small Films: https://www.smallfilms.com/
Peter Reed, Olympic Triple Gold Medallist, Rowing for Oxford. Image Courtesy of Small Films: https://www.smallfilms.com/

As the competitors rowed, individual scores were recorded and added together to create the final score and determine which team was first to cross the line. Interest driven by features in The Times, Time Out , The Evening Standard, BBC Sports pages and multiple regional titles also helped to drum up significant national and local awareness before the event, and after.

The result? Cambridge was victorious. But this wasn’t the most important outcome of the race.

Each team hoped to drive funds of £5,000 for Power2Inspire, with money raised going directly towards expanding the Charity’s University PowerHouseGames; an initiative that connects university sports clubs with students from state, independent, and special needs schools as part of its goal to unite individuals of all abilities through sport.

They smashed that objective. Team Cambridge went 200% over the target to raise £9,975, while team Oxford generated £6,320; taking it 126% beyond the original goal. And the virtual fundraising isn’t over yet. Those who missed the race can still catch the action via a video on the Give as You Live page and make a donation here, until the end of August.

The final race was more than an example of successful fundraising. It highlights a potential new way forward for charities; with digital technologies helping them to amplify their real-world activities with agile online events that extend their reach and make it easier for more people to participate. And it also demonstrates the incredible things that can happen when different forces work together and harness the power of true collaboration.

For more information on planning virtual events, or to find out about the other technology PR services we offer, please feel free to get in touch at hello@teamgingermay.com.

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