Racing

Cup Watch - January 2007

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Time to EVOLVE?: Pressing for an America’s Cup circuit

If the sailors have their way, we could see a very different America’s Cup in the future. First we have to get through America’s Cup 32, this year in Valencia. And then? During the Allianz Cup, a World Match Racing Tour event sailed in October on San Francisco Bay, America’s America’s Cup challenger, Larry Ellison, sat behind a microphone wearing BMW Oracle team gear and went public with a vision shared by most if not all of the Cup teams in Valencia. Ellison said that he’d like to see Cup racing “follow more closely what they do in Formula 1. We’d have a regatta in Cup boats in San Francisco every year, one in Newport, one in Germany, one in Italy—regattas that people and sponsors could count on, to have some regularity.”

In other words, they want to tame the monster unloosed in 1983, when Australia II broke the longest winning streak in sports history and removed the racing from its comfy cloister in Newport, Rhode Island. Each Cup cycle since has been an adventure. Remember the drama of overhauling Fremantle, Western Australia, to host the next match and the traumas (too much to describe) of the 1988 races in San Diego. Each cycle has charted new waters and new shoals, while the teams have morphed into full-time business ventures craving “regularity.”

BMW Oracle employs about 150 people. The software company and the car company represent most of the cash backing, but consider the watch company whose logo is on the boom. Did Girard-Perregaux pony up good money to put its name there for eyeballs? Not really. Eyeballs are a bonus to their relationship marketing, enabling their best customers and best employees (like BMW’s and Oracle’s) to visit the team and have the America’s Cup experience. It’s quite a ride, believe me. And that too is a lot like what goes on, in and around, Formula 1 (and the Volvo Ocean Race).

This business model is working for the first-ever generation of sports-hero professional sailors (no more money under the table, and they’re far removed from those Swedish deckhands who heaved and hauled in the days of yore). That is, in Europe with a population of 300 million, it’s working. But imagine being a marketing manager for a Cup team, and you have this recurring nightmare that Emirates Team New Zealand wins in 2007, and the Cup goes down under to a country of 4 million, a numbing full-day’s flight from either Europe or the U.S.

Terrifying, eh? But if the racing goes on-circuit instead, setting sail in Europe, the U.S., the Middle East (bet on it), and Asia in nail-biting eliminations leading to a final showdown among a few survivors in Auckland, the Kiwis get their Cup match, many more people get to witness grand-prix sailing, and you get to keep your job. Ellison, with his billions, isn’t worried about his job, but the pros sure would like to see this game rationalized.

Then there's the counter-argument that what is special about America's Cup competition is the grand, glorious-and unpredictable-nonsense of it all. And as challenger and defender answer the guns, you are witnessing history.

The collaboration between Alinghi as defender and BMW Oracle as Challenger of Record produced the Acts, the novel but tremendously popular demonstration regattas of the last two years. The next step would be to put some teeth into the Acts (and maybe give them a new name, please) by attaching serious points.

The future rides on who wins in 2007. The winner’s plans are limited only by the need for a like-minded Challenger of Record and by the Cup’s Deed of Gift. But the Deed governs the America’s Cup match; this is about selecting a challenger and turning that game into an international circuit.

We know Ellison’s mind on that, and he has no fear, should he win, of a power struggle with his Golden Gate Yacht Club, a small, energetic organization on the cityfront of San Francisco Bay. Legally, only a yacht club can win or hold the America’s Cup, and the divide between those who do battle and those who receive the Cup has at times caused heaps of grief. But when Ellison joined Golden Gate and struck a bargain to challenge under GGYC colors (not necessarily in that order), his price was simple: he gets to name three of the club’s six directors. As of November the board included Ellison, his skipper, Chris Dickson, and longtime team member Melinda Erkelens. Yacht clubs may be an anachronism in America’s Cup racing, but they’re built in by the Deed of Gift, and lessons have been learned. Kimball Livingston

ALSO WEIGHING IN

Brad Butterworth, tactician, Alinghi:
“We think that making the Acts part of the event and worth more points would make the game better.”

Ben Ainslie, second helmsman, Emirates Team New Zealand:
“It would take some careful thinking. Everyone agrees the Acts have been a great addition, but you don’t want to make things hard for teams that are just getting going.”

Cameron Dunn, helmsman, Mascalzone Latino:
“This is not a new idea coming just from BMW Oracle. The concept has widespread support and has been talked about for a couple of years. The Acts in Malmo and Trapani showed how it could be run. Why not take the Cup fleet all over the world? The main thing is that it needs to be continuous, rolling on from season to season, so the sponsors know what they are getting into and teams can make long-term plans. Costs could run high, so maybe they limit training time, as they do in some forms of motor racing. I say, Bring on the changes.”

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