Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Oracle launches hostile takeover

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Kiwi Sir Russell Coutts is the man charged with executing Larry Ellison's vision for the Cup. Photo / Natalie Slade
Kiwi Sir Russell Coutts is the man charged with executing Larry Ellison's vision for the Cup. Photo / Natalie Slade

Let's start a replacement America's Cup.

A proper one, with one set of rules for everyone and genuine competition. Not some heavily-rigged pretence at sport which is actually a play for power and money. That's what Oracle Team USA served up with their protocol for the 35th America's Cup this week.

This is a jack-up so obvious it should be called the Jack Cup. This went beyond the usual America's Cup defender giving themselves an advantage. This is the US Army, armed with nukes, drones and heat-seeking missiles versus Spongebob Squarepants waving a sharp teaspoon. This is ensuring retention of the Cup under the banner of taking sailing to the masses and making it more commercial. Translation: more of everything for Oracle.

Even at his worst, Alinghi billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli wasn't this bad in 2007. Oh, he had plans to race in the challenger series, which gives the defender the knowledge they need to arm their boat to repel all rivals and was also perceived to control Cup officials and could throw challengers out of the regatta.

But his regatta in Valencia saw challengers benefit from the profits - Emirates Team NZ trousered 7 million ($12.2 million). Oracle's plans include no such largesse for anyone else. They take the lot.

Behind it all is a Kiwi, Sir Russell Coutts, the man charged with executing Larry Ellison's vision for the Cup. He sailed for Alinghi before that all turned to custard. Oracle, of course, benefited from the Alinghi protocol by striking an outraged pose and taking them to court - winning the right to a 2010 one-on-one yacht challenge after the Cup was nearly choked to death by years of lawyerly dross.

Oracle won the Cup they then successfully and dramatically defended in San Francisco last year. Now Oracle have produced something even worse than Alinghi. Bertarelli must be laughing. A bitter laugh.

If you're doubting the Antipodes could host an America's Cup clone, don't. A major sponsor (the longest continuous sponsorship in sport), Louis Vuitton, are now sundered from the event and are far more philosophically inclined to partner Team NZ than Oracle.

They did in 2009-2010, combining to stage an AC-style event in Auckland while the Cup was going through its interminable court ordeal.

A new event would be cheaper, fairer and more accessible. It could be staged in Australia or New Zealand, or even both, and would eventually grow to be its own event, maybe even overshadowing the Cup which could stand proudly in the Golden Gate Yacht Club trophy cabinet - forgotten and uncontested.

The immediate reality will probably go something like this: Team NZ, with their new board, will persuade the Government to keep them afloat until February. Then the sponsorship Grant Dalton has teed up will kick in.

But it would be a brave person who'd predict Team NZ will win the 35th Cup. The dice are not only loaded, the challengers get to throw them only one at a time.

If you're wondering what has brought this discontent on (after all, the 34th America's Cup in San Francisco was a spectacle, never mind the result), it's not just that Oracle have stacked the deck.

It's things like cutting ties with ISAF, the international sailing body, and the loss of an independent jury - replaced by a supposedly-independent arbitration panel. Independent? They will be hired by the defender and the challenger of record, Australia's Hamilton Island Yacht Club. They can also fire these independent souls and replace them.

You may remember a truly independent jury found Oracle cheated during the last regatta. Crewman Dirk de Ridder was banned from sailing for five years, a decision against which he is now appealing.

Oracle and HIYC can now approve penalties handed down by the panel - the implication being that those found guilty of cheating last time could control punishment this time. That's like a convicted burglar being consulted on his sentence for breaking and entering. So out go the jury and ISAF, which banned de Ridder.

There are potential complications from this. ISAF could take the view a non-ISAF event could prevent sailors from competing in the next Olympics. If they really wanted to play rough, they could insist the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron - Team NZ's yacht club backers - outlaw the relevant Kiwi sailors from the Olympics. If the squadron refused, and NZ Sailing (parent body of the sport) did not act, in theory, New Zealand's Olympic sailing team could be barred from the next Olympics.

Unlikely? Perhaps. But the point remains. This isn't sport, it's a hostile takeover - a coup d'etat, a corporate manouevre.

Let's start our own regatta because, whatever Oracle are playing at, it ain't the America's Cup.

- Herald on Sunday

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