Yachting: Big money for nothing

By Paul Lewis

Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison will not have much change left from US$1 billion from his quest for the America's Cup - yet he has still to win sport's oldest trophy, as some would say, "properly".

As the 34th America's Cup begins to slip out of the trophy cabinet of the Golden Gate Yacht Club and through Ellison's fingers, here's a best guess at what Oracle Team USA's wealthy backer may have spent on the Cup in his 12-year pursuit.

In 2003, Oracle BMW spent an estimated US$175 million. Some of that was sponsorship from BMW, thought to have been lower level at that stage, about US$15m. In 2007, now known as BMW Oracle (reflecting a higher level of sponsorship), the cost was about US$180m though the German automotive giant was said to have paid about US$65m of that.

In 2010, when Oracle won the Cup, the cost of engaging Alinghi in a one-on-one challenge was said to be US$200m. BMW's cash participation had ended by then, so that cost was all Ellison's. That is thought not to include the legal costs in getting that Deed of Gift challenge approved by the courts in a two-and-a-half year legal battle involving top New York lawyers. BMW departed after the 2010 campaign.

This year's Cup campaign costs have been the subject of contention but US$200m seems to be a minimum. Add on to that another US$200m for the "loan" (which will not be repaid) for running the event and funding the America's Cup Event Authority and that makes US$400m.

Total all that up in Ellison-only terms and you get (not including 2010 legal costs) US$875m or, in New Zealand money, just over $1 billion.

And here's the punch line. A billion bucks and Ellison and his Oracle team have never won the Louis Vuitton Cup - the normal prerequisite for challenging the holder for the America's Cup. They were eliminated in 2003 and 2007 amid much changing of personnel and controversy.

In 2010, Alinghi had enraged the sailing world with an America's Cup protocol so self-serving that it threatened to ruin the Cup and to keep the trophy permanently in Switzerland. Ellison intervened, beginning the court action that eventually led to a decision granting Oracle the right to take Alinghi on for the Cup in a Deed of Gift challenge.

Most of the sailing community were glad Oracle was leading the charge but the legal action dragged on for 30 months, after which Oracle turned up in Valencia with a giant, 90-foot trimaran with a wingsail so big it wouldn't have fit under the Golden Gate Bridge. It beat the pants off Alinghi's giant, 90-foot catamaran with soft sails.

But a DOG challenge is a one-on-one thing. There is no Louis Vuitton Cup, no other challengers. So some think Larry Ellison and his team have never won the America's Cup "properly", meaning they have never sailed through the dogfight of a Louis Vuitton regatta successfully.

It may sound a small point - carping, even - but not when you line it up against the best part of a billion big ones and consider that Ellison/Oracle's reign with the Cup seems to be fading fast.

Ellison can always claim to be a Cup winner; no one can take that away from him. But his will be a reign with an asterisk.

If you want to know what that means to him, consider this quote from his recent book, The Billionaire And The Mechanic. There's an excerpt which deals with one of Oracle's many crew changes in the 2003 campaign and a sailor's ill-fated comment that putting intense New Zealand skipper Chris Dickson back on the boat would dampen the fun.

Ellison said: "Fun? You think we're here for fun? Do you think losing is fun? I don't. This is professional sports, not a third-grade T-ball game. Is sailing fun? Yes, if you want to sail to Sausalito and sit and do a little fishing or sunbathing out with your family, that can be fun. If you're sailing in the America's Cup, if it's your job, you are supposed to work very hard. We are here to win. Winning, that's my idea of fun."

Ellison is no quitter and it will be interesting to see, if Team NZ finish this job and take the Cup, whether Ellison and Oracle commit to the 35th America's Cup in Auckland.

It's Larry Ellison. Don't bet against it.

- Herald on Sunday

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