By Kimball Livingston
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, next year in Valencia. And then?
During the Allianz Cup, a World Match Racing Tour event sailed in October on San Francisco Bay, America's only America's Cup challenger, Larry Ellison, sat behind a microphone and went public with thoughts that are buzzing among all the Cup teams that will be racing in 2007. Power players at Alinghi and other camps too are thinking along the same lines as Ellison, who 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."
Of course that's a merely-for-example list of venues. The goal would be 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 dramas of overhauling Fremantle, Australia to host the next match? Remember 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 fulltime business ventures craving "regularity."
BMW Oracle employs about 150 people. The software company and the car company represent most of the cash backing, but let's think about the watch company logo'd 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 share 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 that heaved and hauled in the days of yore).
There's a lot of motive to keep this thing working, but note that it's working in Europe, with a population of 300 million all just a short flight away from the America's Cup venue. On the left you have a look at the fourth floor, the hospitality level, of BMW Oracle as they kick off one of many sunny mornings for a few score of fortunate guests. Looks inviting, doesn't it?
Now imagine that you're 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 for who knows how many years to a country of 4 million, a numbing full-day's flight from either Europe or the USA.
When the Kiwis won in 1995, they didn't stage their first defense for five long years. Terrifying, thought, eh? But if challenger-selection racing goes on-circuit instead, setting sail in Europe, the USA, 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. Myself, I get it, but I have mixed feelings. 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 when defender and challenger answer the guns, you are witnessing history.
THE COLLABORATION between Alinghi as defender and BMW Oracle as challenger of record produced the so-called "Acts," the novel but tremendously-popular demonstration regattas of the last two years. The 12 Acts to date attracted more than 1.5 million people. When the fleet went to Trapani, the Italians rearranged the school schedule so that kids could see the racing. We're beyond proof of concept. This is the way to bring sailing to more people. The next step would be to put some teeth into the Acts (and maybe give them a new name, please?) by attaching serious points.
During the New York Yacht Club's 132-year hold on the Cup, the first year in which more than one challenger showed up was 1970 (Australia's Gretel II defeated France, then lost 1-5 to the US defender, Intrepid.)
Now the challengers have their own trophy, the Louis Vuitton Cup, and it is the Vuitton Cup winner who will go on to race the defender, Alinghi, after the field of 11 challengers has been whittled down to one. In 2007 we have a final fleet-racing Act, Act 13, in early April, and then:
April 16: Louis Vuitton Cup racing begins.
June 1: Louis Vuitton Cup, final-two knockout round begins.
June 23: Race 1 of a best-of-nine America's Cup match.
The future rides on who wins in 2007. The winner's plans will be 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 how to select a challenger and how to turn that game into an international circuit under the general umbrella of America's Cup racing. The teams know how to do this. Below, you see the Alinghi team packing off for winter training in Dubai.
Ellison has spoken his mind on what he wants to do with future racing, 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) one part of the deal 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.
This next (likely, but not guaranteed) evolution doesn't ride on a BMW Oracle win. It's riding a wave. Ben Ainslie, B-boat helmsman for Emirates Team New Zealand, hedged a bit when I asked him head-on, but the three-time Olympic medalist (he sees his future in the America's Cup) was not dismissive, either—
Ben Ainslie: "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."
In the Alinghi camp, Brad Butterworth—tactican for winning the America's Cup for New Zealand, and then defending it, and then taking it away for Switzerland— came straight at the question. He's the designated skipper of Alinghi, and he was brief and clear—
Brad Butterworth: "We think that making the Acts part of the event and worth more points would make the game better."
And Cameron Dunn, strategist and mainsheet trimmer for Oracle in the last Cup, in Auckland, was ready to rock. He's now the helmsman for one of three Italian challengers, Mascalzone Latino—
Cameron Dunn: "This is not a new idea coming just from BMW Oracle. It's had widespread support 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? Racing 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. Bring on the changes."
Twenty years ago Tom Blackaller was headed off to Fremantle, Australia, to try to win back the America's Cup for America. The Cup had gone to Australia in 1983, and this was the first chance ever to bring the most storied prize in sailing to San Francisco Bay, home waters to Blackaller and (now) to Ellison. A certain Coast Guard officer was assigned the task of running a feasibility study on what it would take to conduct an America's Cup on San Francisco Bay.
STOP: Here's a bit of need-to-know information: You don't want to run Cup races on the ocean outside the Golden Gate because it's rough and dangerous out there, and besides, the cameras love San Francisco Bay. It's a natural arena. But the bay becomes a small patch of water when you race quick, deep-draft vessels, and the only viable racecourse for an America's Cup match beats upwind right along the shipping lane south of Altatraz.
For one or two series of races, maybe that's no big deal, but factor in the traditional multi-months of challenger trials (in 2007, eliminations start mid-April and end mid-June) and who knows how many spectator boats milling around before the big show even starts, and you have a recipe for disaster. I talked to the Coastie who did the feasibility study, and he summed up his report this way: "I told them, yes, it's possible, and I respectfully request a transfer."
When Paul Cayard went to Auckland with his St. Francis Yacht Club challenge in 2000 (StFYC-financed, and largely StFYC crewed) there was the same chatter about feasibility, but Cayard's AmericaOne lost the Louis Vuitton challenger round to Prada in the final race of a best-of-seven match.
Cayard was always confident that a Cup match could be sailed in his spectacular but challenging home waters. Ellison has given a pretty clear indication of how he will go about it, if he gets the chance. (Ellison has never made a public commitment to defending the America's Cup on San Francisco Bay, should he win, but there is no reason to doubt that he wants to.)
Ernesto Bertarelli, apparently, has a similar outlook on how to structure the competiton. The Acts have proved that America's Cup racing is a viable roadshow. Should Alinghi successfully defend, we might expect to see Vuitton Cup racing launched on an international circuit, including American ports, for serious points, with lesser teams eliminated on the road. Eventually we would get to a showdown, somewhere, for the America's Cup. In that venue I'd expect to see the knockout rounds for the final four, or perhaps the final two. Then an America's Cup match.
I suspect the Kiwis see it the pretty much the same way (their title sponsor, Emirates Airlines, is based in Dubai, a long way from Auckland), but even if they don't, they will be under tremendous peer pressure to take this route.
Should anyone else win, I'll be amazed, and I'll have plenty of company.
Sailors of San Francisco Bay, don't worry your pretty little heads over the logistics of infrastructure and how, politically and financially, you could build a Cup City on your shores. They did that in Valencia, beautifully, but I believe that's the end of doing it on that scale.