Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: American TV news ignores 'their' Cup

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So the oldest trophy in sport, the pinnacle of the sport of sailing wasn't being covered on the TV news. Photo / Chris Cameron
So the oldest trophy in sport, the pinnacle of the sport of sailing wasn't being covered on the TV news. Photo / Chris Cameron

Are you a Kiwi following the America's Cup from overseas? What is the coverage like in your part of the world? Contact the Herald here.

It was a big win to Team New Zealand. At the end of a long but satisfying day, we turned on the TV news.

KPIX, it was, Channel 5, the local San Francisco CBS affiliate. We waited. Nothing in the headlines. Nothing in the main bulletin. Must be in the sports news, then.

We waited some more. There was some irritatingly gosh, golly coverage - lots of it - of baseball and football. All very interesting. But the America's Cup? Nope, nada (as we say in Hispanic-friendly climes).

So the oldest trophy in sport, the pinnacle of the sport of sailing - and something named after America and its ability to upset its old colonial parent with its brash independence and progress - wasn't being covered on the TV news.

On Monday we did the same thing. Oracle Team USA had shared the races with Emirates Team NZ, one apiece.

Eureka. There it was. Oracle comeback.

Those of us who have covered sport and attended events round the globe over the years are more used to this. Let's call it the "local blinkers syndrome" and, before we go any further, we have to say that New Zealand suffers from it a bit too. In Australia, there's about as much coverage of the America's Cup (there are Australian sailors here but no syndicate) as there is of the Maniatoto curling championships.

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In the US, Oracle lose - no story. Oracle win! Story. To be fair, most of the San Francisco newspapers, and especially the San Francisco Chronicle, have covered the event well and in some depth.

But television, with its intense focus on ratings, has a more ruthless streak. Local sailors all maintain that, even in San Francisco, the sport is marginalised when it comes to media coverage, and particularly TV.

"You try and sell them a story or some coverage and you might get something on air. But then they track the ratings and, if it doesn't rate, you're dead. They don't want it," says one local sailor.

But, when the America's Cup comes to town, surely it's different? Not if the KPIX experience is any guide.

Former Herald writer and now a freelance photo-journalist based in nearby Sacramento, Susan Maxwell Skinner, says the national TV coverage of the racing by NBC is steeped in the need to appeal to a local audience.

"When we watched the coverage, there was this commentator with red hair [we think Susan is talking about Ken Read, president of North Sails and a former America's Cup sailor] who seems very, very irritated that Oracle aren't winning," she said.

It was interesting how the NBC team explained "to millions of viewers" why Oracle were starting the series two points down after the cheating saga.

"He said there was an instance of unapproved weights in boats in a regatta which had nothing to do with the America's Cup and then he said, 'All of a sudden the America's Cup jury decided to penalise them two races.'

"It wasn't all of a sudden at all - it took weeks to unravel it and the jury agonised over it.

"For all of the first and second races, the cameras stayed focused on Oracle, you barely saw Team NZ. In the second race, when New Zealand did a perfect rounding of the mark, there was not a word. Not a 'Gee whiz, that's how it should be done'. Total silence.

"At the end of Race 3, you heard Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill say to his crew: 'Good race, boys, bad luck' - and the commentator said: 'Bad luck? You've got to reach a point, Jimmy Spithill, where it isn't bad luck,' as if Spithill was a bad guy who'd done something wrong when all he was doing was boosting his team - and it worked, as they won the next race.

"Americans are such passionate and committed supporters - it's great to see. But they so often turn their back when Americans are losing and it leads to a lot of what I call bad sportsmanship."

The punchline is NBC did not pay anything for the rights to broadcast the America's Cup. Sailing is clearly not a big ratings puller in the US, in spite of the "America's" Cup.

In fact, Cup organisers had to buy airtime - meaning they effectively paid NBC to televise it. They positioned that as an investment for the future - hoping to get more fans and better ratings from this regatta.

Paying for airtime seems an odd way to convince US broadcasters that sailing is a worthy sport. If KPIX 5 are any gauge, there's still a long way to go.

- NZ Herald

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