Paul Lewis: Here's the question: What comes next?

There's a curious question forming over the top of Oracle Team USA's remarkable defence of the America's Cup (assuming they make it past the last hurdle this morning).

It has to do with what sort of Cup will be promoted next and who will answer the invitation.

In all the deserved Oracle and American hullabaloo over their comeback, few have yet stopped to consider whether it was better for the America's Cup to remain in United States and Larry Ellison's hands or whether it was better off being shipped to New Zealand.

Fair enough, too. It's all about the "now" for the winners; the 35th America's Cup is for the future.

Except that, no matter who wins it today, the Cup is at a turning point. An Oracle win will confirm the vision of Ellison and Russell Coutts and the quite astonishing shifting fortunes of this Cup have provided some superb drama.

It has been unique; an overused word but apt in this context. Coutts and Ellison can be forgiven if they laud it over we doubters if they win.

The temptation will be to carry on with the AC72s and the often thrilling spectacle they have provided. But let's not forget - they cost at least US$100 million ($121.5 million) and there were only three challengers. One of those, Artemis, was so far off the pace they were never a factor. The other two were New Zealand-centric. Luna Rossa only got to this Cup because of the design-sharing arrangement with Emirates Team New Zealand. In short, without Team NZ this regatta would have been Oracle and Artemis. Suck on that for thrills.

But now, faced with a loss in the Cup match, Team NZ's future is, to say the least, uncertain. The team are faced with the possibility of breaking up and it is not clear whether the people or funds will be there for another America's Cup campaign - now or in the foreseeable future.

That leaves the question of who else will challenge and what Oracle will do to encourage them.

Artemis are in again; that much seems clear. There is also talk of a British challenge headed by Oracle tactician Sir Ben Ainslie. It would also involve Oracle general manager Grant Simmer, a three-time Cup winner and well respected in sailing circles; he wasn't happy with being caught up in the cheating saga.

Ironically, British participation (they pulled out of this Cup because Team Origin, headed by billionaire Sir Keith Mills, didn't like the AC72s' expense and danger) may be boosted if Team NZ do not win the Cup. Getting a British challenge funded by sponsors who expect global payback for their funding is a lot harder given New Zealand's time zone and location.

Other than that, however, the challenger cupboard is pretty bare, especially if the entry cost is US$100 million or so. Former Swiss holders Alinghi were showing signs of interest in a New Zealand regatta but, given the bad blood with Oracle and Ellison, may not bother if the Cup stays in Oracle hands.

There is no sign of an Australian challenge and Luna Rossa and principal Patrizio Bertelli may not fancy putting any more of the Prada billions into another Oracle regatta. Relations between the two camps were not good and some healing will be required there.

Of the Germans, French and Spanish, little is known except that funds are hard to find.

Coutts has already admitted the AC72s were too expensive and a smaller boat will be needed next time. But they will be loath to leave behind the things that have worked well - and a smaller boat, as Coutts once said, struggles to capture "the grandeur" of the America's Cup.

So there may be an interesting philosophical/commercial battle for the soul of the Cup coming up. Ellison has also said winning it was like being the dog that caught the bus - he wonders what to do with it. The only hint of plans past the 34th Cup was the recent outline by Cup advisory board deputy chief Harvey Schiller - an annual, global America's Cup League next year, sailed in the AC45s 45-foot catamarans or something similar, building up to a Cup "playoff" in 2017.

The idea is to establish 10-20 franchises around the world, each to race an AC45 or similar catamaran in various venues. The franchises would be established not only in the US, UK, Europe, Australia and NZ but also Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Then, in 2017, they race off for the right to become the challenger in the Cup match.

Schiller said he and Ellison were talking about 2014 and beyond: "We need more challengers and we need to create franchises; that is the nature of the game whether you are talking about sailing or horse racing - and there is nothing stronger than country against country."

What this means for the Louis Vuitton regatta is not clear. Louis Vuitton is a quality, committed sponsor but that regatta was a pallid, wan thing. It is not the sort of firm that backs pallid, wan things.

Also, the America's Cup World Series, raced over the past two years, had broadly the same structure as Schiller is proposing. It failed to attract the financial backers to host the series at all the venues envisaged.

An America's Cup in NZ had the challengers beginning to line up. It remains to be seen what Ellison, Coutts and Oracle do to avoid the Cup falling into the marine equivalent of a black hole.

- NZ Herald

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